Book Review: Thou Shall Prosper

Money is a great way to measure if you’re a valuable human being. That’s my controversial one line summary of Rabbi Daniel Lapin’s book, Thou Shall Prosper.

Why I read this book

I have been going through as many of Dave Ramsey’s “library” recommendations as possible, and Thou Shall Prosper has been on my reading list for at least 3 years.

The title alone is intriguing, but it’s usually refreshing to get a different cultural perspective on a familiar topic. I’m not sure how closely Rabbi Lapin’s thoughts on money align with Jewish culture at large, but he definitely gives fresh perspective.

The substance

Rabbi Lapin uses ten chapters to give ten commandments for making money. Some chapters are more “rich” than others, but all were worthwhile. This book is very philosophical (the author would say spiritual) but it is also highly practical. At the end of each chapter, there are bullet point steps to take to fulfill the money making commandment.

The major philosophical argument is that business gets a horrible wrap from the world at large, specifically the media and those with socialistic political views. Rabbi Lapin makes an effective case that not only is business not bad, but it is the very epitome of goodness, something valuable.

How is business so good? Simply because business transactions always involve at least two parties who voluntarily exchange one resource for another. When those exchanges are made, it makes at least those two parties better off than they were before. There are times when there is a winner and a loser in a transaction, but most times there are multiple winners. Everyone is often better off when exchanges, or trades, happen.

Rabbi Lapin says most people don’t succeed in business because their minds and hearts won’t allow them to, because we’ve been conditioned to believe business is evil.

YOU are in business

Before you start thinking this is only a book for business owners, hear this plea from Rabbi Lapin:

Almost everyone is in business. You have your time, skills, experience, personality, and some other attributes to market. You have customers, clients, supervisors, employers, associates, bosses, or patients to please. You many not realize it, but you probably even have a board of directors. It consists of you as chairperson, perhaps your spouse, and maybe some of your trusted friends with whom you discuss your professional career. These people are also unpaid members of the board of You, Inc.

That’s an empowering idea if you can live like you are the CEO and President of You, Inc. Not only that, but it may be one of the most secure ideas you ever let your mind chew on. Because if You, Inc. has one customer generating revenue (your employer), then that puts You, Inc. in a very precarious position. If anything disrupts that one “customer” of You, Inc., all of You, Inc. could be going under.

The alternative is to diversify You, Inc.’s prospects a bit and take more control over your life and money as opposed to leaning heavily or entirely on an employer.

This book gave me a few different nuggets like that which shifted my thinking.

A distorted view of money

My biggest knock on Thou Shall Prosper is the book’s tendency to elevate money to a very high status. Like dangerously high. However, Rabbi Lapin would classify my concerns as part of the negative conditioning this world has laid on business and money.

But as I examine my own experience and Christian Scripture, particularly the Gospels, I don’t see money as having a primary, or even a secondary, role in discovering the fullness of life we believe God created us for. Granted, Rabbi Lapin doesn’t have the Gospels of Christ as part of his Holy texts. But I do, and I think Jesus’s words and life give us the greatest example of how to realize full life and complete joy.

The view of money espoused is simply too high. Instead, I think a neutral money philosophy is the key. Money is not an ends and it is not good in itself, but it is also not evil.

Rabbi Lapin does point to an intense focus on serving and creating value for people as the road to monetary prosperity. And even encourages to not treat people as a means to material wealth. But despite those admonitions, the book does elevate money above people.

The good news is that under this philosophy, even if someone’s end goal is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, they will have to treat people really well and create a lot of value for other people to get there.

As for you and me, I believe we have to relentlessly emphasize that money, time, and our other gifts are all given to serve and love people. And merely using people to enhance our money, time, or other gifts will always leave us discontent.

Finally, Rabbi Lapin does very little to reassure those who have chosen to serve others with their lives and not be monetarily rewarded. The most obvious example in my life is Sara, my wife, who has chosen to dedicate her time serving her husband and children by doing full-time homemaking. Another example as the numerous folks who volunteer their efforts and take significantly reduced salaries to do work they love or feel is valuable.

In all of those cases, Rabbi Lapin’s money philosophy belittles those who have sacrificed in such ways. Money is not the best way to measure the value of a human, or human productivity. 

Recommendation

I recommend Thou Shall Prosper, but not in isolation. I believe someone whose primary money philosophy is taken from the pages of this book will not clearly see how God designed us to use the resources and economies of this world. Get other perspectives, particularly from the Bible and then test them for yourself.

Book Review: The Millionaire Next Door

I am quick to play the victim card in my head. When something doesn’t go my way or I don’t get something I want, I quickly find the outside forces I can blame on why I didn’t get my way.

Most people suffer from focusing on the external forces rocking our world as opposed to the internal feelings, motivations, and preferences that we actually have control over.

