basilmemories: (Scholarly pursuits.)
basilmemories ([personal profile] basilmemories) wrote2011-01-27 01:16 pm

Bootstrapping, a not so minirant.

The economy is in an interesting spot right now, where there’s still a load of unemployment, but there’s enough people getting hired that the mainly white, middle-to-upperclass people can start squawking about how those shiftless layabouts aren’t just looking hard enough. Naturally, people with any number of grey cells can see this isn’t true, but a catchy phrase and a soundbite that includes “bootstrapping” is more likely to out-spin whatever they’re trying to say.

But what does bootstrapping mean? Is the bootstrapping ideal really possible, or is the idea loaded to favor the middle and upper classes? And why is is so hard for those shiftless layabouts to find a job anyway?


The term “bootstrapping” is generally attributed to a Baron Munchausen story, one where he’s in dire peril and yanks himself out of a murky, sinking demise by his own ponytail. It’s not his boostraps, but later on people start conflating the term with another myth and so, bootstaps it was. In the twenties the term began to take on the meaning of doing something for yourself without any help, but the mental image stayed the same. The downside was that the phrase became corrupted in it’s original meaning- to do an impossible task. These days when some person claims that all the downtrodden, unemployed, lower-class people need is the engineering spirit and some good old fashioned bootstrapping, I suspect they’re either all-too aware of the problems that these people face, or more likely they don’t know the original story. Another gem is the “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” phrase. This one’s a bit more hard to pin down. People misattribute it to ancient Chinese wisdom from everyone from Confucius to Lao Tzu, but outside of a few remarks in the 17th century, it really only came into heavy use in the 1960’s. Surprise surprise, a time when the middle class was going strong.

The ideas behind the two are simple, but ultimately flawed. Doing something yourself prepares you for any hardship ahead… but how many really do that themselves? Nearly all successful job interviews rely on references (help from other people), previous experience (having someone take a chance on you when you were starting out, thus still being given a handout), coming from a good school (the better ones requiring money or connections to get into), or just wowing all involved with charisma and a professional appearance (one requires raw talent/being groomed for the job, and the other often requires money to get the clothes). This is even evident in the psa films produced during the 50’s and 60’s. While they paint the young hero as being proactive and hardworking, connections, a generous deed, or good education often are what open the doors for our newly-christened bootstrapper. While ultimately work performance decides if you advance or get fired, you need to get in the door first.

This leads to the honest fact that the reality of teaching a man to fish isn’t simply showing him how to catch fish properly. It’s showing him how to catch fish the right way, making sure he has all the proper equipment, letting him know where the right spots are, making sure he’s dressed properly so he doesn’t halfway freeze to death on the pier, and that he’s got a boat to get to the good spots anyway. It certainly requires a hell of a lot more investment and handouts then just giving the guy a fish- which is exactly why it doesn’t happen that often. More realistically the person will give the person advice on how to fish, but conveniently ignore all the other bits and leave the trainee cold, in the water, boatless, without a fishing rod, and competing with the other experienced fishermen.

Doing it yourself

The American dream says that one person, completely penniless, can scrape themselves up to greatness with enough time and hard work, and compared to more obviously classist societies in history, I’d say that’s true. The problem is these grey zones of classes means that the middle class and upper-middle classes can get away with saying that they earned everything and their actions being something completely different. A notable example is an argument I had with someone who sweared, sweared that she was middle class and she’d gone through so much and still clawed her way back to the top without any help. To which I say, I hope she honestly didn’t go through worse then me, because at one point I was in a rat-infested house on base and couldn’t leave before five pm, lest someone from housing saw me and realized that we hadn’t been kicked out on the street yet. I honestly hope that she never had to be utterly quiet before sunset, and had to go to school and hide the fleabites. I dearly wish that she never had to deal with facing electrocution (or doing the entire thing in darkness when the room was filled with sewage and mice) when she did her laundry because the upstairs neighbors’ toilet leaked down through the light fixture. I’m a bitter, misanthropic bitch, but there’s only a few people in the world I’d wish that on.

The fact is though, she does have better resources then me, as do most middle-class families and even me when I was middle class. The fact is that we don’t acknowledge it when we’re middle class because it seems like something everyone has. Like a limb, you don’t realize how much you relied on it until you can’t. For example, cars. The trypcal middle class family often has a car available for the people who drive to work, and if they don’t, ample public transportation is available. Now when the young little bootstrapper becomes driving age, the parent will either “sell” the kid his/her old car or buy a beat-up old thing for the young worker. Often in these little dramas that unfold, say the bootstrappers, they earned every penny from hard work, dedication, and often a menial job or copious amounts of labor for friends and family. In this sense, they have earned it.

