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


  1. Along with Deneen's commentary on intentional communities , check out Rod Dreher's blog at The American Conservative, and his writing (and book) on what he calls "The Benedict Option" - which is intended for small "o" orthodox Christians to preserve the core of the Christian faith - but he recommends it to everyone in order to trend against what he calls "liquid modernity." Food for thought in any case.

    Also want to recommend "God Save Texas" by Lawrence Wright - agree or disagree, some lively writing and punches being thrown.

    And YES, your books were way ahead of their time - which is why I still have multiple copies of them and give them away to young college graduates as gifts. It is never too early to wise up.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I put a hold on "The Benedict Option" at the JOCO library. I'll at least skim it. One advantage people like Dr. Deneen have is Americans don't seem to have a grasp of history and don't realize that the road to ruin they see ahead is a continuation of a very long road that goes back in time a long way.