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.

 

A man of many parts-time

I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m balancing freelance writing with PhD studies and an eighteen-month-old son.  That’s three part-time activities which, I suspect, potentially add up to more than one full-time life.  It’s all held together at present in a state of delicate balance, easily thrown out by the slightest change.

If, for example, my wife gets an extra day of work one week, I pick up an extra day of caring for our son – an activity that dominates and drives out all other thoughts.  This past week I’ve effectively had three days of child-care.

My studies are likewise susceptible to dramatic challenges and change: for the past six months or so I’ve been reading and commenting on a history of free will from Aristotle to Augustine.

It’s an excellent book. The author delves into the origins of the ‘free will’ notion, overturning in the process some long established conventions.  He shows that Aristotle did not have a notion of the free will, the idea instead originating in Stoicism and subsequently read back into Aristotle by later generations.

Frede challenges the received wisdom that St Augustine was the original source of a ‘new’ free will concept, showing instead that Augustine’s view is largely derivative of the contemporary Stoic perspective.  For example, Augustine’s strong dichotomy of the free versus the enslaved; the idea that though we are still responsible for our exercise of will we are nonetheless no longer free; the view that God has the ability to arrange things such that He can direct our unfree will; all of these are present in the Stoicism that pervaded the Roman world in Augustine’s time.

I’m still not clear on the context and implications of all this, but it is startling to recognise how deep an influence Stoicism has had on the development of Christian thought.  It is not unusual to see Western Civilisation as a Judeo-Christian-Hellenic composite, but it was not clear to me how influential Stoicism in particular had been.  One might almost wonder whether Christianity took on board Stoicism, or Stoicism took up Christianity.

Frede’s text is scholarly and not light reading, but I’ve learned a great deal from it and will undoubtedly continue to refer back to his work as I progress.

But having recently reached the end of the book, I now have to progress on my own through the continued free will debate.  Instead of having that path clearly marked by such a prestigious scholar as Frede, I’m now proceeding one step at a time, testing the ground as I go.

This stage is far more challenging, mostly because this entire PhD project is full of uncertainty.  As a student, one is in the position of not knowing the final outcome, what one’s final work will look like, or even the direction in which it will turn.  It’s particularly hard for me, I believe, as a melancholic to determine the ‘ideal’ level of detail or amount of effort to dedicate to any particular step.

So as I move on to Thomas Aquinas’ theory of free will, I’m learning the limitations of my own knowledge, but also the limits of intellectual habits: second-guessing myself is an unacceptable delay when there is so much work still to be done.  Likewise, my desire to get right to the very heart, or to the roots of each question is impossibly idealistic.  I do not have time to learn ancient Greek and master Aristotle; I must learn to rely on the work of other scholars, even if this leaves me with a sense of doubt.

Ultimately, as my supervisor reassured me, it isn’t my job to master all these topics, but to gain a working knowledge of the Western free will debate, in order to apply its lessons to the less familiar context of the Chinese philosophers.

Juggling these three part-time occupations will always provide a challenge, and I have to prioritise the duties of a stay-at-home dad over the responsibilities of a PhD student, over the opportunities of a freelance writer.  But even in this order of priorities new challenges and possibilities emerge.  I can’t get my son to help me with my PhD, and I can’t turn my PhD into a study of child development, but I can write more about my PhD and my experiences as a stay-at-home dad on this blog and in my articles.

 

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.

The moral betrayal of corporate dysfunction

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The previous post on careerism sparked some thoughts about my past employment.

My own recent employment was as a researcher within a corporation that did not understand research, but wanted at least to feel like it was doing research, or failing that, wanted to be seen to be doing research.  By the time my employers decided to make their entire research staff redundant, they had, by my estimation, achieved merely the even lesser goal of being seen to want to be involved in someone else’s research.

In the previous post I quoted Jacob from Early Retirement Extreme, suggesting that careerism takes hold when an employer cannot tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better.  In my experience this problem was magnified a hundred fold as what was considered ‘good enough research’ from a business perspective would not have been considered ‘good enough’ in a genuine research context.  To be perfectly honest, it wouldn’t even have been considered ‘research’, and I joked with my colleagues that at best it could merely be described as ‘search‘.

