Monday, April 30, 2018

Why Liberalism Failed and the Financially Independent Retire Early (FIRE) Movement

                I read a review of Patrick J. Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed and immediately put a hold on the book with the JOCO library. (The Kansas City library does not yet offer the book. But we have a streetcar.) I don’t remember what the review said, but the book was not what I was expecting, which would have been something similar to Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal.
                The book, published by the Yale University Press, is ponderous. The author is a political science professor at Notre Dame. I began his book thinking, “There must be a pony in here somewhere,” but alas, no pony. I ended Dr. Deneen’s book not knowing exactly what points he is trying to make. First, I’m not sure what he means by “liberalism.” At times it seems liberalism is whatever leads to consequences Dr. Deneen does not like. At times it seems the book has more dog whistles than you’d find at Petsmart. At other times the book seems more like the musings of Miniver Cheevy in need of a drink, harking back to an ideal age that never existed. For example, Dr. Deneen, through Wendell Berry, novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer, a spokesperson he uses often, criticizes the breakdown of communities as places of constraint and limits. This is not new. This breakdown has been going on for hundreds of years, as people shake off the shackles of restrictive hometowns and relocate to places they can become their own people, which does not meet with Dr. Deneen’s approval. What some of us would call freedom, individualism and making our own personal decisions about marriage, children, where to live, etc., Dr. Deneen calls selfishness. I find it amazing there is never a shortage of people to tell us our decisions, when they do not conform to societal expectations, are “selfish.”
                Dr. Deneen uses his puppet, Wendell Berry, to defend a community’s prerogative to demand certain books be removed from the educational curriculum and insist on the Bible’s introduction into the classroom as the word of God.
                Dr. Deneen notes the many current dystopian films, TV series, books, etc. as examples of society’s fears of technology. He says, “Most examples of this recent genre seems (sic) to reflect a widespread foreboding about a shared sense of powerlessness and even the potential for a new kind of bondage to the very technology that is supposed to liberate us.” I would propose this genre is currently a moneymaker for the dystopian industrial complex and is being reinforced in order to keep it profitable. I suspect the fears reflected are as valid as the fears reflected in the early 1950s films about giant insects resulting from radiation.
                Dr. Deneen’s not too sold on the internet. In fact, Dr. Deneen is not sold on much in modern society. I agree with him on some issues, including the desirability of an education that includes the liberal arts and humanities. I certainly agree with him and his puppet on consumption. He criticizes the need to spend beyond our incomes and rightly points out this is not sustainable either on a personal or a national level. He does have a point about the hypocrisy of the elites for having stable family lives, children, and all the trappings of upper middle-class society while not expecting those on the lower economic rungs to follow suit. I’m not sure what Dr. Deneen would have them do about the fact people choose different paths, but he points out elites benefit from the situation by being able to find affordable nannies, gardeners, tutors, and day care.   
                When it comes to solutions, the book has a few. We should minimize our participation in the economy (an idea I proposed in Political Frugality), learn to do such things as building, fixing, cooking, planting, preserving, and composting for ourselves. Dr. Deneen proposes intentional communities based on an ideal past that never was. I’d have some reservations about these communities. They could work out, but they could also develop into cults—especially when religion is mixed into the witches’ brew. But, even though Dr. Deneen seems opposed to nonconformity, I’m happy to allow him to be a nonconformist and join a cult if he wishes. I won’t even call him selfish.

