Funnelly enough


No actual snakes were harmed in the linking of this photograph.

I’ve been meaning to buy a funnel for about two years, and having finally built up enough momentum to actually go to the shop and look for one, it turns out that neither of the two main supermarkets and associated discount department stores stocks them anymore. “We used to have them…”

Is this an Adelaide thing, or a general consumer trend? Has the market been saturated with funnels, or do people simply not decant things anymore?

I’ve gotten pretty good at tipping stuff from one narrow-necked receptacle into another, but I shouldn’t have to. This is not the mark of a civilisation on the rise!

Serving two masters

Having a smaller, less stable income these days has left me newly appreciative of certain biblical passages:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

Money too is more than food and clothing, and as such I think it gives us a sense of security and sufficiency that inhibits our sensitivity to providence.  Why should we ‘trust in God’ when we have permanent employment and a guaranteed income?

This balance between material security and spiritual dependence is complex, as demonstrated by the contending interpretations of the beatitude of the ‘poor in spirit’, and the story of the rich young man who went away sad.

It’s not wealth per se that is the problem, but our devotion to it over and above higher things; allowing it to dominate our lives and our minds.  At times it can be hard to tell whether we are the masters of wealth or the slaves, driven by financial imperatives with nothing higher to intervene or change our minds.

I think this is the significance of my decision not to follow the financial imperative back into mediocre employment for the sake of a reliable income and the sense of security and sufficiency it affords.  The decision to cease compromising my integrity for the sake of money means acknowledging something higher than my income in a society where a high income is more often than not the summum bonum.

Your money, or your life?

My latest article at Mercatornet.com looks at the distinction between artificial wealth and natural wealth, and how our increasing dependence on money may be distorting our enjoyment of life.

In our minds only the very rich love money, since only the very rich have enough of it to relax, sit back, and think happy thoughts about their bank balances and net worth. We do not think of ourselves as lovers of money, but we are nonetheless, nearly to a man, devoted to the getting, the storing, and the increasing of our share. We may not feel that we love money, but we are, like respectable men of a past era, intent on doing the right thing by it. And for nearly all of us the right thing is to chase money, accumulate money, loyally devote ourselves to the earning and the increasing of our monetary wealth.

 

How do you make a living?

What does it take to make a living?

When I was employed (God help me) I kept coming up with desperate schemes to quit my job and keep my family financially afloat.  But no matter what ideas I considered, people would tell me “there’s no money in it” or “you can’t make a living doing that”.

I’m glad I never pursued any of those schemes. Not because those warnings were true, but because I would now be stuck devoting all my time to something I didn’t really care enough about.

But in terms of the money, I’m wondering what exactly those people had in mind when they said you can’t make a living from whatever straws I happened to be grasping at: farming snails or running a microbrewery (or maybe both; snails love beer after all).

The whole time, I was preoccupied with the thought of income-replacement; not exactly the same thing as making a living.  I knew I was earning enough to live, but I had no idea how much was actually required – the minimum income needed to sustain my family.

Friend dtcwee put me onto a bit of free software that now allows me to keep track of all our income and expenses.  It’s been a bit of work, but the effort is paying off.  It’s only been seven weeks since I started, and it will take at least a quarter to be more confident in our progress, but at present we are still living within our means despite having lost what was, all things considered, a reasonably good salary.

In terms of our weekly expenditure, I am happy to report that at present my family is spending much less than the average in our state, without any significant compromises in our standard of living.  According to my calculations, we could live for 2.5 years on the average yearly expenditure of a South Australian household, or 3.7 years on the average yearly expenditure of Australian couples with children under 5.

This knowledge is empowering.  Knowing exactly how much money we need to live means we can afford to be much more picky about the kinds of work we will do to pay the bills.  The bigger the bills, the more limited our choices.

Most of us have been raised to think the opposite – that having a high-paying job gives us options and choice.  We rarely think that our expensive lifestyles limit our choices when it comes to employment and work-life balance.

Objectively, we are living a more frugal lifestyle. But subjectively we don’t really notice it.  We derive more value from not working hateful jobs than from being able to buy lots of things we don’t really want or need.

 

The end of employment and a new path

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.

“I’m confused. Does he have three houses or one?”

At risk of explaining satire, the following is the ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘ parallel universe take on how internet commenters might respond to a depiction of a typical working life. My personal favourite: “Well, the main problem I think is that he does not have any kind of shop at home, so he has to go to that office to be able to feed himself.”

Forum post: “I just read an article about a guy that has 5 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms in his house. Apparently he makes $40,000 a year, but then he has to go to a big office and spend 8 or 9 hours a day filling out forms and going to meetings all week long. He does that all year around. Apparently, he’s been doing it for 20 years or so. I admit it sounds a bit crazy, but it also seems intriguing.”

I’m not sure I could do it. It’s like .. I mean, it’s 8 hours a day! How long do you have to do this for?

I think he said twenty years. So when he’s done can he go back to his family?

By Jove, that’s like a prison sentence.

I don’t see how it is possible to do that and work in his own shop as well. How does he have time to take care of his home. What about friends?

There’s more: http://earlyretirementextreme.com/how-blog-comments-look-in-a-parallel-universe.html

 

Canaries in the coal-mine

I’ve discussed this idea with my melancholic relatives and friends, and was hence pleasantly surprised to see the ‘canaries’ theme appear on the blog of ‘Early Retirement Extreme‘.