It reminds me of an excerpt I read from a book about PTSD: ‘Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character‘ by Dr Jonathan Shay.  In it he explains that the roots of trauma lie in the subversion of the soldier’s moral world, as when in the Illiad “Agamemnon, Achilles’ commander, wrongfully seizes the prize of honor voted to Achilles by the troops.” Shay illustrates his point through the story of a patrol team during the Vietnam War that opened fire on three boats that were suspected of unloading weapons.  When morning came, they found that the boats were merely fishing vessels, and in one veteran’s words: “we found out we killed a lot of fishermen and kids.”

What got us thoroughly fucking confused is, at that time you turn to the team and you say to the team, “Don’t worry about it. Everything’s fucking fine.” Because that’s what you’re getting from upstairs. The fucking colonel says, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll take care of it.” Y’know, uh, “We got body count!” “We have body count!” So it starts working on your head.

[…] So you know in your heart it’s wrong, but at the time, here’s your superiors telling you that it was okay. So, I mean, that’s okay then, right? This is part of war. Y’know?

[…] They wanted to give us a fucking Unit Citation – them fucking maggots. A lot of medals came down from it. The lieutenants got medals, and I know the colonel got his fucking medal. And they would have award ceremonies, y’know, I’d be standing like a fucking jerk and they’d be handing out fucking medals for killing civilians.

The circumstances could not be more different, but the underlying psycho-social dynamics are remarkably similar.  In my case, I and my fellow researchers were given tasks that turned out to be dismally below standard in research terms, but we were told by our manager and senior colleagues “this is part of business”, “we’re kicking goals”, “we’re putting runs on the board”.

Despite knowing on a deeper level that this was not the way to do serious research, it is true that such talk from one’s superiors starts working on one’s head.  Maybe they have different standards? Maybe this is good enough on a business level?  Maybe we really are doing a good job from their point of view?  And in the end, you find yourself standing there like an idiot while the CEO or some other senior executive offers a glowing endorsement of all the ‘ground-breaking research’ our team had been involved in.

By that stage, I think it’s quite reasonable to feel – as I did at the time – that an organisation which rewards such incompetence is beyond help.  In particular it is beyond, and would most likely be antagonistic to, correction by a junior member of staff who just happens to bear the misfortune of knowing what real research looks like.  Like the veteran in Shay’s book, these experiences of moral dysfunction within an organisational hierarchy leave many subordinates bitter, cynical and disenfranchised, while less scrupulous employees choose to cling to the facade of success and achievement for their own ends.

The more I learn of others’ experiences, the more I am inclined to appreciate the peculiarities of my corporate experience: being a specialist in an organisation incapable and perhaps even unwilling to make use of my specialist skills.  It’s like a person who signs up for an expensive gym membership, uses it once or twice ineffectually, and then lets it lapse.

No doubt it’s bad enough being a corporate stooge in a dysfunctional corporate world, but being a philosopher and researcher – a veritable fish out of water – made the dysfunctional corporate experience all the more painful.  While my colleagues and I have each lamented the lost opportunity and squandered potential of our prior employment, I’m increasingly sure that in terms of corporate culture and dysfunction our experience was, to borrow from World War II military slang, SNAFU: situation normal, all fucked up.

The pitfalls of careerism

Some time ago friend dtcwee pointed me towards the website of Jacob Lund Fisker, the author of Early Retirement Extreme. Jacob is a nuclear astrophysicist by training, who achieved financial independence at the age of 30, rejecting careerism and consumerism in favour of a simpler yet more satisfying life.  His philosophy of life is well worth examining, even if it isn’t entirely suited to your present circumstances.  As Jacob writes:

It is not unusual for people to discover this blog and proceed to read through it from the beginning to the end spending several hours (people have written me and told me how they plowed through a backlog of 900 posts) as if they have been intellectually or culturally starved and finally found the answer to something that had been bugging them for some time without knowing what it was.

For independent thinkers and creative radicals, this blog feels like the red pill of the Matrix movie. Some people have grown up having seen or heard nothing else about how to live than consumerism and careerism and yet it never felt quite right to them. ERE is a completely different philosophy and so it’s refreshing or eye-opening to learn that an alternative exists.