                I saw on what passes for a nightly news program at ABC a brief mention of the FIRE movement, that is Financial Independence, Retire Early. There’s a formula for this kind of news. A happy family or two is shown enjoying their early retirement and then some scold is brought on to dissuade the rest of us from having any such delusions. In this case the scold was some blogger who said early retirees would have to watch their expenses, and that’s no fun. Just stay chained to your desk twelve hours a day for the next forty or fifty years. Don’t even think of leaving! Now that’s fun!
                As I’ve said on many occasions, frugality and financial independence will never get objective treatment from media that are dependent on advertising and consumption. And in today’s economy, with an alleged shortage of workers, leaving the workforce before you’re on your deathbed is not likely to be viewed positively.
                What I found funny was the reporter claimed to be speaking to the person who came up with the idea (and I didn’t catch who that was). The fact is the idea’s been around a long time. I picked it up when I watched the 1938 film Holiday with Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. The theme was repeated in 1988 by Paul Terhorst in Cashing in on the American Dream: How to Retire at 35, one of two books that changed my life. At any rate it was interesting to learn there’s a new generation of financially independent early retirees.
                Somehow that led me to Jacob Lund Fisker’s Early Retirement Extreme: A Philosophical and Practical Guide to Financial Independence, another book the JOCO library has that the Kansas City libraries do not. But then JOCO does not have a streetcar. The book is heavy on the philosophical reasons one might not want to spend a life working eight hours a day forever. The book is a challenge to read. Dr. Fisker has a PhD in theoretical physics, and he writes like a PhD in theoretical physics. The book has many formulas. One of the formulas, as Dr. Fisker points out, is similar to a mortgage amortization schedule. A personal note here, the first time I saw an amortization schedule showing over 30 years I’d be paying more than $100,000 on a $13,000 loan, it occurred to me that the same thing would apply to savings over time if I made regular payments to myself, and that got me started saving.
                Dr. Fisker says he became financially independent after working five years. As of 2010, when the book was published, he and his wife were living in an RV probably on a much lower scale than many of us would choose, but it’s their choice. Some of the things Dr. Fisker questions strike me as odd. For example, several times he suggests refrigerators are not necessary, and he’s not too fond of freezers, either. He dislikes the noise they make, among other things. He suggests living near a store and buying what we need daily. He is realistic on occasion; he says clothing is so inexpensive these days it doesn’t pay to make it ourselves. On the other hand, he suggests we grow our own food. Dan puts in a garden, and we love what we get from his garden, but if you consider only the economics, frozen vegetables are cheaper and much easier to work with, and so far we don’t have to fight the squirrels for the food in the freezer. On a side note, we have a pear tree that is amazingly prolific. I think I’ve had maybe two pears from the tree. The minute the pears are ripe enough the tree rats attack. As Dan says, “It looks like the migrant workers have been here and stripped the tree of its fruit.”

                The book is an interesting take on retiring early. In my own Beating the System I suggested looking at work as a twenty-year sentence. The time line could be shorter depending on motivation, which brings me to the happy news that Vicki Robin has updated Your Money or Your Life (the other book that changed my life). That’s the book to go to if you’re serious about becoming financially independent. The book has a nine-step program for determining when you’re able to leave your job, so you won’t have to rely on Dr. Fisker’s claim of five years or my suggestion that twenty might be more reasonable. You’ll be able to determine your own timeline.
                And remember, just because you become financially independent, you don’t have to leave your job. But when you’re financially independent, you won’t have to put up with as much crap at your job, either.

© 2018 Larry Roth

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Further Fun and Frugality Reading

                As much fun as running for city council would have been (not!), it would definitely have reduced the time I could devote to reading. Here’s what I’ve been reading lately.
                Charles Finch has written an addictive mystery series featuring Charles Lennox, a Victorian detective and, well, if I tell you much more, I’d have to issue a spoiler alert. I found a couple of these in great shape for cheap at an estate sale just off Ward Parkway (the really nice part of Ward Parkway). I started one, and these things are like crack. There are several of them, and I’ve read them all. He just came out with a prequel this year, The Woman in the Water, and that would be a good one to start with. The library has them all.

