How much for your happiness?

Recently a unit in our block went up for sale with an asking price lower than I had hoped. I went to check it out, compare it to our own unit, and see if we could honestly hope for a better price.

Not likely. Not without doing more work, perhaps renovating the bathroom here, which I would have to do myself to be financially viable. So not without considerable stress, effort, and daunting undertakings.

I have to admit when we first moved into the unit this kind of thinking really got to me. It’s a purely mercenary mindset, which on any other day I’ll happily admit I loathe to my core. Yet owning property and hoping to one day transition to nicer, better, more expansive property makes a money-minded approach seem necessary.

I had been counting on the value of our unit rising by more than it evidently has. Perhaps that was a mistake, but the bigger mistake was to let it get to me. The financial imperative runs so deep that I felt as though I’d just been diagnosed with a serious illness. Yet in reality nothing had changed except my expectations.

In reality, I just put a price on my happiness: 15-20k to feel totally miserable. Turning it around, the absurdity is obvious: how much money would you accept to feel totally miserable? Would 15-20k be enough to justify feeling stressed, burdened, and unhappy?

It wouldn’t be enough for me. So why feel bad about it? If renovating the bathroom is a thankless, stressful, miserable and uninspired experience, then don’t do it. You wouldn’t go back to your old job for the sake of twenty thousand dollars; why pile depressing obligations onto your own life for the same amount?

At the end of my life, I won’t be looking back and wishing I’d earned a few extra tens or even hundreds of thousands. Money isn’t going to be that important, especially not when truly significant acts of freedom and productivity and enjoyment can be had for next-to-nothing.

When we first bought our unit, I went through the experience of having my expectations and hopes ground down to almost nothing. That was painful, but I’ve since discovered that what matters is not how much money or how big a house or property we have, but how free we are to do what we want with what we have. The biggest constraint is not living in a unit, it’s knowing that we can’t do anything radically personal to it, because we don’t intend to stay here too much longer. If we were going to stay here, we could do any number of things to improve it, make it more our own, with no thought for market value and the ‘safety’ of mainstream design.

So, I won’t be making myself miserable for the sake of money that doesn’t exist and which may not have any practical bearing on my future life. I wonder what else I can find to not make myself miserable for?

Adelaide’s Wakefield Experiment


One thing Australian cities have in common is the high price of real estate relative to wages. As a basic need, housing is perversely unaffordable.  But unlike the other cities, in Adelaide a disparity between wages and the cost of land was planned from the very beginning.

Before South Australia was even established, the English author, colonial promoter, and kidnapper of young heiresses Edward Gibbon Wakefield, was arguing persuasively for a new approach to economic development in the colonies.  While colonies like New South Wales had more or less been giving acres of land to anyone keen enough to work it, Wakefield managed to convince many of his peers that land should be sold off at a much higher price, high enough that new arrivals would have to work for several years before they could afford land of their own, with proceeds from the sale used to subsidise the passage of new migrants to the colony.

Wakefield’s ideas eventually influenced practices in NSW and Tasmania, but the failure to implement his plan appropriately in these locations only fed his desire to see the experiment properly carried out in the yet-to-be-created city of Adelaide:

Wakefield’s propaganda recognizably influenced the issue of several new regulations for the disposal of waste land in New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, especially those that stipulated sale by auction at a minimum price of 5s. an acre, with the proceeds devoted to an immigration fund. Wakefield was unimpressed by such a token salute to his scheme and began to plan the systematic colonization of southern Australia.

While Wakefield always intended for his labourers to become landowners in time, it is an intriguing adjunct to Adelaide’s early history that the city and the state supposedly built by ‘free settlers’ in contrast to the convict past of the other colonies, were nonetheless the subjects of an experiment in social and economic engineering: a kind of indentured servitude by the standards of the time. Wakefield’s plan may not be responsible for the contemporary gap between income and house prices, but it does tell us something about the peculiar origins of this city, undoubtedly shaped to some degree by the influence of this unusual man for whom one of the city’s main streets is named.

But in many ways we are worse off than the new arrivals to Adelaide.  They were supposed to work three or four years before acquiring land; we go in for 25-30 year mortgages.  They were purchasing acreage which they farmed for self-sufficiency and profit; we purchase tiny blocks that we inhabit during the hours that we aren’t at work paying for them.  Their payments went to support new arrivals who helped to build this city and state; our payments go the banks, to vendors, to propping up what we are constantly told is a real estate bubble set to burst.

The likes of housing industry champion, local Adelaide businessman, and now Federal Senator Bob Day puts the blame for housing affordability on the high price of land and limited releases made available by State governments:

Raw land for new housing developments should be close to its agricultural value – in other words, around $10,000 per hectare. But land released for residential development fetches up to $1 million per hectare – 100 times the agricultural price.
Only when urban growth boundaries are removed will we know a piece of land’s true value. It will then be a trade-off between price and distance. People may be prepared to travel another 10 or 15 minutes by car (10 to 20 kilometres) to get a cheaper block.

