Several years ago, our book group read American Nations by Colin Woodard. The book has a fascinating premise: While the United States is nominally a single unified country, it’s actually a conglomerate of eleven smaller “nations”, each with its own unique history, culture, and attitudes. The U.S. is more like the E.U. than we think.

I’m not going to go into the details of the eleven distinct cultures Woodard posits. Instead, I’ll simply share a map and some brief descriptions:

American Nations
Click for a larger version.

Here are how the eleven “American nations” differ (these capsule summaries are taken from this Washington Post piece):

    American Nations
  • Yankeedom — Founded by Puritans, residents in Northeastern states and the industrial Midwest tend to be more comfortable with government regulation. They value education and the common good more than other regions.
  • New Netherland — The Netherlands was the most sophisticated society in the Western world when New York was founded, Woodard writes, so it’s no wonder that the region has been a hub of global commerce. It’s also the region most accepting of historically persecuted populations.
  • The Midlands — Stretching from Quaker territory west through Iowa and into more populated areas of the Midwest, the Midlands are “pluralistic and organized around the middle class.” Government intrusion is unwelcome, and ethnic and ideological purity isn’t a priority.
  • Tidewater — The coastal regions in the English colonies of Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware tend to respect authority and value tradition. Once the most powerful American nation, it began to decline during Westward expansion.
  • Greater Appalachia — Extending from West Virginia through the Great Smoky Mountains and into Northwest Texas, the descendants of Irish, English and Scottish settlers value individual liberty. Residents are “intensely suspicious of lowland aristocrats and Yankee social engineers.”
  • Deep South — Dixie still traces its roots to the caste system established by masters who tried to duplicate West Indies-style slave society, Woodard writes. The Old South values states’ rights and local control and fights the expansion of federal powers.
  • El Norte — Southwest Texas and the border region is the oldest, and most linguistically different, nation in the Americas. Hard work and self-sufficiency are prized values.
  • The Left Coast — A hybrid, Woodard says, of Appalachian independence and Yankee utopianism loosely defined by the Pacific Ocean on one side and coastal mountain ranges like the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas on the other. The independence and innovation required of early explorers continues to manifest in places like Silicon Valley and the tech companies around Seattle.
  • The Far West — The Great Plains and the Mountain West were built by industry, made necessary by harsh, sometimes inhospitable climates. Far Westerners are intensely libertarian and deeply distrustful of big institutions, whether they are railroads and monopolies or the federal government.
  • New France — Former French colonies in and around New Orleans and Quebec tend toward consensus and egalitarian, “among the most liberal on the continent, with unusually tolerant attitudes toward gays and people of all races and a ready acceptance of government involvement in the economy,” Woodard writes.
  • First Nation — The few First Nation peoples left — Native Americans who never gave up their land to white settlers — are mainly in the harshly Arctic north of Canada and Alaska. They have sovereignty over their lands, but their population is only around 300,000.

In the book, of course, the author goes into greater detail about the differences between each region.

When I first read American Nations, I was skeptical of Woodard’s divisions. Even early in this RV trip, I didn’t agree with how he divided things. Now, as we near the end of our journey, I’m beginning to think he’s more right than wrong.

Note: Kim and I have now experienced all eleven of these American nations. Of them, we vastly prefer New France (in the form of southern Louisiana), New Netherland (in the form of New York City), and the Left Coast (where we were both born and raised). We “get” The Far West and El Norte. But much of the rest of the U.S. — meaning most of the eastern half — seems foreign to us, especially the Deep South.

There’s a common misconception that the United States was once united. Everyone I know complains about how our national government is so contentious and unwilling to work together. Donald Trump promises to “make America great again”. We have a sort of shared national dream that we were once a unified whole. I’m not sure that has ever been the case.

From my reading, it seems like the United States has almost never been united. Our history is one of division rather than unification. We’re always fighting with each other.

