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.

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  1. jncc says:

    “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.”

    Yeah, and let’s let car manufacturers sell any cars they want. We have the internet now. We will know what cars are safest in crashes. We can all read patents.

    My God, you are an idiot.

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    • James Altucher says:

      Thanks for the comment. I guess you are being sarcastic. But I should point out that a body of standards is not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that auto manufacturers put out cars that will kill you. In fact, i think if they did then Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” would quickly put them out of business.

      Also, I think in general, calling anyone an “idiot” anonymously is probably not the best way to make an argument but then again, I’m not trying to argue with you.

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    • pawnman says:

      Agreed. We have the internet now, where Jenny McCarthy will tell you that vaccines cause autism and Dr. Atkins will tell you that you can lose weight by eating nothing but bacon.

      Let’s face it, the internet has nothing approaching the level of rigorous, peer-reviewed study that the FDA requires. For every single drug on the market, including Tylenol or even coffee, I can find dozens of blog posts and tweets that will tell you how that drug is causing health problems. If we relied on the internet and social media to screen out drugs, there would be no drugs on the market at all.

      There is an alternative. Most electrical appliances are tested not by the government, but by Underwriters Laboratories. I’d be thrilled if we could come up with a non-governmental alternative to the FDA…but I don’t think that alternative is a bunch of uninformed people shouting at each other in Facebook posts.

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  2. jncc says:

    “We can all read the patents.”

    Here is a dumbed down summary (from Wikipedia) on how Lipitor works:

    “Atorvastatin undergoes rapid oral absorption, with an approximate time to maximum plasma concentration (Tmax) of 1–2 hours. The absolute bioavailability of the drug is approximately 14%; however, the systemic availability for HMG-CoA reductase activity is approximately 30%. Atorvastatin undergoes high intestinal clearance and first-pass metabolism, which is the main cause for the low systemic availability. Administration of atorvastatin with food produces a 25% reduction in Cmax (rate of absorption) and a 9% reduction in AUC (extent of absorption), although food does not affect the plasma LDL-C-lowering efficacy of atorvastatin. Evening dose administration is known to reduce the Cmax (rate of absorption) and AUC (extent of absorption) by 30% each. However, time of administration does not affect the plasma LDL-C lowering efficacy of atorvastatin.

    Atorvastatin is highly protein bound (?98%).

    The primary proposed mechanism of atorvastatin metabolism is through cytochrome P450 3A4 hydroxylation to form active ortho- and parahydroxylated metabolites, as well as various beta-oxidation metabolites. The ortho- and parahydroxylated metabolites are responsible for 70% of systemic HMG-CoA reductase activity. The ortho-hydroxy metabolite undergoes further metabolism via glucuronidation. As a substrate for the CYP3A4 isozyme, it has shown susceptibility to inhibitors and inducers of CYP3A4 to produce increased or decreased plasma concentrations, respectively. This interaction was tested in vitro with concurrent administration of erythromycin, a known CYP3A4 isozyme inhibitor, which resulted in increased plasma concentrations of atorvastatin. Atorvastatin is also an inhibitor of cytochrome 3A4.

    It is primarily eliminated via hepatic biliary excretion, with less than 2% of atorvastatin recovered in the urine. Bile elimination follows hepatic and/or extra-hepatic metabolism. There does not appear to be any entero-hepatic recirculation. Atorvastatin has an approximate elimination half-life of 14 h. Noteworthy, the HMG-CoA reductase inhibitory activity appears to have a half-life of 20–30 h, which is thought to be due to the active metabolites. Atorvastatin is also a substrate of the intestinal P-glycoprotein efflux transporter, which pumps the drug back into the intestinal lumen during drug absorption.[21]

    In hepatic insufficiency, plasma drug concentrations are significantly affected by concurrent liver disease. Patients with A-stage liver disease show a 4-fold increase in both Cmax and AUC. Patients with B-stage liver disease show an 16-fold increase in Cmax and an 11-fold increase in AUC.

    Geriatric patients (>65 years old) exhibit altered pharmacokinetics of atorvastatin compared to young adults, with mean AUC and Cmax values that are 40% and 30% higher, respectively. Additionally, healthy elderly patients show a greater pharmacodynamic response to atorvastatin at any dose; therefore, this population may have lower effective doses.[19]”

    —-
    Why don’t you have grandma read through that so she can decide whether Lipitor is safe for her. She can read patents, right?

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    • James Altucher says:

      I’m not sure: is this question addressed to me. I don’t believe I recommend that anybody’s grandma reads a patent.

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      • jncc says:

        I thought you said we didn’t need the FDA because “we can read patents”

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      • pawnman says:

        Ah, so you propose a group of people just go ahead and take the drug with no idea what it does, and they can post their results online for the rest of us?

