Why does it sometimes seem that people with the most money can be the least generous and most fearful about losing money?
Paul Sutherland: I think our reptilian brains are wired to hoard. Considering the history of our universe, people became “civilized” (and I use that word very loosely) quite recently. And as humans, the more we gain, the more we are wired to “expect” that we should keep it. We have read the studies about entitlement versus luck, in which a researcher divides a classroom of children according to the world’s distribution of wealth. While some children receive lots of resources, most don’t. More often than not, the rich kids do not feel compelled to share.
This sentiment is in stark contrast with the African ethical philosophy of Ubuntu, which many adopt as “the essence of being human.” Ubuntu is based on the notion that as humans, we are completely interconnected and, as such, our actions should factor in the whole of humanity, not just ourselves as individuals, because they affect everyone.
This reminds me of a story I was once told about a woman who had become attached to a young boy while volunteering at an African orphanage. Before boarding a bus to leave, she handed the young boy a cookie. As she took her seat, tears filled her eyes as she watched him break off a little piece of cookie for each of the children who were seeing the bus off. That boy, I think, embodies the spirit of Ubuntu. His actions are reflective of the need to be part of the group—for survival, for nurturing, and for safety.
As Americans, our independence isolates us from our interdependence, and we seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are one. I am as perplexed as you are about this. We are constantly reminded that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian principles, but I wonder how the “people with the most money” you refer to would interpret biblical passages such as “Am I my brother’s keeper” (Genesis 4:9); “Whoever has been given much will be responsible for much” (Luke 12:48); and the story in which “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25).
It appears that the Bible is taken less literally when it comes to sharing and compassion for the infirm, unskilled, sick, poor, lazy, and vulgar or for those who are not part of the churchgoer’s tribe. The fact is, on a global standard, Americans are superrich. If you have a car, you’re among the world’s wealthiest. Are you fearful about losing your own money? Do you do what you can? Or do you tell yourself, I am not rich like her. I wonder why they don’t share more? Gandhi said, “Be the change.” A more just, compassionate, and peaceful world begins with our own actions.
For more than two thousand years, humanists like Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Muhammad, and Gandhi stressed the virtue and morality of Ubuntu. We need to overcome the reptilian brain that for many makes greed seem like a normal, logical value.
Do you think it’s right to go into debt to send your kids to college?
If it will affect your own financial security, and debt usually does, do not go into debt for the sake of paying for your children’s college education.
There are many paths to earning a college degree. If your children want to go to college but you lack the resources to help, let them borrow the money, or work and save. Some grads I know took as many as eight years to finish because they had to work full time, nights, or weekends while taking care of their family. Others were lucky enough to finish in four years or less—debt-free—because their tuition was paid for by parents, grandparents, or scholarships. But what’s the difference in time . . . a few years? Your children love you because you’re their parents, not because of your money. Many students today are opting to stay home and going to a local school for their education. Give your children more than those parents who only write a check—namely, give them love, encouragement, support, a place to sleep, and (most important) an Internet connection.
Bottom line: It is worth borrowing money to send your kids to college, but the borrowing should be part of their college and life plan. Any loans should be in your children’s names, and they should know that they are responsible for the debt.