One place you commonly see the myth of American oneness is in reference to the Founding Fathers. People from both sides of the political fence like to claim things like, “The Founding Fathers believed X.” But you know what? The Founding Fathers didn’t agree on anything except that they wanted to break away from British rule.

A decade ago, I read a great book from Joseph J. Ellis. In Founding Brothers (which won the Pulitzer Prize), Ellis tells the stories of George Washington; John and Abigail Adams; Thomas Jefferson; Alexander Hamilton; James Madison; Benjamin Franklin; and Aaron Burr. I came away from the book with a better understanding of just why U.S. politics are so contentious. The division and arguments are actually baked into our Constitution. They’ve been here since the birth of the nation.

Here’s an extended passage from the beginning of Founding Brothers. This is long but it’s important. Reading it will help you better understand the U.S. political system.

It is truly humbling, perhaps even dispiriting, to realize that the [modern] historical debate over the revolutionary era and the early republic merely recapitulates the ideological debate conducted at the time, that historians have essentially been fighting the same battles, over and over again, that the members of the revolutionary generation fought originally among themselves. Though many historians have taken a compromise or split-the-difference position over the ensuing years, the basic choice has remained constant, as historians have declared themselves Jeffersonians or Hamiltonians, committed individualists or dedicated nationalists, liberals or conservatives, then written accounts that favor one camp over the other, or that stigmatize one side by viewing it through the eyes of the other, much as the contestants did back then. While we might be able to forestall intellectual embarrassment by claiming that the underlying values at stake are timeless, and the salient questions classical in character, the awkward truth is that we have been chasing our own tails in an apparently endless cycle of partisan pleading. Perhaps because we are still living their legacy, we have yet to reach a genuinely historical perspective on the revolutionary generation.

But, again, in a way that Paine would tell us was commonsensical and Jefferson would tell us was self-evident, both sides in the debate have legitimate claims on historical truth and both sides speak for the deepest impulses of the American Revolution. With the American Revolution, as with all revolutions, different factions came together in common cause to overthrow the reigning regime, then discovered in the aftermath of their triumph that they had fundamentally different and politically incompatible notions of what they intended. In the dizzying sequence of events that comprises the political history of the 1790s, the full range of their disagreement was exposed and their different agenda for the United States collided head-on. Taking sides in this debate is like choosing between the words and the music of the American Revolution.

What distinguishes the American Revolution from most, if not all, subsequent revolutions worth of the name is that in the battle for supremacy, for the “true meaning” of the Revolution, neither side completely triumphed. Here I do not just mean that the American Revolution did not “devour its own children” and lead to blood-soaked scenes a the guillotine or the firing-squad wall, though that is true enough. Instead, I mean that the revolutionary generation found a way to contain the explosive energies of the debate in the form of an ongoing argument or dialogue that was eventually institutionalized and rendered safe by the creation of political parties. And the subsequent political history of the United States then became an oscillation between new versions of the old tension, which broke out in violence only on the occasion of the Civil War. In its most familiar form, dominant in the nineteenth century, the tension assumes a constitutional appearance as a conflict between state and federal sovereignty. The source of the disagreement goes much deeper, however, involving conflicting attitudes toward government itself, competing versions of citizenship, differing postures toward the twin goals of freedom and equality.

But the key point is that the debate was not resolved so much as built into the fabric of our national identity. If that means the United States is founded on a contradiction, then so be it. With that one bloody exception, we have been living with it successfully for over two hundred years. Lincoln once said that America was founded on a proposition that was written by Jefferson in 1776. We are really founded on an argument about what that proposition means. When shown in this light, it all makes sense to me. The friction between Republicans and Democrats, and the structure of our two party system, is not something to chafe against; it’s inherent in our political system, it’s an integral part of our Constitution. It’s as if there wasn’t one country founded as the United States, but two, and they’ve been living together, hopelessly tangles, for two hundred years. It’s like yin and yang. It’s like a schizophrenic child. We cannot have one without the other. Democrats need Republicans, both for balance and to provide a source against which they can contrast their own ideas. Conversely, Republicans need Democrats for the same reasons.