The connection they don’t know they’re exploiting, is that they’re getting a major discount. A new car costs tens of thousands of dollars, a beat up car costs a few thousand around here, and if they went to a dealership on their own or checked the internet, they’d be paying more/have more interest to pay off. When you default on a payment to your parents or a friend that you know who sold you the car, you can work it off without too much penalty. When you default on a payment with a dealer or a third party, you lose the car and get your credit ruined with debt collectors. Also that parent can teach the child how to drive, so they’re saving on time and money spent at a driving school.

The same goes with job skills. The last three jobs I got, I got because people who were on the inside told me about them and I got to them first and/or had those people as references. Other times people don’t know how to write a proper resume, which is a delicate balance between putting the right spin on everything, and not making yourself look overqualified. If you’re middle class you learn about it from your parent’s friends that have gone through it already or your parents if you’re not going through the rebellious stage right then. This prior knowledge is often taught in classes that cost a good sum of money or a lot of trial and error, so the boostrapper is saving on a few hundred dollars of classes right there. In addition the parents or friends of parents can then give the kid leads that haven’t gone public yet and the bootstapper has an advantage he wouldn’t have otherwise. Clothes also make the worker, and a nice set of interview/work clothes for a week at a good job can easily cost around two-hundred dollars. While a parent may not want to spoil their child, they’re not going to let the little one blow his/her interview because of what they’re wearing.

Moreover there’s the stress and financial matters of locating a job. If you don’t have a job, you need financial backing to keep you fed and healthy and in a house while you look for work. With middle class parents this is more likely. This means that the bootstrapper has less to deal with emotionally, which means he/she can focus more on things that will lead to a good career. This means either more dedication to schoolwork, the ability to take a unpaid internship (the majority of them), volunteer work which will look good on a resume, or just the full ability to concentrate of finding a job and not worrying about where the next meal will come from. A stronger support network also means that the bootstrapper can stay focused on their job because they aren’t worrying about money or trying to fend off illness without healthcare. There’s also more options available in the case of mental help too, since that’s covered under medical.

Lastly there’s education. Many public schools are under-funded, over-tested, and teachers are pushed to extremes. Depending on where the school is and what the inhabitants are like (and their biases), the learning environment can be somewhat calm to downright dangerous. Colleges are a bit better, but the basic entrance guidelines are taken when a public school student is dealing with all of those factors and the awareness that this one test is vital to his college choices, and through that, his career path. Add on to this that the Private school students are competing for the same chances and it’s downright painful to think about the odds. In addition the good colleges have amazingly steep prices, which means either a student putting themselves into debt, or hoping to god they’re poor enough/jumping through enough hoops to get a scholarship.

But let’s look at our bootstrapper. In his/her case, they most likely will go to a private school, which means they get to choose an environment where they fit in and can learn best. At the very least the parents will be trying to save for college and inform the little one not to stress too much in public school, because they have all the basic needs covered. When it comes down to the SAT’s they’ll either be able to help him enroll in prep classes, or see if they can get a friend to help out with the student’s practicing. In addition if the parents went to the college that the bootstrapper is trying for, they can vouch for their child. Say what you will about this being a myth, but after looking at Bush’s college record, I still say that way of getting into a good college is alive and well.

So there you go. From an early age to the start of a hopefully long career, the young bootstrapper has gotten help the entire time. But perhaps we shouldn’t look at what the 50’s and 60’s define as a man who gets taught how to fish. Let’s look at a more modern interpretation of the idea.

The modern bootstrapper

The modern bootstrapper is closer to the idea as it first came out. He’s the person who literally has to perform a impossible task on his own. Let’s look at his past. Disregarding gender, sexuality, religion, or race, (all of which have been shown to have an impact on a person’s social standing), we’re just going to focus on his class, in this case Poor. Now our bootstrapper had a public education, most likely came from a single parent home, doesn’t possess adequate health insurance, and notably can’t afford a car. We’ll throw him a bone though and say that he at least had some time at a junior college and thus some little slip of paper saying he has a specialty of some sort.

The problem being that unemployment is still abundant and degrees still aren’t worth much.

So our young bootstrapper finds himself out on his ass for some reason and at a caring stranger’s abode, generously offering him two months to get on his feet. Our bootstrapper has a laptop, some casual clothes to his name, and about…. Eight-hundred bucks. This surely should be enough right? I mean he’s already got a roof and food covered.