External conditioning (how forces outside ourselves shape our decisions) is the theme of The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko. The premise is that many people who have wealth, or what the authors call PAWs (prodigious accumulators of wealth) don’t live like most think they would. Basically, PAWs avoid high dollar luxuries and live frugally, and it’s that very nature that made them wealthy in the first place.

Contrast that to the UAWs (under accumulators of wealth). These folks may have incomes north of 6 figures, but ultimately, they accumulate very little wealth because of their spending habits. They do what comes natural…they spend…a lot.

Granted, that spending allows them to experience some very nice vacations, some very name brand clothing, some sweet vehicles, and some very large living spaces. However, it does not secure their financial future. If these high earners were to have a disruption in their income, many could not go longer than a year before they would be completely broke and some much less time than that.

The contrast between the PAWs and the UAWs takes up the entire first half of the book. Then the authors took a shift that surprised me. In much of the latter half of the book, it turns into a parenting book!

The authors don’t focus on the contrast of PAWs and UAWs children. Instead, they focus more on what happens to children that causes them to develop into a PAW or a UAW as adults.  Being a PAW does not guarantee your children will pick up on the principles that helped their parents accumulate wealth.

In fact, research shows that children who receive substantial financial support from their parents often never develop the ability to sustain themselves. They survive on what the authors call Economic Outpatient Care (dependency on financial gifts and support from the folks).

It is reasonable and seemingly virtuous for a parent to want to help their kid, especially for something such as advancing education via college. But the research showed that large financial gifts to kids can be incredibly dangerous to a child’s ability to become financially independent if such gifts are given before the child has already proven independence.

Perhaps some parents prefer the children to be indefinitely dependent, because with dependence comes a level of control that many parents desire to maintain over their children, or children-in-law, and later grandchildren.

Personally, I want to raise independent kids. And my guess is you do too. Not because I don’t like to keep my kids close or want them to come around often as adults. I certainly do! But I can’t guarantee how long I or their mother will be around. If something does separate us from our children, I expect my kids to mourn. But not  because they are fearful of how they’ll find provision.

My take is this: our children have to experience pain in their lives so seeds of love, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control can be planted deep within their souls. Powerful experiences are the only thing that can get those seeds deep enough into our children’s hearts to make them take root without our constant supervision or intervention. Those powerful experiences often come with pain.

This book shows the difference financial discomfort can have on our kids. Allow your child to know what work is required to be financial successful, or what it takes to earn and pay for a college degree. They deserve that from you!

But it’s not enough to limit the painful experiences to money. Our children need to learn the same when facing relational turmoil or when searching for answers to the universe’s biggest questions.

Before accusing me of masochism, know that I HATE pain personally. I fear pain much more than death. And I HATE even worse the thought of my (or others’) children enduring pain. But I would much rather have my children go through difficult experiences when I am there to comfort and catch them.

My heart breaks for the kids who are sheltered from pain/sacrifice all their lives only to get punched in the gut by the world once they leave home and feel completely unequipped to pick themselves back up.

I didn’t expect to get fired up about parenting when I read this book! But our children’s lives are the legacy that can be far more rewarding and enduring that our net worth. So it’s worth learning what other financially successful people have done to liberate (or handicap) their children.

Regarding this book and the recommendation to read it…I haven’t read enough other books to classify The Millionaire Next Door as a must read. But I think if you find you and your family taking your cues from the world instead of making decisions based on your priorities, including spending and savings decisions, than this book will be of great value.

Finally, if you need some financial empowerment, this book can deliver. The case is strongly made that your ability to accumulate wealth rests solely on your shoulders and your ability to make wise spending (and earning) decisions. If you can do that, financial independence is within reach for you. And for all people…that’s news worth sharing.

Book Review: The Great Depression, A Diary (or why buying low is so hard)

Benjamin Roth was a young lawyer living and working in Youngstown, Ohio during the Great Depression. In June of 1931, just over 19 months after the calamitous stock market crash in late October of 1929, Roth started journaling his thoughts about the stock market, banks, his law practice, politics, and investment opportunities.

After the stock market crashed in 2008, Roth’s son, Daniel, knew it was time to honor his father’s memory by publishing his father’s writings. The timing was right, and although we are now 8 years removed from the stock market lows of 2009, Roth’s accounts of the Great Depression refreshed my thoughts of our most recent economic catastrophe.

The importance of this book

Beware the danger of hindsight bias. Here’s the definition:

 “the inclination, after an event has occurred, to see the event as having been predictable, despite there having been little or no objective basis for predicting it”

It is a near impossibility to keep our hindsight bias from kicking into gear when examining historical events. Our bias often leads us to overconfidence, luring us into making decisions for the wrong reasons, possibly damaging our lives and our loved ones along the way.

That is exactly why Roth’s personal account of the events and people of the 1930s is so valuable. When considering the Great Depression, I have been quick to make judgement on how leaders, business people, and families should have reacted if they would have only kept their calm and made rational decisions.