Taken together, American Nations and Founding Brothers combine to paint a portrait of a country divided…and united at the same time.

Founding BrothersMy RV trip around the country has made this intellectual idea more real to me. When you spend a year (or fourteen months, in my case) traveling from state to state and city to city, you begin to pick up on subtle differences — everything from food, to race relations, to appreciation for nature, to friendliness, to respect for the rule of law.

For me anyhow, seeing these differences makes me much more empathetic to different ways of thought. Do I agree with the political ideas that hold sway in the Deep South? I do not! But having lived there for six months (and traveled there for an additional three), I get it. I get why the people think and behave the way do, and I can’t fault them for it. (That said, I can’t wait to get back to my home on the Left Coast!)

A couple of weeks ago in Gulf Shores, Alabama, Kim and I had drinks with a couple that had driven down from Jackson, Mississippi. They too had traveled the U.S. extensively. We discussed the differences between the states. The man in the couple then gave us an important insight into the Southern mindset.

“We don’t like being told what to do,” he said. From his perspective, the rest of the U.S. is always trying to make the South over in its image. This goes all the way back to the Civil War (or the “War Between the States”, as they still call it down here), if not further. It continues to this day. Southerners just want to be left alone, but they feel like other parts of the country are constantly trying to change their way of life.

Kim and I keep going back to this conversation. Whenever we see something we don’t like about the South, something we’d like to change, we remember what our acquaintance said. And we haven’t been able to think of a single way in which the South has imposed its will on us out in Oregon.

Interesting stuff, right?

Over the past fifty years, there’s been a huge unconscious push toward “same-ification”. (This is due largely to the omnipresence of television, I think.) But I’m not sure homogenization is such a good thing. I like the parts of the U.S. that feel different and unique. I like when we work together despite our differences. In fact, I think it’s all of our differences that make this nation great.

But how do you find a balance between respecting cultural differences and respecting each and every person? I don’t know. I’m not sure anybody does. Still, it’s a worthwhile conversation for the American nations to have.

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This is a brief update on what I’ve been up to for a past few months. I know I’ve been quiet around Foldedspace, but that doesn’t mean I’m sitting at home reading comic books and playing videogames. Far from it!

During our six months in Savannah, the bulk of my time was spent prepping and launching Money Boss, my new blog about “advanced personal finance”. It’s a site targeted at folks who are working toward Financial Independence — or who have already achieved it. My goal is to go beyond the basics that I explored at Get Rich Slowly. (Speaking of which, that blog turned ten yesterday! Can you believe I started GRS a decade ago? I can’t…)

I’ve waited to officially announce Money Boss here because I wanted to make sure I’d follow through on my commitment to the site. I’m a notorious starter and stopper of projects, and I didn’t want to publicize this until I was sure I’d stick at it. Now I’m sure. (I’ve been at it six months already.) In fact, I’m proud of what I’ve already done with the blog. Money Boss contains the best material I’ve ever produced about personal finance. The site has 2000 email subscribers already and is growing rapidly. You should come join us!

A Brief Guide to Financial Freedom

The Money Boss ManualSo that all Money Boss readers can share a common framework for talking about finance, I’ve collected my core philosophy into a free 70-page manual entitled A Brief Guide to Financial Freedom. This guide outlines everything I’ve learned about smart money management during the past decade.

You can get the same material in your inbox if you sign up for the Money Boss email list. Or you can follow these links to read the same articles on the blog:

Sometime soon(-ish), I intend to record audio versions of this material too, which will provide a fourth way to consume it. That project might have to wait until Kim and I are finished with our U.S. roadtrip, though.

Other Projects

Speaking of our roadtrip, Kim and I left Savannah on March 29th to begin our six-month journey back to Oregon. As always, we’ll be documenting our adventures at Far Away Places — although generally with a delay of around two weeks. I just posted the first installment for 2016, which is about our time in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina. I hope to finish the post about our ten days in Tennessee by tomorrow morning.