This certainly reflects my experience, and I’ve returned to his site more recently for further inspiration and enjoyment.  In a recent post, Jacob describes the pitfalls of careerism in a way that reassures me my two years in a corporate environment were, sadly, not unusual:

It should be clear that marketing and trying to manage other people’s impression of one’s work becomes much more important than the work itself once few people can tell the difference between work that is good enough and work that is better. Of course, those doing better work can tell. Interestingly enough those who just do work that is good enough are either successfully deluding themselves or they have simply become very cynical. Both are good survival mechanisms preventing people from going nuts. Conversely, if your work or if the system ever meant something to you for its own sake rather than simply a career in the sense of titles, salaries, and baubles, you may just decide to leave it disgusted with what it has become.

Last I read, Jacob and his wife were living on an annual expenditure of US$14,000 per year.  If nothing else, his way of life provides a much-needed reproach to our consumer-driven society.

 

Home-brewed beer

beer

All credit to my good friend J for getting me started on brewing, lending us gear, and I would say “teaching me everything I know” but that’s what they call damning with faint praise. J is currently on what appears to be a beer-research sabbatical in North America, from whence he reports on a bewildering array of brews the likes of which the impoverished Aussie beer-consumer could only imagine.

Today I brewed my third all grain beer on the front porch of my unit, with several visitors coming to watch, drink home-roasted coffee, and reflect in equal measures on the sheer excitement of producing something of value for oneself, and the comparatively dismal state of typical working life à la the previous post’s satirical take on bullshit jobs, wage slavery, and consumerism.

The first two brews were done with a small group of us sharing the work and the product.  It’s a good group activity but I’ve realised I need to go it alone in my own time if I’m ever to achieve a stockpile of delicious beer.

Having a stockpile is important. Not only does it offer a sense of material security to know that you have a pantry full of coffee beans, beer, tomato sauce, and so on, but it also allows a kind of natural rhythm to emerge in the balance of work and enjoyment, process and product.  We’re so used to commercial models in which output must be consistent, constant, and always striving for new markets and new thresholds. But when you are producing for your own consumption you discover the pleasant and comforting reality of ‘enough’.

When I’m roasting coffee, I only have to put in half an hour of work to give me enough coffee for up to two weeks.  Half an hour of roasting is fun.  To do it every day would be tedious.  To be commercially viable I would have to invest in an expensive piece of equipment that takes away all the mystery, the human element, and hence the fun.  To make it ‘professional’ would ruin the process, break up the rhythm, and take time away from other things.

I think brewing will turn out to have its own rhythm.  It’s a longer process, requiring about 5-6 hours and a minimum of 4 weeks from brewing to drinking, but it also provides a greater yield, with about 22 litres of beer from each brew.  As with the home-roasted coffee, the home-brewed all grain beer is very high quality relative to commercial products, but at a significantly lower cost.

Coopers Pale Ale – the primary local beer – retails for $42.95 per carton (9 litres).

Prancing Pony Pale Ale – a good local craft beer – retails from $75.99 per carton (7.9 litres)

Both are good beers, but I’d rather drink my home-brewed Golden Ale than the Coopers Pale.  The monetary cost of the home-brewed Golden Ale is about $30 for 22 litres.

Obviously it costs more in terms of time and effort, but in line with my goal of ‘a richer life on a lower income’, home-brewed all grain beer is far more rewarding, productive and enjoyable than buying beer with money earned in a pointless, existentially demeaning job.  Spending time and effort in a valued, productive enterprise doesn’t feel like a ‘cost’ after all.

“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.

 

I can’t handle being useful

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com brings together my love of etymology and my deep, seething contempt for the language and culture of management:

Once we start giving people names and titles that reflect what they really do, it will no longer be possible to hide behind pomp and presentation. It’s one thing to say “I’m the manager of this team” and quite another to say “I handle these people”. The latter lacks pretence. It is a statement of action, and it has implications and repercussions that the softer title of ‘manager’ avoids. It’s the same rationale that led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to style himself “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have”.