I can’t say how representative Roth’s reactions to the Depression were of all who lived through it, but he is proof that there were people able to keep their emotions in check while the economy was collapsing around them. Roth’s dispassion is remarkable, especially considering he was responsible for providing for his wife and 3 young children during that time.

But Roth was not without reasons for hope even during dire economic times. He was an educated professional, and as an educated man, he had knowledge of history to rely upon.

Most historical market charts used today start in the 1920s which causes the history of markets before the 20s to be downplayed, if not forgotten.

However, Roth had a high awareness, not only of the stock market and investments in the 1920s, but also of economic recessions in the United States prior to the Great Depression. Roth didn’t even own stock when the Great Crash hit (only 2.5% of Americans did), but he was highly aware of stock markets happenings and history.

Roth often references the crashes and recessions of the 19th century, and uses them to forecast the length, severity, and opportunity of the Great Depression. Many of his predictions are far off (just like everyone else’s of that time…and today). But many of his insights were remarkable. The richest part of Roth’s diary is his predictions of the  future and the later comments he made about his predictions and whether they were right or wrong or very wrong.

But therein lies the tragedy of Roth’s diary: he had fantastic insights and admirable emotional self control, yet he was still unable to take advantage of the investment opportunities the Depression offered. In fact, only an elite class was able to take advantage of the rock bottom asset prices because only they had surplus income/capital after they made sure they could provide for their families.

Why buying low is so hard

Starvation is not a threat in 21st century United States, and it likely wouldn’t be even if another depression hit. But the same dilemma that kept Roth from taking advantage of panic prices in assets in the 30s still keep people from doing the same today. Why is that?

The dilemma is that the only time assets lose significant value is when the economic stability of the future is jeopardized and uncertain. It’s at that moment when a working family can’t rely on their ability to earn an income, because their business may dry up or they may be laid off. So instead of looking for investment deals, a family pays off debt to lower their risk, or they increase their savings, or they use all they have to buy necessities. And the opportunity of a lifetime drifts by.

However, hindsight bias kicks in again. If we truly knew the opportunity of 1932 or 1939 or even 2009, there is no doubt we would have made some radical choices to get any assets we could invested in the stock market or other assets like real estate. But in the midst of those times, investing looks like foolishness, not opportunism.

Most discouraging about those missed opportunities is that even when someone recognizes the opportunity and has the resources to take advantage of the opportunity, it’s still not certain they’ll profit!

Roth tells the story of a friend who had the wherewithal to buy 1000 shares of Warner stock in 1935 for 3 ⅛. The stock went to 18 in two years turning a approximately $3,000 investment into $18,000.  Instead of selling out, his friend borrowed money on margin to buy more stocks. The crash of 1937 came shortly after, and his friend lost everything. Even someone who maintained the optimism to invest got taken down by the market…if only he had not borrowed to invest.

Lessons for today

Roth comments often on the dangers of borrowing money to invest in anything. Sure, in a rising market it makes an investor much more profitable to borrow to invest. But markets have never, ever sustained their rises indefinitely, and at times, you get entire decades when the market crashes frequently, decimating anyone who has borrowed to invest. Roth claims that every single person he knew who had borrowed to invest was wiped out in the 1930s.

Roth became a student of investing during the Depression, and he shares a lot of his education in his diary. Most of this investment advice is very conservative in nature, but an ultra conservative investment strategy is the only way investors didn’t lose their shirt in the 1930s. Today, many people are comfortable taking considerably more risk than Roth would recommend in the late 30s. And if we never hit another depression like the Great one, then it is a wise strategy.

But is it a guarantee that we won’t hit another depression as long and deep as the Great Depression? Absolutely not. However, is it even remotely likely? That’s where the real debate lies. Much has changed since the 1930s. Our financial system today is much different from the system of Roth’s time. Perhaps we have the mechanisms to avoid another depression…or perhaps it’s arrogant to think we are different from those in the generations before us.

And that to me is the greatest value of this book. Although we live in very different times, we are not so different than the generations before us. We can learn from what they went through, but we cannot claim we have a superior enlightenment that will protect us from all catastrophe.

We have to live and make decisions in humility, recognizing our own naivety and limitations. If we do so, we still may fall victim to the disruptive forces of this world, but we will have the strongest defense available to us: the willingness to educate ourselves.

Recommendation

I can’t recommend this book to every reader. Roth’s inclination to make investment strategy a major theme of his writings will bore and disengage many. To those who enjoy investment insights and the stock market, Roth’s book, along with editor’s James Ledbetter’s insight, are guaranteed to entertain and educate.

If you don’t fancy stock talk, I don’t recommend this book. However, it is essential that everyone spend time educating themselves about the Great Depression to 1) learn to be thankful for the era of plenty in which we currently live, 2) to humbly recognize how vulnerable the complex systems around us are, and 3) to have a basis for how to react in the case we go through something similar…or worse.

No matter what lies ahead of us, ultimately, if we understand the true nature of this world…the best is yet to come.