It seems that whenever the economy has had a good run (1920s, 1960s, 1990s) and subsequently crashed (1930s, 1970s, 2000s), some will decide to “head back to the land”. Perhaps this is due to realizing that the economy doesn’t have anything further to offer. Perhaps being self-sufficient seems like a more secure prospect than trying to get someone else to create a job for you. Perhaps it is the only time when publishers think they might be able to move books that call for a simpler lifestyle. Or perhaps the desire to head back to the land is conditioned on having enjoyed a decade of spending increasing amounts of money on stuff and having found that the joy of buying things is somewhat empty. If the latter is the case, perhaps a good first step towards frugality is to spend a few years consuming as much as you can so as to get it out of your system so you can focus on something more interesting—I know it worked for me.

Observing this cyclical behavior is like having the Matrix rebuilt over and over and it leaves me with a feeling of futility—am I just a cog in an even bigger meta-machine. It seems that these ideas need to be rediscovered over and over. I recently finished reading Borsodi’s(*) “This Ugly Civilization” (from the 1920s) and I reread Callenbach’s “Living Poor With Style” (from the 1970s). I discovered both of these AFTER starting the blog; in the case of the former after publishing the ERE book and in the case of the latter after writing most of it. If you are the kind of person who feels more convinced by having multiple people say the same thing than you are by rational argument, consider those two books my references. You may have some difficultly in obtaining them. I don’t know if it is surprising that such books are hard to come by.

(*) Much thanks to Surio for bringing Borsodi to my attention.

It suggests to me that ERE is not going to transform the world from some kind of consumer capitalism to ecological capitalism. It also means that I can stop worrying about changing the world so much. In particular, it means that those who worry about “what would happen if everybody did it” got nothing to worry about. Instead, they can start sending concerned letters to their local cosmetology school worrying about what would happen if everybody became hairdressers.

If ERE is not about cultural change, it’s really just about financial independence. Specifically, it’s about finding that suckerperson who is passionate about his job and then saving enough to buy the part of the company that employs him.

By my calculations, roughly $300,000 in investments (market value) corresponds to $70,000 in (company) revenue out of which $40,000 will be paid in wages (administration) to some employe, leaving maybe $20,000 in earnings (a P/E of 15) and you’ll get your, say, $9,000 in dividends which is more than enough to live a good life if you have the skills—though probably not enough if your skills in the kitchen can be described as “microwave chef” and this level of self-sufficiency or lack thereof carries onto the rest of your life. (Don’t despair, a self-sufficiency is not that hard to learn; it’s just that it’s been completely neglected in the institutional circus that passes for education these days.) Alternatively, for the person who loves to sleep in no less than 5 bedrooms, just lend him your $300,000 to buy his mansion and in return he’ll work hard to pay you back with interest. Of course, this is a generalization… diversification would have you own little parts of lots of different jobs and houses and so you will have people who are passionate about their work working for you because you own their jobs while you go do something that you’re passionate about which in contrast does not need to be a job.

Chains only become frustrating if they prevent you from going somewhere you want to go, but if you’re just fine where you are and never test the limit of your freedom (one of which is having to show up at a certain place and perform certain work on a certain place 5 days of the week for all but two weeks per year) you might never even realize they’re there. This is much different than the Roman era when some part of the population were slaves. Slaves were owned by other people. However, we have financialized slavery or work, that is, we have turned it into a financial product, called a job, which can be bought and sold by investors and filled and changed by workers through a process known as writing resumes and interviewing. We have also pretty much eliminated any conditions on who can buy and sell jobs—not quite so on who can hold them which means, somewhat ironically, that having a job is considered quite a privilege these days.

In this terminology, ERE is essentially saving enough money to live as a free(*) person—someone who is not a rent-worker or a mortgage-worker, that is, someone who does not need to do slavery. With ERE you buy your freedom—one person worth of freedom. You have to do this because nobody is born free anymore. You can’t just stake out a piece of land and go live there. You can’t just go into the woods and start hunting. All land has been filled up with property that is owned by someone else. All people are now born in debt and so you have to earn your way out.

(*) Freedom is a term that’s loosely thrown these days, mostly for political gains. Few people wants the burden of freedom. It’s much easier to do what’s expected and just follow orders. Conformity makes for smooth living.

It is interesting that we have, over the past 2000 years, gone from working in order to live to living in order to work. That’s a huge mental transformation. The Ancient Greeks would think it outright crazy to think of work as something desirable to do. Back then, work, doing labor and learning and practicing technical professions was considered only fit for slavery. It was something you’d preferably not do. Instead time was considered better spent on the seven arts.

It is sad to me how few philosophers are left. Philosophy has turned into an academic discipline of deconstruction and professors reviewing each others reviews with scarcely an original thought. But I bet they use lots of citations.

The world of Borsodi and perhaps now ERE is a far cry from the mental images most people use today to order their understanding of the world. In true Taylorism, we have been brought up to think of education and work and careers as practically the sole meaning of life. We feel an implied responsibility to live up to our programming. We’ve been stuck in the cave (read chapter 1 of the ERE book for free on amazon to see what I mean by the cave) for so long that we may have a bit of Stockholm Syndrome going on. Also, there’s the fear of the unknown and the pervasive feeling of contributing to “progress” which leads us to believe that our society is the pinnacle of civilization even as the idea of progress is only a couple of hundred years old.

In This Ugly Civilization Borsodi speaks a lot about factory work. He’s no luddite. He recognizes three different kinds of production and I completely agree, the three kinds are

  • Essential factories that produce things that would hard/a lot of work to make yourself. For example, sheet metal, electric wire, lumber, … He doesn’t mention cell phones and computers but I think these would fall under this as well.
  • Non-essential factories that produce things that a semi-skilled person could make equally well or better himself. For example, many tools, furniture, canned tomatoes, bicycles, vehicles, clothes.
  • Evil factories that produce things which are bad. For example, processed food, cars, TVs, pesticides, …

One of the tenets of ERE is to avoid buying products from the second and third category of companies, industries, or factories and make them yourself or not at all. Where personal skill is insufficient the work can be done by craftsmen. This is an altogether more meaningful, personalized, and beautiful form of production compared to the plasticky mass produced items which are designed to quickly disintegrate to keep business going.

Many neophytes think that making things yourself means that ERE translates into the hard labor of working full time to make everything yourself instead of going to work to earn money and then buying the stuff at the mall. This is not true for the sole reason that earning, buying, throwing out, and replacing is replaced with a pattern of making yourself and maintaining which in general is much less work than the former. For example, I made a tool box for myself out of scrap wood instead of buying a plastic model from a home improvement box store. Already I have modified it to hold my chisels and my coping saw for easier access by fashioning some wood blocks to hold them and gluing them in place. Try that with a bought solution.

Now invest the money you don’t spend in the first kind of factory, or if you’re not too picky, in all three kinds, and use that to pay for the things that make no sense to try to make for yourself. Once your investment income surpasses your expenses, you move from the worker-class to the investor- or land-owner class and you become financially free or independent. You bought your freedom from the system.

You can now retire or spend your life on pursuits you find more meaningful to you whatever that may be.

Originally posted 2011-05-31 20:32:17.