                On one of my trips to get rid of stuff at Half Price Books, I happened on Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue. For me, the danger of going to Half Price Books is it’s difficult to come out empty-handed. This book is about Truman Capote and his famous 1975 expose in Esquire in which he betrayed just about every confidence he’d ever been told by his cadre of “swans,” the very wealthy wives of very wealthy men who populated the upper east side of Midcentury Manhattan. The swans include Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman (who has been the subject of at least a couple of tell-all books and who died while serving as our Ambassador to France), Slim Hawks Hayward Keith (who lost a husband to Pamela), Marella Agnelli (who landed a husband Pamela couldn’t wrestle to the altar), Gloria Guinness, and Babe Paley, wife of Bill, who started CBS. The book is told more or less from Babe Paley’s perspective, and it’s a sad tale. For having so much money and property at their disposal, these people didn’t seem to enjoy their lives. In fact, if we were to meet them (or someone like them), I suspect we’d be bored in no time. I know I would. There’s only so much planning and attending parties I can stand. Nevertheless, if you’d like a good read about Midcentury Manhattan and how Truman Capote manipulated, betrayed, and slandered his friends, enemies, and acquaintances, this is a good place to start. The book is technically fiction, but it is well-researched. It will also make you considerably less envious of the One Percent.

                And that brings me to the very enjoyable The Art of Frugal Hedonism, by Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb, a couple of Australians with a great sense of humor. I found out about this book from the New Dream Organization ( The Johnson County Library has it. Alas, the Kansas City Library does not. I’m not dissing the Kansas City Library. Cosby Kemper is doing a great job, but let’s face it. Our city government has decided to short our schools and libraries and give us a two-mile streetcar and a bunch of luxury apartments downtown. Our tax dollars at work. Thankfully, we can borrow materials from the Johnson County libraries at no cost. The book is wide-ranging and addresses some issues we need to think about including “fake frugal,” which they define as “cheap disposable, or crummy things that quickly need replacing,” leading to our spending more money and having trash to dispose of. They go on to include cheap food in this category because of its low nutrition value and our tendency to waste cheap food, which I’ll talk more about later. They discuss stress and how our society puts a premium on “keeping busy.” On a personal note, whenever someone asks if I’m keeping busy, I’ll answer, “Not if I can help it,” “Am I supposed to?” or “Why? Is there a law?” The authors have discovered a way to earn less, work less, and live more. Their research indicates that, up until the Industrial Revolution, “work” was indeed a four-letter word. In 1783 Josiah Wedgwood issued an eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt not be idle.” Frankly it seems modern society is willing to honor that one more that the other ten. There is so much in this short book. I read the chapter on the burden of choice just after I was at a mainstream grocery store and a man complained to me about having so many choices when all he wanted was juice. I usually shop Aldi because of their prices and their limited choice. They advise having less house and considering sharing when possible. The house I’m in and really like is one I bought after moving from the house I thought would be my retirement house. That house had a shared drive. I’d advise that you never buy a house with a shared drive. There are too many people in this world who are insane, and you might just wind up some as your neighbors. Trust me on this one. You will be happier if you don’t have to depend on getting into and out of your garage if you don’t have to share a driveway with insane people. Plus you can fix the drive when it needs fixing and not have to get anyone’s agreement. They advise buying a house and not renovating it. I can agree here up to a point. To spend a lot of money on new bathrooms, given how little time we spend in them, has always seemed questionable to me. My 1927 house came with a small dysfunctional kitchen next to a small and rarely used breakfast room. After living here eleven years and being frustrated doing major cooking in a minor kitchen, I threw in the towel and had the wall between the two rooms taken out and a new kitchen I designed put in. I used Lowes’ cabinets and Formica countertops. That was nine years ago, and I have never regretted spending one cent of the money I spent on that kitchen. The authors bravely enter landmine territory and advise you to think very carefully about whether to have children (they don’t). They advise giving yourself a break and going a little crazy once in a while. Somewhere in the book, and I just couldn’t find it again easily while I was writing this, they described someone who was rigid and judgmental all the time as the kind of person who would being low-fat cottage cheese to a potluck., and that brings me to… .