Meanwhile, I have other projects cooking too. A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I’ll be returning to Ecuador for another chautauqua on wealth and happiness. I’ll also be taking a break from our RV trip to fly home to Portland in August, where Mr. Money Mustache and I will present a workshop on financial freedom at World Domination Summit. (More details when I have them.)

Lastly, I’ve made several appearances on podcasts during recent months. The more I do this, the more comfortable I get — and the more useful my interviews seem to be. I’m especially proud of my recent appearance on the M.O.N.E.Y. Show with J. Money and Paula Pant. This might be the best interview I’ve ever given.

Other notable recent appearances include an episode of Radical Personal Finance with Joshua Sheats, a chat with my friend Eric Rosenberg on his Personal Profitability Podcast, and a conversation with the charming Michelle Jackson of Girl Gone Frugal.

Whew! As you can see, I haven’t been slacking. I haven’t had much to share here — though I’ll continue to post when I have something to say — but I’ve been busy elsewhere. (And this list doesn’t even include the projects I’m not ready to publicize yet.) I used to be a slacker. Now I’m a workaholic. What happened?

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Three years ago, I joined Jim Collins and Pete Adeney (a.k.a. Mr. Money Mustache) for a sort of experiment in Ecuador. We participated in a chautauqua organized by Cheryl Reed of Above the Clouds Retreats. To be honest, I don’t think any of us knew what was going to happen when we brought a group of strangers together to talk about wealth and happiness. Turns out, what happened was magic.

DSC_0328
Morning at Cheryl’s farm: Cheryl, Pete, J.D., and Jim plan for the first chautauqua

For seven days, an enthusiastic group of 22 attendees (and five presenters) exchanged ideas and encouraged each other toward financial and psychological growth. We did some touristy stuff, sure, but most of our time was spent bonding over cheap wine and casual conversation.

DSC_5307
Pete shares his Mustachian vision for happiness and lifestyle design

Jim, Pete, Cheryl, and I gave presentations about our areas of exertise. We met one-on-one with as many of the attendees as possible. I think everyone left having grown. (For myself, I went away with the seeds of Money Boss in my mind — but I didn’t know it at the time.) Here’s my summary of that first retreat.

DSC_6059
Shyam and Jesse watch as Carol is serenaded for her birthday

That first chautauqua was so successful that in 2014, we held two. The first focused on money. I attended the second, where I joined David Cain (from Raptitude) to talk about happiness and well-being. Again, the feedback on the week was fantastic. Here’s my wrap-up of the second chautauqua.

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A happy Kim during our visit to the butterfly gardens in Mindo.

I wasn’t able to attend last year (because Kim and I were on the road in the RV), but…

I’m pleased to announce that I’m returning to Ecuador this autumn for another chautauqua. From October 29th to November 5th, I’ll be at El Encanto Hosteria high in the cloud forest. David Cain will be back this year, and we’ll be joined by my friend and colleague, Leo Babauta from Zen Habits. Our theme for the week is “Happiness, Mindfulness, and Living a Full Life”.

Space is limited — only about twenty spots are available — so if you’re interested, you should sign up soon:

This year, there are two additional sessions during which the usual suspects will discuss financial freedom and related topics. I plan to stick around for a few days after our retreat so that I can enjoy time with Jim, Pete, and Brandon (the Mad Fientist) but I won’t be presenting during the second or third week.

I hope you’ll consider joining us for another magical session in the mountains of South America!

DSC_5208
Colleen endures smoke and fire (and plenty of spit) during a shamanic cleansing

Note: People sometimes wonder, “What does J.D. get out of this?” The answer is: A sense of satisfaction. Seriously. Cheryl offers to pay me every year, but I always tell her to use the money to fund her charity, Project One Corner. Part of being financially independent is having the ability to give back in small ways. This is one of the ways I give back. Cheryl pays my airfare and lodging, but that’s it.

