Money, Suze Orman, and Survival

These days when I catch Suze Orman on TV, I watch her for a while. Her in-your-face “here’s what I want you to do” approach used to put me off, but I’ve been a financial coach for low-income individuals for a few years and I’ve changed my mind about her.

Suze on the job (

Suze on the job

My role as a coach or mentor is to meet with individuals over weeks or months to help them stay on their budget, be smart about their expenses, and  keep plugging away at their financial obstacles. The sessions are conversations, and that is what Suze is good at. I listen for what it is she is probing for and how she puts the pieces together. What do you owe? How much are you saving for retirement? For emergencies? What’s your age? Family? Health? Why are/aren’t you putting money in this, cutting back on that, opening/closing this account? What’s your question for me? And when people aren’t sure whether to make payments on a new giant television or add to their retirement fund, she repeats her mantra: People first, then money, then things.

Suze seems to be the right guru for a time when incomes have been stagnating and personal finance has become bewilderingly complex. Back in the days when people farmed, hunted, built their own homes, and bartered for what they couldn’t do or buy themselves, money was not the only way to procure the necessities of life. Now, for almost all urban and suburban dwellers, it is the only way. Money is the gateway to the goods and services that people need for their very survival.

I liken the hurdles of today’s ordinary household finance to the survival challenges that early humans and even plants and animals face in other forms. That’s a big jump, of course; there are no money-like exchangeable units in nature. But a goal for all living things is to get to the resources for staying alive, whether those are water and sunlight for a plant or the money to pay the water and the light bills for a human family. When either the natural resources or the financial ones become scarce or inaccessible, creatures suffer. If chimps and spiders and daisies could talk when times are bad, their questions would resemble those of the bewildered American consumer: will there be enough for me to get by; how do I provide for the kids; how much should I consume now, how much should I store for later; who might be trying to get what I have?

Finding resources (

Working on resources

For humans today, answering those questions requires a complex literacy that involves reading, numeracy, and basic knowledge of transactions of all kinds. Minimally, such literacy calls for understanding and managing the basics of: bank accounts, credit and debit cards, credit reports and scores, pay checks, deductions, Social Security, health, car and home insurance, deductibles, liability, student loans, alimony and child support, inheritances, retirement accounts, rents and mortgages, and last but not least the seductions of marketing.

And if you’re poor, you can add housing vouchers, SNAP food credits, temporary cash assistance, unemployment insurance, Medicaid, disability assistance, Earned Income and other tax credits, and utility bill assistance.

Finding resources (

Working on resources

While other creatures are born with their survival mechanisms built in, you might expect that the modern brainy human animal would learn the complexities of financial survival in school. But we don’t. (Twenty states do require one personal finance course in high school or the inclusion of such material within another course, such as math. But such short programs barely scratch the surface beyond budgeting and saving.) In theory—but rarely in fact—we learn it from our parents; maybe that’s why Suze Orman scolds and praises as if she were the mother of her audience.

This educational neglect of the realities of money and family finance is not accidental. Education prepares young people to join the workforce but not the marketplace. Kids spend 12 years reading, writing, calculating, following schedules, and playing well together so they will be prepared for the world of work. But these same kids will also become—and by middle school already are—participants in the marketplace, and a market society does not like shoppers who are too smart. It is not in the interest of profit-makers if a 10th grader can comparison shop in the supermarket candy aisle or a forty-year-old utility worker can keep the family credit score at 800.

Finally, add in the grim reality that soon, globally, the wealthiest one percent will own 50 percent of the world’s wealth. As they have for many species before us, resources may grow more and more scarce for most individuals. We need more hard-nosed navigators like Suze to get us through.

Genesis for Non-Theists

Creation narratives are usually lively stories.  In the Bible, God creates the universe and earth in six days. In other traditions, creatures are dismembered, huge eggs hatch, birds create land. Even science’s own creation narrative starts out with a Bang and once earth takes shape, the first organic molecules appear relatively quickly, less than a billion years later. 
But at that point the story of life slows way down. Life remains in the form of single cells for the next two billion years. What was happening to our smallest and oldest ancestors all that time? Why did it take so long to move beyond the stage of one-only? Was evolution on hold?

From “Oldest bacteria fossils” to “Multi-cellular eukaryotes” 2 billion years later, life on earth was single-celled.

What took so long was the creation of some of the building blocks for being alive. Portions of this creation eerily echo the first chapters of Genesis. In the opening of the Bible, plant life emerges on the third day, including “fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed,” followed on the next three days by creatures of the water, air, and land, including man and woman. A few verses later we read about the Garden of Eden and, symbolically, the beginnings of sex and death. With a broad similarity, life as described by science evolved from the simplest cells to cells with a nucleus that enclosed the protected “seed” of DNA. This seemingly simple change set in motion the loss of one kind of immortality, the arrival of sex and death, and then a new kind of immortality. The process was slow because the changes were huge.

Science has a name for our first ancestor. LUCA, our “last universal common ancestor,” was a single-celled organism, a kind of bacteria, from which all life on earth today is descended. Inside LUCA was a floating coil of DNA, sections of which have been passed down to every living thing.