Day’s plan would not turn homeowners into landowners, but it would give people the ability to meet their basic need of shelter, a home, at a much reduced cost. Yet the prospect of major new land releases raises the immediate fear of uncontrolled urban sprawl of the worst kind: low cost housing stretching out into rural areas purely for the sake of affordability.

Whatever the problems with Adelaide may be, I don’t think anyone has ever said it doesn’t sprawl enough, or that it would be vastly improved by being spread more thinly across an even larger swathe of land. We don’t really need ‘more’ of Adelaide in its current state. Like a bad-tasting drink, diluting it just prolongs the misery.

For better or worse, Adelaide owes its existence in part to Wakefield’s experimental plan to concentrate the colony and thereby manage its economic and physical development. This experimental character has shaped Adelaide profoundly, not only in specific qualities, but in the lack of qualities associated with more organic settlements. Adelaide is like an early, colonial version of a planned housing development: it exists solely in order to exist; its character is expressly utilitarian, undinted by either the force of geographic limitations or the peculiarities of an economic raison-d’etre such as mining, agriculture, or trade.

Perhaps Adelaide can be understood most sympathetically in this light: as an historic experiment that continues to run long after a result was obtained. Living in an outdated experiment is more bearable if you recognise it as such. As much as we might want it to be a real city with a real purpose and a real character, it will always bear the marks of its sterile, arbitrary origins, the functional design of an experimental ‘systematic colony’, the staid, impoverished feel that can only be achieved by replacing organic growth and movement with years of ‘careful planning’.

The end of employment and a new path

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Lately I’ve been considering the prospect of never being employed again. I don’t mean never working – I’m working more than I ever did as an employee.  But there’s a reasonable likelihood that I will never again need to don the clothes, the attitude, the soul-crushing alienation and the corresponding facade of a white-collar employee who sacrifices his freedom for the sake of a steady income.

The term ‘wage-slave’ is dramatic but fitting.  We live in an era where the average wage is far more than enough to meet one’s daily needs in terms of food and clothing, but nowhere near enough to afford the equally basic need of shelter – a piece of land and a roof over one’s head, a place to raise a family and explore the many and varied means of enriching one’s life.

In my city the median house price reportedly reached $400,000 this year, with the median household income (2011) at $57,356.  $57,000 can buy a hell of a lot of food, clothing, electricity, water, and transport.  But even if you spend the first few years of working life at home, sponging off your parents, at best you’ll only come out of it with a healthy deposit for your imminent mortgage.

The idea of going to live far from the city in some kind of self-sufficient paradise is equal parts dream and nightmare depending on how I’m feeling at any given moment.  But in principle we shouldn’t have to flee the city, or rather, flee the boundaries of costly real estate, in order to meet the basic need of shelter.

More importantly, self-sufficient isolation would undermine other basic needs: friendship, family, and society (in the broadest sense).  I could much more easily achieve self-sufficiency by abandoning my wife and child and learning to eat tree bark, but most people understand that making those kinds of sacrifices defeats the purpose of trying to meet our basic needs in the first place.

My wife and I currently live with our child in a small 1 bedroom apartment, close to family and friends.  As much as we would love to own a small acreage in the hills, it has become abundantly clear that achieving such a goal requires the sacrifice of too much personal integrity – effectively embracing the ‘wage-slave’ existence for however many years it takes to pay off a mortgage debt.  It would mean harming life in the present for the sake of an untested future goal, a goal that might never be what we hope, or might come too late, or might be rejected for some yet unforeseen circumstance.

Instead, we’ve decided to take the path that arises out of enjoyment of our present circumstances which are, after all, pretty good in a global context.  Since we can’t predict the future but have enough at present, we should focus on what we do have rather than what we hope to one day achieve or possess.

Abandoning employment – meaningless work according to the small-minded conventions of our present era – I’m intent on following instead the ideals that have always made greater sense to me, even if those ideals mean temporary sacrifices or more diligent choices.  Diligence and the sacrifice of unnecessary things never hurt anyone, and most of it we won’t even notice.  What we get in return is a life that is open and responsive to the development of a new path and new directions; a life that is increasingly free from the limitations of dry convention.

It’s exciting to think that I may never again need to lock myself into a compromised career path, never again pretend to be interested in the banalities of ‘making a living’ within the increasingly narrow band of jobs for which my experience and qualifications happen to be not so much suitable as least unsuitable.

The true significance hasn’t yet sunk in; I find it hard to fully appreciate what I’m doing, perhaps because our society doesn’t yet recognise or have the right terms for what I’m doing, which suggests to me that I really am on the right path.