Thursday, December 20, 2018

Link List: On Personal Finance and "Premium Mediocrity"

This was obviously not the main takeaway from the news that day, and from the meeting that preceded this particular moment, but Congresswoman Pelosi's Max Mara coat (discontinued, but scheduled to be brought back next year) is truly fabulous, as many on the internet recognized.

Things got quite busy at the office recently and may stay on the busier side through the first few weeks of the new year. (I'll be able to travel to see family for Christmas, and can likely take that week off, but may need to get right back to the grind immediately after.) It's not too bad though, I enjoy the job most when I'm busy, it's far more intellectually stimulating that way!

In other news, even now, more than a year after my disastrous straight perm fried a big chunk of my hair and caused at least a few inches of new hair from after the perm to grow in similarly fried, my hair is still in quite a state. It's gotten better over time, I think there's a light at the end of the tunnel now, it's been at least a few months since I was losing what felt like big, tangled snarls of it almost every morning because I couldn't get a comb through, the hair would break off first, thanks to the intractable knots. If I had to hazard a guess, I might have my old hair back in another six to eight months or so, after it gets to a length that I can have the last few inches of affected hair cut off. Knock on wood though, it's been extremely unpredictable all this time. 

With past, more successful straight perms, my hair seemed to grow in with a different, straighter texture for months after the perm. And on one previous, slightly less successful  occasion, some post-perm hair did grow in unusually dry and frizzy, but I did not learn from that experience, which is why I find myself in my current predicament. I don't think I'm imagining it that straight perms can continue have an effect on one's hair texture even after all the permed parts have been cut away! At this point, I can pretty much guarantee that I'll never get a straight perm again. (I may try keratin treatments afterwards, at the recommendation of Michelle and others here, but I probably don't dare do anything until after my hair is fully back to normal.)

1. // I'm way behind the times when it comes to sharing that viral story of extreme debt from Wealthsimple. One practically has to put a content warning on it, it's so awful, and the people in it seemingly so heedless in their personal finance decision-making on a continuous basis, despite knowing the depths of the mess they're in. (Law school loans play a role, though a surprisingly small one, given that they seem to have decided to just ignore the student loans.) The worst thing is that they appear, at this point, to have given up on ever improving things, which is absolutely going to be hard on their children once they're old enough to understand. It's even more of a nightmare than that 2016 article in The Atlantic about how an upper middle-class man, thanks to a lifetime of poor financial decision-making, claimed to be unable to come up with $400 in an emergency. (I once wrote about that article here, and also linked to some other interesting personal finance discussions that popped up online around that time.)

2. // Now here's another set of links that you may also have seen already, about "How Premium Mediocre Conquered Fashion", and the r/femalefashionadvice and r/malefashionadvice discussions it prompted. I find this piece a bit... complicated, in part because I think the message and writing are muddled, and could have benefitted from better editing. Among other things, I'm not sure many of the cited examples, including craft beer and artisanal pizza on the one hand, and Uniqlo cashmere, Kate Spade, and Tory Burch on the other, can really help make the same point as examples of a "Prada nylon backpack" or a "Balenciaga baseball bat". Those don't seem, to me, to be trends that are likely to come from the same place or impulse, nor to be goods targeted to the same audience. Also, the barbs about "the culture of entitlement of the millenial generation (and everyone else)" and about how "[w]e live in a world where many people feel entitled to luxury"? Seriously?! Sure, the article isn't actually saying "how dare the rest of you plebes who can't afford 'true' 'luxury' want nice things", but if there's a sentence or two that could be interpreted that way, it's a sign of poor writing, or of a need for more attentive editing.

I suppose the original article is, essentially (in fewer words, and with far less clarity and research), trying to make the same point as Dana Thomas's excellent book, Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster (affiliate link, I wrote about it in one of my first ever posts), did a decade ago. It's been a while, but I recall that the main point was that historic luxury brands, which used to offer something special (distinguished by materials and craftsmanship) and inaccessible to most ordinary people due to price and exclusivity had, in recent times, diluted themselves by making new, more affordable and accessible offerings (including sunglasses, fragrances, diffusion lines, etc.). Because it had proven to be a profitable strategy, many companies were doing it even more, including by cutting costs by using cheaper material and labor. And yes, given the subject matter, it might be a slightly snobby book. At times, I've been tempted to summarize it (with an uncharitable and admittedly slightly facile interpretation) as follows: "only Hermes remains 'good enough' to be 'true' ' luxury'." 

Anyway, my feelings on these topics are always going to be complicated. Over the years, you may have noticed that I might have a little chip on my shoulder from times when I thought that law school and my profession made me and others like me feel "less than" because we didn't come from "real" money (the type where family can significantly subsidize the exorbitant cost of law school, generally after already having done so for a costly undergraduate education). So I'm always going to be grouchy about things I perceive as snobby or elitist, particularly where those things are tied to knowledge of or consumption of "true" luxury brands as, apparently, a criteria for superiority. The actual, more useful, takeaway from the article may be that we should all be critical consumers, to really think about the value of everything we're buying and paying for. 

3. // And now for some blog entries I've been reading lately: Congratulations to Lea on being done with graduate school! Thank you to JENKR for directing me to this useful discussion about the importance of listening to more diverse perspectives at Reading my Tea Leaves. In that vein, I also enjoyed this discussion about diversity in minimalist blogging specifically, which I came across through Britt. Diverse perspectives, in all areas, are so incredibly important. I can't possibly understate how important I think they are, though I haven't yet had a chance to share all my sometimes-nontraditional reasons for so strongly believing this. (Some of the academic discussions arising from the Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Scott v. Harris play a role, as do academic discussions about addressing implicit bias.)

What did you think about that "premium mediocre" article? What about that Wealthfront debt story? (There was also a good, lengthy discussion about it on r/blogsnark, among many other places.) I'm worried about their kids for so many reasons, one of the main ones being that the parents have shown literally zero indication of having the ability or willingness to help guide their children to "break the cycle", including by making financially sustainable decisions for college or graduate school. And that wouldn't be the children's fault, but because of our broken system with student loans here in the US, the children would likely still be the ones forced to shoulder the burden in the end.

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