Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On the Philosophy of Mr. Money Moustache

A friend pointed me towards this podcast in which Tim Ferriss interviews Mr. Money Moustache (MMM), a man who retired from work in his 30s to live on the interest from his investments and then got a significant following as a blogger.

The podcast describes the kind of life I've tried to live (except for that early retirement bit), and MMM talks about ideas I've been writing about for ages. I'm successful in actually following some parts of this lifestyle and horribly disappointing in others. Like me, he loves to build things, and I'm going to have his explanation for why he doesn't love travelling at the ready next time I'm asked why I don't travel: he gets his joy from creating, which isn't travel-friendly. Absolutely!

He hates cars as much as I do, and cautions, "You should never get a job that requires you to drive to it." Once I started a permanent job, I moved closer to it to cut my daily travel time down to a ten minute walk. People don't do things like that anymore. He thinks walking is the best medicine in the world. Tim adds, "We've evolved to be able to walk very long distances. Humans are better humans, less neurotic, when they walk a lot."
MMM's billboard of choice.

At work, I once mentioned walking to a friend's place an hour away, and a colleague asked, incredulously, "When will it end?!!" He insists I let him drive me places and seems to find it painful to see me use my legs this way. I try to explain that it doesn't make sense to me for people like him to drive everywhere, then go to a gym to use machines to help them move their bodies around. And I further explained, in a means to lay the issue to rest, that trying to convince me to take a ride is akin to me trying to convince him to let me do his workout for him. Except that's not quite it. MMM hits the nail on the head about this: Through walking we're given an opportunity to slow down and clear our minds. I'm grateful for the opportunity to walk distances.

MMM wants us to embrace the idea of "voluntary hardship." When something looks difficult, we can choose to get excited about it. I prefer the Barney Stinson catch phrase: "Challenge accepted!" It's useful to go through some hardships to learn some lessons along the way. It feels fantastic to make it to the other side of something we weren't sure we could do, even if it's just living without a dryer, car, and A/C. Why not make the challenges we attempt ones that benefit people rather than merely impressing them. Either way, it feels good to be capable.

He's managed so well financially in part because he's acclimatized himself to live on very little. It's similar to the Minimalist movement in which we're cautioned only to buy what we need or what makes us really really happy. But MMM goes one step further. Instead of suggesting we ask ourselves, "Do I really need this or truly want it?", he prefers, "Is this removing a negative from my life?" It's not just a matter of considering if an item will add happiness, but if it's useful enough that it will take away a bit of sadness or frustration or annoyance from our days. I can always use another book, but not having one doesn't leave a negative to be reduced. I don't benefit from owning books in a way that I'd be sad or frustrated had I not purchased them all. That's a good lesson to keep in mind.

On the Philosophical Precursors of MMM

From what I understand, from a very cursory scanning of his blog, a fan mentioned that MMM's really just advocating Stoicism, so MMM considered it based on reading a secondary source rather than reading one of the big guys like Epictetus or Seneca, and he wrote How Stoicism "can turn your life solid gold." It's true he shares some core beliefs, but he's really more Epicurean (as one commenter pointed out), a negative hedonist who increases happiness not through adding pleasures but by removing any pains. Both philosophies recognize the secret of happiness is to reduce desires and to be reasonable (Epicurus would say 'prudent') when making choices, and both see worry as a ridiculous waste of time, and both would have us maintain a positive attitude when the going gets tough, but MMM is way too focused on an early retirement to really call himself a Stoic.

Stoics are deontological - duty based - in their actions. They accept what comes to them without planning for the future because the future is not within our control. They tolerate hardship without attempting to alter the course of their lives. MMM tolerates some difficulties, but he had a master plan to avoid the difficulty of working for a living. Epicureans (those who follow Epicurus, not the foodies), by contrast, are teleological - focused on the outcome of their actions. They might work today in order to have more time with friends tomorrow, which is exactly what MMM did. His stance of enduring hardships is in order to have more and greater pleasures later, not in order to learn to tolerate a difficult live. He's calculating maximum happiness for himself, a very Epicurean thing to do, rather than Stoically acknowledging the futility of planning for the future.