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While browsing elsewhere on the interwebs (reddit, perhaps?), I came across David Ehrlich’s picks for the best films of 2015. For the past five years, he’s compiled his annual list of favorites into a short (roughly ten-minute) videos that highlights why he loves these movies.

Because the Oscars will be announced today, I think it’d be fun to share all of Ehrlich’s picks for the past five years in one place. For a few of the movies, I’ve included my own comments.

More than anything, the following lists are a resource to help me find movies to watch. I hope you find them useful and interesting too.

So, here they are, the best movies from the past five years (from 2015 to 2011 in reverse chronological order). Titles in bold are films I’ve seen.


The Best Films of 2015

25. Girlhood
24. Tangerine
23. Mustang
22. Junun
21. The Forbidden Room
20. James White
19. The Mend
18. The Hateful Eight
17. Heaven Knows What
16. Black Coal, Thin Ice
15. Listen to Me Marlon
14. Anomalisa
13. Tokyo Tribe
12. Magic Mike XXL – So, Kim and I saw this in South Dakota. I was dreading it. I mean really dreading it. Turns out, I thought it was damn good, a celebration of female sexuality rather than something exploitive.
11. Clouds of Sils Maria
10. Mad Max: Fury Road – The reason I saw Magic Mike in South Dakota? This film. Everyone loves it, I know, but Kim and I thought it was awful. After I dragged her to see it (I’m a fan of the Mad Max series), she made me promise I’d see three chick flicks with her. Magic Mike was part of that payment. I’ve since re-watched Fury Road and I still don’t like it.
9. Mistress America
8. Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
7. Eden
6. The Duke of Burgundy
5. A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
4. The Look of Silence
3. Phoenix
2. World of Tomorrow
1. Carol


The Best Films of 2014

25. Lucy
24. We are the Best!
23. Timbuktu
22. Selma
21. Love is Strange
20. Listen Up Philip
19. Godzilla
18. Starred Up
17. Why Don’t You Play in Hell?
16. Mommy
15. The Babadook – Kim and I watched this on Halloween. Creepy.
14. Palo Alto
13. Ida
12. Goodbye to Language
11. Boyhood – Love all of Richard Linklater’s work, including this. So ambitious!
10. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
9. Force Majeure
8. God Help the Girl
7. The Double
6. Only Lovers Left Alive
5. Gone Girl – I like David Fincher’s stuff and this was okay, but hasn’t stuck with me.
4. Nymphomaniac
3. Under the Skin
2. Inherent Vice
1. The Grand Budapest Hotel – Stylish and fun, but best of the year?


The Best Films of 2013

25. Frances Ha
24. The World’s End
23. The Broken Circle Breakdown
22. The Bling Ring
21. Pain & Gain
20. The Great Beauty
19. Blue Jasmine
18. Nebraska – Another great film from Alexander Payne.
17. Beyond the Hills
16. The Great Gatsby – I liked elements of this but thought much of it was just too gaudy, but that’s surely intentional based on the source material.
15. Stoker
14. The Act of Killing
13. Laurence Anyways
12. The Wolf of Wall Street
11. Upstream Color
10. Post Tenebras Lux
9. Leviathan
8. A Touch of Sin
7. At Berkeley
6. Spring Breakers
5. The Grandmaster
4. 12 Years a Slave – This film wasn’t bad but I didn’t think it was great either.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
2. The Wind Rises – Although I love Hayao Miyazaki’s work and own this film, I still haven’t seen it.
1. Before Midnight – This series — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight — is amazing. This installment is heartbreaking. I can relate to it so much…


