The Ten Commandments of The American Religion

This is a cross-post from James Altucher‘s blog Altucher Confidential. His previous appearances on the Freakonomics blog can be found here.

(iStockphoto)

If I stood in the center of Times Square and said something like “Moses didn’t really part the Red Sea,” or “Jesus never existed,” people would probably keep walking around me, ignoring what I said.

But if I stood there and said, “Going to college is the worst sin you can force your kids to commit,” or “You should never vote again,” or “Never own a home,” people would probably stop, and maybe I‘d lynched. But I would’ve at least gotten their attention. How? By knocking down a few of the basic tenets of what I call the American Religion.

It’s a fickle and false religion, used to replace the ideologies we (a country of immigrants) escaped. Random high priests lurk all over the Internet, ready to pounce. Below are the Ten Commandments of the American Religion, as I see them. If you think there are more, list them in the comments.

The below is an excerpt from my just released book, I Was Blind But Now I Can See

The Ten Commandments of the American Religion

#1 Thou Shalt Own a Home. The American Religion wants you to have a home with a white picket fence. Why would the high priests of the American religion want that? A couple reasons:

So that you owe the banks money for 30 years or more (after second, third, or fourth mortgages). The banks need to borrow from your checking account at 0.5% to be able to lend right back to you at 8%. That’s how they make money and it’s one of the largest industries in the world.

Also, owning a home makes you less flexible in terms of where you can move. The job market is ruled by supply and demand. Supply of jobs in an area is finite. So they want to make sure you can’t move so quickly so that demand only goes up.


#2 Thou Shalt Go to College.
There’s the myth that going to college leads to a better life, or a “promised future.” Almost like how the contract Abraham had with God would lead to Judaism being a group of “chosen people.” A couple of points:

Statistically, there’s no proof that smart, ambitious, aggressive people won’t benefit enormously from a five-year head start against their peers who choose to spend five years doing homework and drinking beer and going to frat parties. And don’t quote me the stat about the differences in salaries between college grads and non-college grads because there’s enormous selection bias in that stat and it’s like comparing apples and oranges right now.

The government needs to pay off $74 trillion in Social Security in the next 50 years. They have to make money somehow, so student loan debt is now higher than credit card debt for the first time in 50 years. Imagine that: we send our children off to college and then 5 years later (the average time spent in college by those who graduate) they come out owing the government $100,000. Thank God the government gets to exploit our kids so they can pay off the promises they made under Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War.

There are so many exciting alternatives to college. I list some of them here. I’m excited for my children, because I hope they have experiences that will change their lives forever rather than going into the rat race so they can end up ignorant, in debt, and working at nonsense jobs so they can pay off the gangsters who have guns pointed right at their heads.

One anecdote: the guy who caught Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit is a sales clerk at Verizon with $150,000 in student loans. Why couldn’t he get a better job with his college degree? Why did he give Jeter the ball back? Jeter is going to make $100 million in the next few years. This guy could’ve paid his loans back and been free. Freedom is everything. But he wanted to be a “good guy.”

The American Religion needs you to be in debt; needs you to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to read the same Plato you could’ve read in the bathroom at your local library. “You’ll have a better life,” they say. “Your life is secure now.” Right, you are fully secured by the shackles they hand you on graduation day.

[See, Living Life Is Better than Dying in College]

#3 Thou Shalt Recognize that Some Wars Are Holy. Everyone argued with me in my post about “Name me a war that was worth it.” Apparently some wars are “holy” and can’t be argued against. All I want is to prevent 18 year-olds from dying. That’s the basis of my argument. We can argue all the history we want after that.

#4 Thou Shalt Obey the Constitution. There’s no document more sacred (as it should be) in the American Religion. And yet, just as the principles of the Bible are often forgotten by its highest adherents, ditto goes twice over for the U.S. constitution. For instance, who has the power to declare war? The House of Representatives according to the Constitution. The House hasn’t declared war on anyone since 1941. The U.S. Constitution is the Holy of Holies in the American Religion. Until those moments when we break the rules. Then everyone looks the other way. “We had to do it that way,” goes the common refrain. “To protect our way of life.” Someone is always protecting me and my way of life. I’m fine thank you.

[See my post: July 4 is a Scam]

#5 Thou Shalt Give to Charity. Because the American Religion, unlike most religions, doesn’t have a strict code of ethics, giving to charity is often considered the sign of a “good person.” A couple of points on that:

Giving to charity costs money. So the best people in the American Religion then are the ones who have the most money to give.