Well. First of all, he doesn’t quite have food covered. The basic non-starvation food is there, but this doesn’t account for any food he needs to buy while he’s out on the job hunt or if he finds himself stranded because the busses stopped running. And then there’s the matter of if our bootstrapper has any food allergies or needs a specialized diet. You can bet that his mystery savior is only going to comply with that for a little while before saying that he has to get his own brand of whateverheneeds. So let’s take away about 75$ for a month of food. I’m undershooting here, but this is a bootstrapper and thus he’s eating to survive and not enjoy his food.

Next is transportation costs. If he wants to look good and not get kicked out for looking like a good-for-nothing, he’s going to need to be out just about every day hitting the pavement. Very few places have a transportation system like Sf proper, so that often means hours-long trips and multiple transfers to different services. That means the cost can me anywhere from around four dollars a day to 20-ish dollars a day. Let’s even it out and make it… around ten dollars a day, or 300$ for a month of travel costs. Damn, how did travel costs get to be more expensive then food? Our bootstrapper is just about halfway down his budget and we haven’t even gotten to clothes.

Which we’re doing right now. A good interviewee looks the part, as our bootstrapper has learned by now. It’s been a few weeks and his caring stranger is starting to get a bit restless, “you haven’t got a job yet? I taught you how to fish already, why haven’t you caught anything?” He really doesn’t want to, be he goes to the local discount store to look for work clothes. The problem is without any connections he doesn’t know where to find the local deals, and the discount clothes aren’t honestly suited for a interview. In the end he ends up at a department store and spends about 150$ on enough for two interview outfits/work clothes. (I’m not even making those figures up, that’s about as much as it cost my friends when they were discount shopping for my clothes for my white-collar interview/just about every birthday present ever for the rest of my life gift)

So now our bootstrapper has about 275$ to his name and the month is up. Whelp! There goes another 75$ for food! But now he has a real problem, he can’t afford to take the bus every day, and what if he gets sick? The economy is moving slowly, and it still takes people months before they can find anything. So he decides to cut it back a bit and only job hunt four days a week. That means he’ll do the rest on his laptop and apply for more jobs online then in person, which doesn’t have as high a success rate as face-to-face applications. Another problem is his benefactor, who more or less starts to call him a lazy ass for not going out as much. To make up for this perceived issue, she loads more responsibilities on him, which means he has even less time to job hunt. But it’s honestly put up with it or be homeless.

Understandably, depression kicks in.

Now depression is a nasty thing; when you’re not feeling like sobbing your eyes out, you feel drained and listless. You can’t sleep well, your mood shifts quickly, you can’t focus, and that’s what you need on a jobhunt, to be focused. Also you make very, very poor purchasing choices and have a lack of common sense that you’d have otherwise.

Take 100$ away from our bootstrapper’s funds.

Well now he’s really in the pigshit. His savior doesn’t know why he’s making all these stupid-ass choices. She thought he was better then this, she thought that he wasn’t one of those worthless idiots who just took and took and took and imposed on others with seemingly endless generosity. She sighs, almost dramatically, and adds that people say she’s being too nice. But she’s a woman of her word and so the guy gets one last week. And really, who can live with that shit? It’s at this point our bootstraper looks at his remaining money and either gives up, or he loses his shit completely.

Now I would love to go into glorious, gory detail about how he steals her money, pawns all of her belongings, all before going on a rampage in her house and eventually getting gunned down while he’s wearing her skin like a sarong, but this is a realistic bootstrapper tale, and not a satisfying one in that black humor/crossing the line twice way. So no. Figuring that he’s doomed anyway, he spends the night completely getting his shit messed up with his remaining money and… okay possibly stealing a few of her things to pawn when he escapes in the dead of night. The honest truth is that homeless shelters are overcrowded, and mental help and financial assistance is almost impossible to get these days. Many homeless people just give up or get bitter, and people who try to help say that the homeless community doesn’t want to be helped because they just threw in the towel. And that’s what our bootstrapper does in the end.

The unfortunate, harshest truth of all is that bootstrapping is exactly like it’s namesake, an impossible task, and people who think it can be done are either lying or as delusional as Munchausen was.

in conclusion

So what can be done? Well first we can acknowledge that this inherent flaw in the system exists, and that we’re making excuses and only worsening the problem by saying that it doesn’t. The real answer, in my opinion, isn’t too far off from what’s already going in the middle and upper-class. No one individual can claw their way to the top on their own, they need the support of other people and groups. Small connections can yield powerful results, but it requires others who naturally have these connections to stop assuming that everyone does. In the end the matter will need to be dealt with, no matter if people want to or not. At that time they’ll either have to decide whether to pay more money and place the burden on the state, or pay less and shoulder it themselves.

It’ll be interesting to see what our society chooses.