The Best Films of 2012

25. Sound of Noise
24. Cosmopolis
23. Policeman
22 The Avengers – This film combines two things I hate: Joss Whedon and over-the-top CGI. I didn’t like it.
21. Shut Up and Play the Hits
20. Moonrise Kingdom – I’m a fan of Wes Anderson, but I haven’t seen this yet.
19. Oslo, August 31st
18.
Tabu
17. The Deep Blue Sea
16.
Skyfall
15. Cloud Atlas – One of my favorite books but I’m reluctant to see this.
14. The Cabin in the Woods – Did I mention I don’t like Joss Whedon? Kim and I started watching this on Halloween but didn’t finish.
13. Goodbye First Love
12. Wuthering Heights
11. Alps
10. Girl Walk All Day
9. Anna Karenina
8. The Comedy
7. Something in the Air
6. The Master
5. Django Unchained – I didn’t expect to like this nearly as much as I did.
4. Zero Dark Thirty
3. Amour – Kim and I watched this after it was on many “best of lists”. It was interesting but ultimately pretty forgettable.
2. Like Someone in Love
1. Holy Motors


The Best Films of 2011

25. The Descendants – Love Alexander Payne, and I love this movie.
24. Buddha Mountain
23. The Trip
22. The Time That Remains
21. Drive
19. Pina
19. We Need to Talk About Kevin
18. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
17. Shame
16. How to Die in Oregon
15. Footnote
14. The Interrupters
13. A Separation
12. The Turin Horse
11. The Adventures of Tintin – Are you kidding me? Look, I’ve loved Tintin since discovering him in the fourth grade. I’ve read all of his adventures and used to be a serious collector. This movie sucks. It’s a lousy adaptation that utterly fails to capture the spirit of the Tintin stories.
10. The Girls with the Dragon Tattoo – Excellent.
9. The Skin I Live In
8. Miss Bala
7. The Loneliest Planet
6. Hugo – A lot of fun.
5. Melancholia
4. The Arbor
3. Kill List
2. The Tree of Life – I enjoy Malick’s films and their thoughtful pacing, but I haven’t seen this yet.
1. This is Not a Film

As a footnote, my favorite movie from 2015 was Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s exploration of what it means to be human. Ostensibly, it’s science fiction. In reality, it’s more about psychology and philosophy. I really enjoyed it, and would love to see a sequel.

I liked the new Star Wars too, of course. How could I not? I’m a nerd, and this was a return to the vibe of the first movie, which wrapped me in its arms when I was but a wee lad…

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31 December 2015

My 2015 Year in Review

This has been quite a year for me. In 2015, I did a couple of Big Things that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. They were scary — but fun. And while my life was mostly awesome, it wasn’t perfect. (It never is, right?) I’ve struggled with my fitness, especially. By far the biggest […]

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26 November 2015

Happy Thanksgiving!

Long-time readers know that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. Despite attempts by retailers to turn the weekend into some sort of extended consumer orgy, I’m grateful that we set aside a day each year to remember the good things we have. Make no mistake — if you’re reading this, you’re among the world’s wealthy. Here’s […]

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20 November 2015

How I Got My Groove Back

It’s been an interesting week here in Savannah. After Kim and I settled here six weeks ago, I slipped into a sort of routine. I’d get up in the morning, answer email, do a bit of work, go for a five-mile walk, come back and do more work, and then call it a day. Much […]

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22 October 2015

Recent Reading: Rediscovering a Passion for Books

“You know what I miss?” Kim asked last night. We were sitting in bed, reading. “I miss the way we read The Martian together. That was fun.” Last month, during our week-long quest to find a place to live for the winter, we read/audited Andy Weir’s The Martian as we drove all over Florida, Georgia, […]

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12 October 2015

Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: How I’m Taming Email and Tab Overload

After nearly two weeks, Kim and I are finally feeling settled here in Savannah. We’re learning the layout of the city, and discovering how to get around our neighborhood. (I like to walk almost everywhere, which is a challenge in the South. But I’m making it work.) Both of us have started working on our […]

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5 October 2015

Some Unintended Consequences — and How We Dealt with Them

Everything in life is a trade-off. If you choose to do one thing, you’re implicitly choosing not to do other things. If you choose to have children, for instance, you’ve made a tacit choice to forego many of the things you valued before. Or, if you choose not to have children, you’re making an indirect […]

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