Volunteering is more and more difficult for people who have to pay back student loans and exorbitant home loans. Good luck volunteering when your children need to be fed or when you are an indentured servant thanks to your advanced learning in the ivory tower.

Let’s go over the math of every dollar you spend on charity. When you give $100 to a major charity, most of that goes into the bank. They then invest the money. On the interest they make on their investments, a percentage goes to actual charity, another percentage goes to salaries. So for every dollar you give to charity, about 2 cents a year, give or take, goes to the actual charitable cause you wanted to support. Now let’s break that down even further. How many charities have executives making over $500,000 a year. More than a few. And let’s say it’s a medical charity. Now most of the money is going toward drugs that cost billions of dollars to approve. See the next point.

[See my post: A Better Way to Donate to Charity]

#6 Thou Shalt Obey the Food & Drug Administration. What is this organization? And does it do any good? The FDA requires that drugs go through trials to prove their safety and effectiveness. That sounds good, right? Before you give an 80 year-old a drug for cancer, let’s make sure it doesn’t kill him first.

It costs billions to build those trials and the FDA can shut you down at any point. Companies raise those billions from charities and from individual investors, who usually lose all of their money when the FDA shuts down a trial. But what’s the solution?

Well, we have the Internet now. We have social media. We have “word of mouth” on steroids. That’s what technology and innovation is for. Lets get the drugs out there. We can all see which scientists worked on them and what their backgrounds are, we can all read the patents, we can read real-life experiences from people using the drug. The Internet will conduct “virtual trials.” Will people die? Yeah, but people die in FDA trials too. Will more lives be saved? Of course! Many drug companies just give up (they can’t raise the money even if their drugs are miracle drugs). Now they can get those drugs out there and we can really see. If I have a terminal disease, I want the FDA to get out of the way and let me ingest whatever I want.

#7 Thou Shalt Always Vote. When I wrote the other day that I don’t vote I got quite a bit of violent email. That I was somehow ruining the country. Really?

I live in New York. So I know my vote is meaningless no matter which way I vote. And I’m tired of voting for congressmen who supposedly represent my interests, but then make deals with lobbyists and other congressmen for bridges to nowhere, and then get hired as vice-chairmen of Goldman Sachs when they “retire” after years of “public” service. I’m fine representing my own interests and I’d rather vote directly on issues.

So why can’t I vote on the Internet? I can read all about the issues there. I could vote directly on bills, presidents, wars, drugs, whatever I want. If I could vote directly on issues, instead of sending a “representative” in my place, the costs of lobbying would go from the millions to the billions, which would deter the corrupt lobbying industry and further give more power to the people. And then, maybe things would actually get done in this country. In the article below I explain why all the initial reasons for the legislative branch (as it stands now) are obsolete. And the beauty of the U.S. Constitution is that it can change.

[See my post, Politics is a Scam – Why I Will Never Vote Again]

#8 Thou Shalt Choose Between Two Political Parties. We’ve basically had two parties for the past 200 years. With occasional offshoots. I don’t believe in either party. And I bet a lot of you don’t either. It’s all a way for a select few to push through an agenda that is going to change constantly over the years anyway. This is not a new opinion. Most people hate the two-party system. So let’s change it.

Again, with the Internet, I’d rather be a party of one and just vote for what I want on every issue. I’m perfectly willing to read about the issues of the day and vote directly. I don’t need to have my congressman represent me. How many ethics scandals are going on in Washington right now? And, how many should be going on that we don’t even know about?

#9 Thou Shalt Recognize the Media as the “Fourth Estate.” There’s this weird idea that’s developed over the past 50 years that the media is somehow a “check” on the other three branches of government. This is ridiculous but people still don’t get it.

Six months ago everyone was panicking that radiation from Japan was going to get blown over San Francisco. Did that happen? Of course not. But the media doesn’t apologize for the thousands of people who got sick taking iodine pills, or who spent weeks away from supposedly radioactive areas.

And let’s not forget the whole “debt ceiling scare.” Every week there’s a new fear. I obviously don’t think the media should be shut down. But there certainly should be a greater sense of responsibility than simply scaring the hell out of people with a new topic every. single. week. I am so bored of the “fear of the week,” I’d rather watch Snooki all day long rather than another “fear of the week” analysis from the pseudo-experts who are desperate for screen time.