                Just Eat It,” a documentary by Grant Baldwin and Jenny Rustmeyer. I watched this on Kanopy, the library’s free streaming service. The film describes how much of our food production and consumption goes to waste. To demonstrate, the cohabiting Canadian producers vow to live only on discarded food for six months. As it turns out, they wound up with an excess of food. They were giving it away. And it still piled up. Grant Baldwin is seen in the end chowing down on a 32-ounce container of yogurt—one of hundreds. He gained ten pounds in the six months they spent doing this documentary. Jenny Rustmeyer would be very difficult to take in other than small doses. She has one of those fingernails-on-chalkboard voices that I can imagine could come from someone who would take discarded low-fat cottage cheese to a potluck, and she begins complaining right off the bat. I was asking myself, “Well, did anyone make you take this on?” In one scene she is at a grocery store asking if she could buy some produce that is being discarded. She’s directed to a bin where food that has just been taken off the shelf is. The food is on its way to a garbage bin. She screeches, “You know what? I’m not even going to ask for a discount.” I guess her goal is to meet her self-imposed discarded-food-for-six-months rule, but I hereby officially revoke her frugal card. I don’t know how committed these folks are to each other, but Grant Baldwin—what’s wrong with you? Don’t you have ears? Anyway, on the one hand, the film makes its point, but on the other hand, a lot of the salvaged food would fall under the category of fake frugality. Lots of processed stuff. Lots of empty calories. The message could be summed up in three words: Stop wasting food.

                And Jenny and Grant, please consider a book next time. It’s easier on the ears.

© 2018 Larry Roth

Monday, April 2, 2018

I'm Not Really Running for City Council!

             I have a confession to make. I’m not running for city council. That was an April Fool’s joke.  
             But my platform is based on people I've met who turned out to be major disappointments.
             Several years ago Dan bought a car one of his friends inherited. Dan had the car fixed up, put on new tires, and was set for many years of driving. No sooner had Dan finished his work than a woman on a cell phone in a SUV plowed into him. She was at a red light. He was across from her. She thought the light had changed, and without looking at either the light or ahead of her took off. Dan’s car was totaled.
                Dan wasn’t injured physically in the accident, but he lost several thousand dollars that he had spent on the car that the woman’s insurance company wouldn’t pay. Had Dan been injured, he could have found an attorney to handle his case, but ambulance chasers are not interested when the injury is merely financial.
                I mention Dan’s accident because I was at a social event and had a chance to speak with our then-state representative. I told her about Dan’s accident and said I thought driving while on a cell phone should be outlawed. Her one sentence response?
                “Oh, Realtors would never go for that.”
                So Missouri residents should be in danger from distracted drivers because… Realtors would never agree to give up driving while talking on cell phones?
                I had been a fan of that woman, but she’ll never get my vote. For anything.
                Recently I was at a neighborhood meeting and met my city council person. He’s not all that impressive, and I know he’s never voted against a tax incentive proposal. He’s not going to get my vote, either.
                Eight years ago I voted for our current mayor partly on the basis of a show our local PBS station ran in which two neighborhood activists took the mayor to areas in their neighborhoods that were being used as trash dumps. He was appalled and promised to take care of the problem. Instead he’s championed streetcars that duplicate existing bus lines and a variety of tax subsidized luxury apartments in Kansas City’s downtown. The stage lost a great actor when he decided to go into politics.
                I tried to put myself into these people’s shoes. I wanted to understand why they would run as neighborhood advocates and, once elected, become pod people shilling for developers and streetcar constructors when what people really want are potholes fixed, sidewalks and curbs replaced, which was supposed to happen when we voted for the GO bonds, which are evidently GOne, and so on. And my platform was the result.
                The story about the Burns and Mac interview was no April Fool’s joke. When I interviewed there I was in my early fifties, and it was clear Burns and Mac were not hiring people perceived as being past their prime. But it worked out for the best. They would not have been happy with me, and I sure would not have been happy with Burns and Mac—especially if that little prick would have been my supervisor or manager.
                So I’m sorry to disappoint all my potential supporters, but I will leave you with this advice: Go to the mayoral forums, ask hard questions, and if you can find a working one, take a bullshit detector with you.
© 2018 Larry Roth