Dave Ramsey’s rough week

Editor’s note: Hello again! I rarely write here anymore, and when I do, it is usually my year-end music review or some far-out sports-related thought. Here’s something a little different.

It’s been a rough week for Dave Ramsey on the internet. The wildly popular Christian financial guru has been roundly criticized for this blog post  (criticism here, here, here, and here, for starters), and then once again for his reaction to it. Let me say up front that my knowledge of Ramsey is not from listening to his radio show or reading his books, but I am familiar enough with his ideas on personal finance that I know: (a) they are generally sound, and (b) they come from a good place.  Which makes all of what I am about to say somewhat difficult.

I won’t rehash all of the arguments in their entirety.  The article lists “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day,” contrasting them with the habits of the poor.  It’s lifted entirely from and credited to another author, Tom Corley, but presented as something Ramsey thought was worth sharing.  The problem is that it mostly wasn’t worth sharing, and then Ramsey came down too hard on his critics.

Presented without any context or interpretation of the statistics therein, the article falls prey to the false cause logical fallacy, which states that correlation (a relationship between two things) does not equal causation (meaning one causes the other).  From the article, Ramsey’s blog readers are to infer that if they can be more like the rich people, they are more likely to be rich.

There is some truth to what Corley implies with his list of statistics, but unlike what Ramsey says, it fails to pass the “smell test,” and more importantly it pulls Ramsey into a theological area that is very dangerous.  So, rich people listen to more audiobooks and watch less reality TV than poor people.  That’s probably true, but listening to Freakonomics and watching the news instead of the latest Kimye madness will not make a difference for everyone.  It’s true that people who make better choices tend to have better results, and you and I and everyone would do well to follow Ramsey’s debt reduction advice, but the problem is that it’s not always true.  Kimye is actually a pretty good example of this—plenty of people who make poor decisions do well, and what Ramsey glosses over too easily is that people who make good decisions don’t always end up rich.

As Rachel Held Evans noted in her CNN criticism of Ramsey’s article (linked above), there are some fundamental economic injustices that are still a part of the American first-world reality.  There are plenty of poor people who make poor decisions, but there are also plenty of hard workers who are legitimately doing the best they can and are still falling short financially.

If it only got to this point, Ramsey could still walk this back and turn the post into something worthwhile, and I probably wouldn’t bother writing about it.  Perhaps he could acknowledge that there are hard-working poor people in this first-world country and that the list merely hits on the surface of the “good decisions lead to good results” idea that is central to his teachings.  Unfortunately, that’s not the track he has chosen, and where we are now is a much more troubling place, one which in my view seriously damages his credibility as a leading financial thinker in the Christian community.

Ramsey responded to criticism in a long addendum to the article, taking one logical fallacy from a poorly-considered blog post and turning it into at least three more: strawman, ad hominem, and appeal to authority, in addition to false cause and perhaps more.  He accuses his critics of being rude, liberal (ouch?), and guilty of undermining the authority he has taken so long to build.  The rudeness accusation may be true, if irrelevant, and Ramsey has certainly built quite a foundation of authority on personal finance.  Still, admonishing his critics and telling them to “grow up” without addressing the fundamental issues they raised is an ineffective argument tactic and a mark of insecurity.

Worse yet, Ramsey delves into prosperity gospel territory with his interesting take on American history (which Evans deconstructs in detail) and this statement:

There is a direct correlation between your habits, choices and character in Christ and your propensity to build wealth in non-third-world settings.

This statement amounts to Ramsey digging in on the premise of the original post, and then he ties “character in Christ” in with people’s habits for creating wealth.  Are you a poor person in Chattanooga?  According to Ramsey, it’s your fault, and you really should have a more Christ-like character.

This is ludicrous, and Ramsey is rightfully being called out by his fellow Christian critics (now including myself, I suppose) for this stance.  As many of my fellow critics noted, Jesus himself preached about how being rich creates challenges for participating in his eternal kingdom.  Jesus was not a rich man by the standards of this world, and neither were many of his early followers.  Faith in him is, generally speaking, not directly going to make you rich, popular, nor much of anything else that is desirable on Earth.  Prosperity may happen for some, even many, of Jesus’ followers.  However, it is irresponsible to suggest that it is, or should be, the norm.

I will reiterate now that Ramsey offers a lot of excellent financial advice, and it is a reflection of his great skill that he has been able to clearly communicate these strategies in a way that they are accessible to people who need them.  By all means, pay off your debt and save for a rainy day.  Make the most of what you have, and better yet, make the commitment to use your riches to glorify God.  Just don’t demean struggling people in the process by suggesting that their financial failures indicate that something is lacking in their commitment to Christ.  That’s not biblical, and one man’s successful career in offering personal finance advice is not enough on its own to convince me otherwise.

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