[See, “How Snooki Can Help Stop Violent and Sex-Crazed Children”]

#10 Thou Shalt Forever Progress Toward the Frontier. My kid had to read about Lewis And Clark this summer as she prepared to go into the fourth grade. The “frontier” is a beautiful, almost spiritual concept. The idea that we can always expand, always improve. For the first several hundred years after the Europeans took over North America, we expanded into every unmapped territory. But then something went wrong.

We’re missing out on the more subtle points of the word “Frontier.” For the past several decades we’ve expanded into the frontier of technology, creating everything from computers, to rockets that go to the moon, to the Internet, and many cures for many diseases (polio, smallpox, etc). But now our innovators, technologists, and creators have to pay down their homeowner debt, their credit card debt, their student loan debt. They have to vote for people who never truly represent them and get us further and further into trouble. The government puts more and more hurdles in front of our creators.

Who knows what further twists and warps the American Religion will take to destroy us more than we’ve already been destroyed. At the end of the physical frontier is the ocean and we’re all being pushed into it.

I love this country. But I get sad when I see all of the above. When 18 year-olds are sent to get killed while 60 year-olds can’t get the drugs they need to survive. Where the government and banks and even charities take all my money. Where commercialism in its worst form conspires to take the remaining dollars of my salary.

I’m not political. I’m not in any party, nor do I believe in any particular political philosophy. For me, I believe in the impossible. That change, even at a mass level, only comes from the inside of each individual. That if each person tries to remain physically healthy, emotionally healthy, mentally healthy, and spiritually healthy, then the country itself will rise to new heights never seen before in the civilization of man.

A height without mythology, without the dream of immortality, without fantasy notions of a “better life” that turn out to be just lies. Without deeper and more complicated mechanisms to control the masses. Where mediocrity is not rewarded with power over the creators. I know, I’m asking for too much.

So today I’m going to do what I always do. And it has nothing to do with anything in this article.


Ben

Here's my question for Mr. Altucher: Do you take these extreme positions because you actually believe them, or because you hope that by being extremely contrarian you might possibly sway some people at least a bit more towards the center? Because I think that most of your points, while interesting, are pretty much indefensible if you take them to the extreme like you do. Can we do better in each of these areas? Absolutely. But I think that the solution is probably not to throw every institution (elections, FDA, college, charities, etc.) in the paper shredder.

James Altucher

Thanks for the question Ben.

I take these positions because:
A) I strongly believe them
B) I have no idea (or care) whether they are contrarian ornot
C) I think people would be happier if they paid more attention to questions like this throughout their lives.

ryan

Great article! The only view I differ slightly on would be the voting. I didn't vote last election because I felt that neither Obama or McCain shared my views; I should have found a 'no-chance' candidate, who may have shared my views but didn't get media attention, and voted for them. Even though my vote 'wouldn't have mattered', voting still seems like the responsible thing to do given that people have served and died for me to have that voice however big or small it may be.

You painted the big picture well when you said, "if each person tries to remain physically healthy, emotionally healthy, mentally healthy, and spiritually healthy, then the country itself will rise to new heights never seen before in the civilization of man."

Owen

This post is almost as ridiculous as the commandments it ridicules. You are ridiculing the 'American Religion' by preaching.

1. Yes owning a home is not for everyone, maybe even most people. But many people own homes because it is reasonable. It is financially beneficial to purchase a home. Nobody is asking you to own a home.

2. Yes, college is not for everyone. But it is incredibly beneficial for most people. Nobody is asking you to go to college.

3. '... that some wars are holy?' That seems totally out of left field. What are you disagreeing with, that people think this or that there are no holy wars? Or that there are no necessary wars?

4. Yes, Americans talk a lot about the constitution but belief in adhering to is not disqualified by pointing out we don't.

5. Yes, not everyone can give to charity. Yes, there are probably better ways to help the world or achieve the change one wants. You bounce from criticizing volunteering because not everyone can do it ('Good luck volunteering when your children need to be fed'?? What does that have to do with whether or not volunteering is good, bad, worthy or whatever?), to criticizing the math of making charitable donations because the charities stretch it as far as possible.

6. '...obey the Food and Drug Administration?' This is another out of left field point. Who is it that is 'obeying' them? Are you suggesting we should all just break the law? There is not a single organization that does everything right. In fact, there are a lot of organizations that do a lot of things wrong. Maybe the FDA should be reformed. But who is obeying them in the sense you suggest?

