Tribalism Made Simple

My grandmother is 94 and the stories I could tell you are amazing. She was a Depression baby and it would be accurate to say that has made her “tight” with her money (her word, not mine). They learned some very different lessons about money in those days than us 1980’s babies did. That’s not the point of this post though.

My grandmother’s frugality can be summed up in this- her electric bill for most of my adult life has come in under $20, sometimes as low as $12. Even for an essential utility, she will live as cheap as she can. This afternoon I called her up and said I was stopping by, and she told me to grab us some Taco Bell to eat (this is pretty common for us). I got about $15 of food and brought it over and ate with her. She usually either pays or tries to, but she forgot to offer me money today. I was getting gas on the way home, and she called me up, upset she had not paid me back for the meal. She clearly wanted to give me a month’s electric bill for us to eat fast food tacos.

My grandmother is not some particularly parochial type, not a hardcore tribalist compared to most of society. With that said, she wanted to pay me money out of her pocket for a trivial matter, but lives her life to make sure her electric bill is $15. She doesn’t mind giving her money and resources to her own, but will go without to avoid giving her money away. In many ways, her behavior can explain a lot about American politics.

Americans, generally, don’t love living collectively. We’re happy to give, but only if provided that we trust whatever it is we’re giving to. It’s fine to give money towards the education system in our town, but higher state taxes to fund all the schools will result in waste. We want to leave as much of our estate as possible to our heirs, but even the mention of a “death tax” to the state makes people of even modest means recoil. Other people want to make a Buck off of us to satisfy their greed, but we’ll give whatever our family and friends need. It’s not that people are actually miserly and lacking in generosity, we just don’t trust that most others deserve money from us.

A three hour visit is worth not turning the lights on until the kitchen is dark I guess. Keep the money in the family.


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