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  3. Forgotton Umbrella says:

    #11 Thou Shalt beget children

    Costs you more money than a house and education combined for the pleasure of spending the entirity of your free time pandering to a random third wheel.

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  4. Leslie McCalister says:

    The FDA is far from perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than outsourcing drug research to the internet at large. Posting whether or not Advair works for me won’t account for the placebo effect, mean reversion or selection bias (of who volunteers the information). Consider the antioxidants, which the FDA does not regulate as drugs. People eat them like candy, thinking they’re curing cancer when current research indicates nothing of the kind (Cochrane Review, http://www2.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab007176.html). Unseat the FDA, and you’re going to see a whole lot of magic elixers.

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  5. Names Lie says:

    I liked this post, Freakonomics: is the hidden side of everything, hidden meaning something you can’t see and everything meaning everything. Without people like you and the other Freakonomics bloggers we will never take a critical look at what society tells us is “fact”.
    Thank you Mr. Altucher

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    • James Altucher says:

      Thanks Names. I think that’s exactly thepoint. We blindly believe so many things and just by the reaction here I can see that questioning these facts has touched a huge nerve.

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      • pawnman says:

        Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they are blinded by “faith” in the “American religion”. I’ve posted my statistics regarding college (approximately a 4% increase in annual income per year of further education, and the unemployment rate for college grads is about half the national average). Maybe instead of telling me I’m just disagreeable, you can post some statistics that show high school graduates are just as competitive in the job market as college graduates. Please don’t tell me you’ve linked to those statistics in your article…you’ve linked back to another of your posts regarding college, where you suggest that a college-age kid should spend $10k on a trip to India without telling us where the kid will get the money in the first place, and certainly nothing approaching statistics regarding the employability of high school graduates versus college graduates (although I submit that national labor statistics tell us that college graduates are twice as employable…seeing as they have less than half the unemployment rate).

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  6. J says:

    1. “Also, owning a home makes you less flexible in terms of where you can move”

    But a lot more flexible in terms of what you can do with your property. And less flexible doesn’t mean no flexibility at all, though that requires careful selection.

    2. “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?”

    What was his major?

    3. Pacifists are basically sanctimonius parasites who exist because better people than them are willing to do the dirty work that makes their existence possible.

    4. Your arguments support the idea that we should obey the constitution.

    5. Do you have stats to support this one? I’m sure there are charities like the one you describe, but most aren’t.

    6. Mostly agree on this one; I think we should have an FDA, that makes recommendations, but they should not have the authority to restrict what drugs we use, or require prescriptions to use them except in cases such as antibiotics, where overuse can destroy the efficacy of the drug itself.

    7. You should vote. Not sure I agree it should be made much easier.

    8. This is the case; you can pretend you don’t do this all you want, but you do.

    9. Agree pretty much completely.

    10. “But then something went wrong.”

    I know you produce a few complaints, but they range from things that aren’t really that bad to stuff every culture in history has had to deal with. For example, I believe the ability to borrow money is a net positive, though some people use it to do things that are ill advised, like borrowing $150K to get a degree that qualifies you to work at a Verizon store. I’d love a perfect world too, but I’m not holding my breath. We’ve done pretty welll with the hand we were dealt.

    “maybe I‘d lynched”

    No, you’d be ignored like everybody else trying to preach in Times Square. Hey – there’s an Olive Garden!

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  7. George says:

    Commandment XI: Thou shalt pay attention to trolls.

    Fortunately, I can break that one, starting now.

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    • James Altucher says:

      Even though many of the “trolls” are both anonymous and insulting I think in some cases it’s worth addressing their concerns. That said, I probably have over-answered at this point.

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    • pawnman says:

      Not everyone who disagrees with your assertions are trolls. I’ve attempted to be very respectful, although I disagree with pretty much each point on the list.

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  8. Jonathan says:

    There is a much closer tie between American Scripture and the 10 Commandments!
    #X. Thou shalt believe. Once we have your belief…it’s all good. (James, it seems you fail to recognize the significance of no other god before me. That’s where the genius is.)
    #X+1. Thou shalt equivocate – particularly among Freedom and Democracy. (That’s why X is so handy!)
    #X+2. Thou shalt believe the your nationalism is not, and their X-ism is evil.
    #X+3. Thou shalt believe that the belief (xref X) is self-evident.
    #X+4. Friday, Saturday, Sunday….whatever. I’m tired of this shit and need to take a small break. Let’s call it a weekend.
    #X+5. Thou shalt honor the Founding Fathers. (See X). I know they didn’t like black people (or consider them people….just 3/5…) but at least they told George to piss off. Tea baggers.
    #X+6. We should incorporate some natural, reasonable laws that even cave men understood. Don’t kill each other or you will die.
    #X+7. Don’t screw your neighbors wife, because if you do, X+6 might not seem reasonable.
    #X+8-9. Or his other shit.

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