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.

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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.


Mango Punch

Let’s not forget, the FDA recalls as many drugs as it approves.

Somehow I don't think that's quite true (we do have some drugs afterall).

L00

I think the thread connecting the first two of those is another commandment in itself; "Thou shalt worship at the altar of the great FICO!" When I was in college, we always had credit cards marketed to us. If you told those people you didn't need them, they responded that you should put some stuff on it anyway and pay it off, just to build up your credit score. When I worked at Sears, we had to push credit cards on everyone, and that was one of the things they told us to say. Go into debt so you can raise your credit score so you can go further into debt so you can raise your credit score even more so you can go further into debt . . .

Joe

If you have terminal cancer, there are more than enough companies out there that would be very happy to assist you in dying while trying out some fringe cancer medicine. If we didn't have the FDA, these same companies would be happy to let you try out cholesterol lowering medications that might make your heart explode, and anti-depressants that may raise the suicide rate in users 100%.

Medicine is not as advanced as we think it is. Look back 50 years, when lobotomies were still widely accepted, you could pick up thalidomide for your morning sickness, and the U.S. government was doing uncontrolled syphilis testing on unknowing test subjects. The FDA has so many recalls because it is still impossible to know all of the side effects of drugs being produced. We're still many years out from knowing the long term effects of many of them. For all of your complaints about the abuses of home/student lenders on unwitting victims, how can you honestly think the medical industry would be any different if it were unregulated?

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Marcus Kalka

Nice lol. It's about time someone said it.

The thoughts in this post appear to echo the ideas in the link below about religion, government, and our way of life:
http://www.yesselman.com/SpinIdea.htm#ReligionConstitution

Andreas Moser

And let's not forget the "Thou shalt marry and have plenty of offspring", something which is far too important to many people, especially women, and ends up ruining their lives: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/09/29/the-most-beautiful-day-of-your-life/

AaronS

James, about owning a home....

It occurs to me that the renter will have to pay for the rest of his life to live somewhere. The owner, if all goes according to plan, will only have to pay for the next 15 to 30 years (then just pay maintenance, etc.).

HOWEVER, as you indicated, a house does indeed tend to lock you in to a place. I know that I would like have much better prospects and even be happier elsewhere, but since I have a home here, and since property values are depressed, etc., I stay.

BUT WHAT IF....

What if you could blend the best of both worlds? What if you could by working to OWN a home, yet not be locked down?

I was thinking that it would be great if there were some sort of giant clearinghouse where a person from Florida could change houses AND mortgages (assuming each others' mortgages) with someone in, say, Colorado. Some sort of formula might come into play that would balance values and equities out, but instead of having to sell your house before you move, instead of feeling locked in, you can move and just start paying "rent" (really a mortgage) elsewhere.

If you ever find where you really, really, really want to be forever, then just stay there and keep paying the mortgage.

Is this just pipe dream stuff, or could it happen? I mean, if we can trade time-shares out (and those are mini-mortgages, aren't they?), then why not some sort of way to permit people to quickly change houses/locations?

The clearinghouse might serve as a guarantor on the loan, as well as provide some sort of housing inspection service and repair insurance to ensure that you don't buy a lemon.

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AaronS

James,

I think by all the negative feedback you are getting, you almost certainly have spoken the truth about these things being part of the American Religion. How else would you have ruffled so many feathers!

Not to compare you to Jesus (by a long shot!), but it was people immersed in the religion that had the most trouble with Him. Why, how dare He not do it like they said it was to be done.

One thing I do think is missing (perhaps it's the 11th commandment?) is: Thou Shalt Allow People to Drink Alcohol and Smoke Cigarettes, but Drugs are Evil and Must be Prohibited.

I don't get the hypocrisy. It's clear that it's not really about it being bad for you. If that were the real issue, we'd have outlawed smoking and Big Macs. Something else is going on.

Keep up the good work! Whether you are contrarian or not, we need to be forced to rethink some things ever so often.

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James Altucher

Aaron, thanks for the comment and I totally agree with you.

Btw, on t he FDA issues you address: I address those EXACT issues in the most recent post on my blog:

http://www.jamesaltucher.com/2011/09/eliminate-the-fda-the-insurance-companies-and-medical-education-so-we-can-save-more-lives/

MJ Person

Mr. Altucher,

I don't necessarily agree with all of your points, though many are interesting, but I definitely agree that you have mostly nailed the high commandments of the American Religion. Including the FDA is a little odd; why not the USDA, FAA, OSHA, or the DOT? But the other nine are definitely holy writ in our country.