7. Yes, the merits of voting is debatable. But has it ever occurred to you that putting pressure on people to vote is important for the society to function. It's not a matter of whether your vote counts but that we reach a large enough population of voters to have 'the wisdom of the crowd' (which you mention earlier in your suggestion for handling drugs). Furthermore, you can't argue your vote is meaningless and then complain because you can't vote on the internet. If your vote is meaningless then it is meaningless. The end. Also, voting on the internet would not make your vote any more meaningful.

8. Seriously, does anyone like having two political parties? Is it a commandment that there should only be two? I will only vote for one party but I'm not happy with this. I think the general malaise and dissatisfaction of the country would indicate the same.

9. Yes, the media can be crazy. And what exactly are you suggesting here? Should we just get rid of the media? If everyone believes the media is not a check on government would that change everything? Most importantly though, there is a lot of good media.

10. I honestly don't know what you are talking about with the frontier. What went wrong? But wait, you are saying striving for the frontier isn't the problem. What is the problem? I'm lost.

I have one more commandment to add to your list.

11. Thou shalt go to school (k-12). Man, this was a huge waste of time. Think about all the money I could've made during this time. Plus, I would've had so much more freedom.

I'll end on two notes. I think it is important to realize that not everyone shares the same values. Making the 'right' financial decision is not always the most important motive for people. Freedom is certainly not everything for many people. But yes, many decisions by everyone, including yourself, are swayed by irrational or inexplicable reasons. If you don't believe this have a read on decision fatigue.

Lastly, in back to back sentences you mention spirituality in a serious manner and then deride mythology.

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James Altucher

Thanks for the comment. I do, in fact, think "spirituality" and "mythology" are completely different.

Also, I am not interested (forall of these) in what the correct "financial decision" is although one thing about having money is that it does solve your money problems.

But money is only part (a small part) of the equation that ultimately makes people happy people. I know many poor people who are unhappy. But also many rich people who are.

Just David

Thou shalt spend the days of thy energetic young adulthood engaged in activities which thou findest worthless, save for the token monetary reward every two weeks.

superhl

James,
I don't agree with all your post but you make people think. The FDA needs to be completely over hauled. Now saying this is offensive because many people are making big money with the current system. Stats don't always prove truths. I know several drugs that have gone through years of safety studies and yet are still not approved. As James states, companies either go broke or give up. Sure drugs need to be tested for safety, but all drugs have sides regards of the benefits. We need a system that approves drugs quickly and cheaply yet continues to follow the safety of the drug. Example, if I am taking something that benefits me (and I should know if I feel better or not) then I have monthly blood tests performed to determine the safety for me. We all know medicines that works for me may not work for you.... On going to college, schools teach too much BS and not enough substance. A high priority should be to hire people who have worked in a specialized field to teach and structure what is taught than someone who has never fished but has written numerous papers about fishing. Big difference. In my field, never learned anything that applied to what I really do. I know saying this is very offensive to the high paid professors. Time for real change!

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robyn ann goldstein

Dear James Altucher;

AS you may or may not know, thank you for participating in this side of a "longitudinal" investigation aimed at making manifest the true benefits of a real mutual i.e., shared orientation in our individual struggles for the advantages that America offers and for the human survival of this planet in the face of them all.

The New York Times may publish, as they wish, any and all information that they obtained from me during the course of this investigation.

Sincerely and good wishes to all and with all due respect.

Robyn Ann Goldstein

PS I am assuming that my copyrights still count as I am taking leave to finish the text of my original investigation off.

James Altucher

Hmm, thanks for the well-thought out comment. It seems like you have not read my other posts. Most of my "economic or life philosophy" hasnothing to do with money but more about the obstacles we place in front of ourselves before we can find happiness. The idea, forinstance, that "college leads to a better life" is a mistaken philosophy (in my opinion) and it's fair to address it.

Also, I appreciate that you find my posts boring. Many don't (i get many favorable comments, likes, etc. I also appreciate that you feel the need to share with me that you find my posts boring despite the evidence that many people don't.

However, sinceI've written here many times, and obviously accrued many facebook likes both here and on my blog, you can just simply not read orcomment on my articles when you seethem.

So it suggests to me that something about my articles actually does effect you in some way (clearly negatively but strongly) so that you are compelled to act out something in response. In fact, maybe you wish me to feel bad or insult me. Sadly, that won't happen.

I should also mention that about 80% of my blog does not include numbered lists although I have nothing against numbered lists. Perhaps I should even do more of them since the numbered lists tends to attract the most traffic.

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