Our common ancestor, a cell with DNA but no nucleus

LUCA’s cell membrane protected its insides from the environment. With such protection, the genes could reproduce. Cells divided, with one set of genes in each new cell. The new cells were identical, a long line of Adam clones with as yet no Eve.

LUCA’s membrane enclosed only watery liquid and the genes. There were no other structures or major particles inside it. Gradually this emptiness filled. LUCA’s descendants absorbed other bacteria into themselves. These internal bacteria came to serve as cell nuclei. The genes that had floated around inside LUCA and other “Prokaryotes,” (“before a nucleus”) were now protected even more securely within this nucleus. The nucleus served as a seed that provided the DNA with a chemical environment of its own. Such cells with nuclei are called Eukaryotes (meaning “a true nucleus” and pronounced “you carry oats”). Seed-bearing Eukaryotes were much more energetic than their predecessors and eventually became hundreds of times larger and carried a hundred times more DNA.
Sex, Death…

Cells get a nucleus–and more.

Early cells were, in their own way, immortal. The genes in both Prokaryotes and early Eukaryotes would reproduce and then the cell would split into two identical cells, as bacteria still do. Did such cells die? Eventually, but only from accident or the environment. In this Eden, cells did not get older. They became their own offspring and could theoretically live forever.

Eukaryotes, however, found a new way to reproduce. Each would rub up against another Eukaryote and portions of their DNA sets would be inserted into the other. Primitive sex. With this exchange of DNA, genetic variation sped up. So did natural selection.
Later, some energetic, sexy Eukaryotes became multi-celled. They reproduced not by division of the whole parent organism but, as with us, by means of specialized germ cells (not the disease kind of germ but the creative kind, as in the “germ of an idea”) to produce offspring. No longer was the parent reincarnated in a clone. It was left behind, and it aged and died.
As in Genesis, the co-mingling of different living things brought sex and death. Cellular life moved beyond Eden.
…and Immortality
So we have lost the immortality that the Prokaryotes enjoyed. But we have found it in another, more complex form. Our immortality runs through the genetic line of our children and other blood  relatives. It turns out that it is not the body, the soma, that is the crucial package. It is the germ cells that carry the DNA forward. 
But many might wonder how seriously we should take this idea that the continuity of our DNA amounts to immortality. Here is an answer from Harvard biology professor George Wald, in his 1970 lecture on “The Origins of Death.”
We already have immortality, but in the wrong place. We have it in the germ plasm; we want it in the soma, in the body. We have fallen in love with the body. That’s that thing that looks back at us from the mirror. That’s the repository of that lovely identity that you keep chasing all your life. And as for that potentially immortal germ plasm, where that is one hundred years, one thousand years, ten thousand years hence, hardly interests us.
I used to think that way, too, but I don’t any longer. You see, every creature alive on the earth today represents an unbroken line of life that stretches back to the first primitive organisms to appear on this planet; that is about three billion years. That really is immortality. For if the line of life had ever been broken, how could we be here? All that time, our germ plasm has been living the life of those single celled creatures, the protozoa, reproducing by simple division, and occasionally going through the process of syngamy — the fusion of two cells to form one — in the act of sexual reproduction. All that time, that germ plasm has been making bodies and casting them off in the act of dying. If the germ plasm wants to swim in the ocean, it makes itself a fish; if the germ plasm wants to fly in the air, it makes itself a bird. If it wants to go to Harvard, it makes itself a man. The strangest thing of all is that the germ plasm that we carry around within us has done all those things. …
I, too, used to think that we had our immortality in the wrong place, but I don’t think so any longer. I think it’s in the right place. I think that is the only kind of immortality worth having — and we have it.

Taking the Afterlife Seriously

We may not believe that our life will continue after we die, but we certainly do count on an afterlife of a different kind: We rely on others’ living on after we are gone. If we thought that for some reason they would not be doing so, our own lives would lose much of their meaning.

So argues Samuel Scheffler, professor at New York University, in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times, Sept 21, 2013.

Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

asteroid destroys earth

Imagine there’s no future.

Scheffler offers two hypothetical doomsday scenarios. In the first, one knows that the world will be destroyed by an asteroid. “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, reform society, compose music, and perhaps even have children.

In the second scenario, imagine a world in which, although no one dies suddenly, no one is born. Humans have become infertile. There is no global apocalypse, but there is also no human future. “Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.”

Growing implies the future. (

Growth presupposes a future.

Scheffler’s point is a provocative one, and I asked myself whether some version of this assumption of living continuity is true of other living things as well as humans. In weaker forms, I think it is. Plants and most animals, although they lack consciousness of the future, are propelled forward by their bodily design to grow, survive and reproduce. Such design emerged as living things retained their organization and energy over time, and it would lose all meaning if somehow their future vanished.

Scheffler’s perspective is yet another reminder, if we needed one, that the advice to “live in the present” is inadequate. And while most adages about time, I suspect, rarely mean much to anyone other than those who wrote them, I’m tempted to try my own:

Learn from the past, for it made you. Savor the present, for it is the life of your body and brain. Take care about the future, for consequences are there.