Jacob at Early Retirement Extreme draws on the MBTI theory in his observation that:

NFs are like the canaries in the coal mine. Whenever they are not happy, things are bound to change. Therefore NTs should not only solve the present personal finance problems but try to predict and plan for the future that the present will transform itself into given the interhuman tension. If history is any guide things will look much different fifty years from now just like they looked quite different 50 years ago.

In comments a reader asks “what are the NFs not happy about right now?”

As a melancholic/INFP unhappiness is pretty much my stock-in-trade, so here goes:

Melancholics are idealists, and as such the most dissatisfying thing about our present socio-economic conventions (at least in Australia) is the growth of a mundane economic mindset which leaves little space for ideals.

Melancholics are motivated by ideals – we are not motivated by ambition, material wealth, popularity, or ‘what everyone else is doing’.  So it is demoralising for us to find that merely existing in society on a basically equitable level requires a life dedicated to the dull, self-serving materialism of the masses.

In practical terms, pursuing a basic ideal like ‘independence’ seems impossible unless we first obtain some form of hateful employment that pays far more money than we need to simply survive, but not enough to achieve meaningful independence.

Most of the melancholics I know are liberal arts majors (like me) who pursued their degrees under the influence of our idealistic temperaments and without much consideration to future employment.  There’s nothing to complain about in that, but now we find post-graduation that all the traditional avenues of employment for people like us are being squeezed.

Thirty years ago I probably would have gone on to do teaching.  Teaching can be viewed in an idealistic light, but nearly every teacher or former teacher I have spoken to has warned against it.  ‘Teaching’ itself is not the problem, it’s all the associated crap that goes on under the auspices of a seemingly dysfunctional education system.

Academia is likewise being squeezed under new models and domineering management structures that are turning universities into big business.  If we were to inquire about the nature of the ideal university, it would surely begin with wise and exemplary scholars in their various specialised disciplines.  Yet in the modern university the scholars are increasingly reduced to low-tier employees and service-providers, forced to play along with the narrow mercenary attitudes of non-idealistic managers.

The conventional avenues for aspiring idealists are approaching their end.  We’ve arrived at a point in which excelling at these supposedly ‘idealistic’ pursuits requires a non-idealistic frame of mind.  In other words, there’s no room for idealists anymore.

I’m sure this has happened many times in the past; it’s no doubt cyclical. But the important thing for melancholic idealists is to be able to recognise what part of the cycle we are in.  Concepts like ERE are vital and necessary as idealists begin to search for a way of life that is not entirely soul-destroying.  Money is always going to be an important part of life, but our relationship with money needn’t proceed according to social and economic conventions that crush, demoralise, and dismay us.

Recognising ourselves as canaries in the coal mine (or as dtcwee put it: the thin end of the wedge; or tip of the spear) affirms our sense that there is something deeply amiss in the way of life society would have us embrace.  There is something deeply offensive in donning the corporate guise with all its accompanying shallowness, politics, and insincere rhetoric.  There is something incredibly ugly about a society whose labour and institutions are increasingly stripped of any higher considerations than the self-interested and anxious pursuit of material wealth.

Why should I subordinate myself to a feckless and banal corporate structure, a management hierarchy comprised of people whose motives and ethics are at worst malicious and at best only benignly self-interested? Why should I submit myself to shallow conventions of language and an incorrigible corporate facade that exists seemingly just for the sake of preserving a coercive deception that this dysfunctional organisation is one big happy family?

If I have to sacrifice something, I would rather it be material wealth than personal integrity.

 

Routine destruction of off-spec food

This is disgusting. The wastage; the pandering to an ignorant population, and the vicious circle that results:

“The staff are busy sorting out the saleable onions from the unsaleable and the thing that makes the crucial difference is the outer layer of brown. The inside is still fine and the onions are firm, heavy and not soft. However supermarkets will not accept onions unless they have the outer layer of skin on (which we usually remove when we cook with them).

…since Valencia oranges are the only ones that turn green as sunscreen many people assume that Valencies aren’t ripe unless they are orange.

…two semi trailer’s worth or 40 tonnes of melons are discarded a day – and this is just from one producer in one region!

…have you noticed that in the last few years, those long watermelons with the black pips from our childhood have disappeared and there are now only those round, seedless watermelons? That’s because the stores say that consumers don’t want watermelons with seeds anymore and the same goes for grapes. The long seeded watermelons still have to be grown because these are the male watermelons while the rounded ones are females. […] They can’t sell them and they are ready at an earlier time than the round seedless watermelons so they just stay in the field unpicked.

http://www.notquitenigella.com/2012/04/16/food-bank/

 

China’s Virtuous President

My latest article on MercatorNet examines Chinese President Xi Jinping’s penchant for quoting Chinese philosophers.  China has come a long way since the Cultural Revolution, when Confucius and other great thinkers were derided and contemned.  What does the changing regime have in store for the great tradition of the sages?

Does Xi truly believe with Confucius that “He who rules by virtue is like the North Star. It maintains its place, and the multitude of stars pay homage”? Or is he just looking for a pragmatic new facade for the much more recent ‘tradition’ of unchallenged Communist Party rule?

iWant! iWant! iWant!

My latest article on MercatorNet is a reflection on the era of the smartphone from the perspective of an increasingly existential, anti-consumerist, somewhat hypocritical parent whose 18 month old son would apparently be quite happy to spend all day playing with the damn thing:

Imagine as an infant, looking around a world of strange new objects, only to find one object with a dazzling array of colour and sound, that responds to your touch and is, as evidenced by the attention your parents lavish upon it, clearly one of the most important things in your world.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/iwant_iwant_iwant