Here's a bit of Epicurus:
"The first duty of salvation is to preserve our vigour and to guard against the defiling of our life in consequence of maddening desires....By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking feasts and of is sober reasoning, searching out the reasons for every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which great tumults take possession of the soul....Of all things which wisdom procures for the happiness of life as a while, by far the greatest is the acquisition of friendship."
And some of the Stoic, Epictetus:
"Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view which they take of things....Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not within our power, and transfer it to things undesirable, which are within our power....When you see a person weeping in sorrow, either when a child goes abroad, or when he is dead, or when the man has lost his property, take care that the appearance do not hurry you away with it as if he were suffering in in external things. But straightway make a distinction in your mind, and be in readiness to say, it is not that which has happened that afflicts this man, for it does not afflict another, but it is the opinion about this thing which afflicts the man....Everything that happens is part of the one great whole. The law of the whole determines the nature and worth of the part."
But there's another ancient philosopher that came to mind as I listened to MMM speak. I've been talking to my class, as I do every year, about the idea of desiring more carefully in order to increase our happiness, the solution espoused by Plato, Stoics, Epicureans, Taoists, and more. One student said, "But what if shopping makes us happy?" The brief elevation of dopamine we get when we satiate a habit isn't the kind of happiness these guys are after. We can never be content if we keep needing more and more. Tim and MMM get this, but it's hard to convince others.

It was this bit that got me thinking in another direction: MMM said,
"I don't lecture people in real life...but I think it, and I write it...which helps me remain more calm in my real life because nobody wants to be lectured in real life...even if you have some ideas you want to share with them, you have to wait for them to come to you, and when you're running a blog, they have come to you by definition, which means they're a lot more open to having their faces punched in a literary sense."
In class, we discussed that Lao Tzu claim that he only shared his thoughts because the people he had met begged him to write down all his ideas, which he did in the Tao Te Ching.
Therefore the Master
acts without doing anything
and teaches without saying anything.
Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go.
She has but doesn't possess,
acts but doesn't expect.
When her work is done, she forgets it.
That is why it lasts forever. (ch 2) 
Do you want to improve the world?
I don't think it can be done.
The world is sacred.
It can't be improved.
If you tamper with it, you'll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you'll lose it. (ch 29)
It's not up to us to tell others how to fix the world; I agree completely. Except MMM's strikingly naïve if he thinks people come to blogs with an open mind. Sometimes they come just to cause shit and blast people with misinformed opposition. MMM seems to get the nicest of people, but most comment sections of large environmental blogs are far less friendly places. Perhaps it's all in the attitude. It seems that the primary message has to be about how to retire at 30 without sacrificing anything fun - a decidedly Epicurean attitude - rather than about how to restrain desires in order to preserve the world.

This is where I really really fall short of the mark both here and in real life. It's hard to watch people make choices that run counter to long term survival. But that's because I have the mistaken notion that telling people what will help us in the long run will actually have an effect. The best it will do, as the seas rise, crops fail, and land becomes inhabitable, is to allow me to say "told ya so"!

I was raised on a healthy diet of admonishments like "never compare and never compete" so I've gotten pretty good at not looking at how people live and worrying about them doing better or worse. It's not that I see people driving a hummer (which makes MMM want to punch them in the face) or going on their fourth flight this year or eating a stack of ribs and think, they're not living up to my standards. It's not that at all. I'm much more likely to be thinking, "Oh. My. God. We are so not going to make it as a species if even the intelligent people I know can't think long term or just don't care about the effect their action are having on the planet." Personal joy trumps long term existence for most. Few seem to be able to measure that well.

And this brings us back to the stoics, with a great bit by Seneca:
"We should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance: it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. bear in mind too that he deserves better of the human race as well who laughs at it than he who grieves over it; since the one allows it a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things he cannot hope will be put right."
Easier said than done, but I'm working on it.

Can We Reduce Desires Enough to Retire Young?

MMM has found a way to live that gives him the most happiness with the least things, but I wonder if that's more by chance than design. I mean, the fact that he doesn't enjoy travelling, that he loves biking and walking everywhere, and that he recognizes that he doesn't get happiness from things: these might not be so much traits he (and I) worked on as much as they are natural intrinsic motivators.

So many philosophers tell us that happiness comes from reducing desires for things, but maybe that was just what worked for them, the smartest in the bunch. Maybe it's the case that most people can't truly enjoy life without stuff. Maybe they're not creative and imaginative enough to be alone with their thoughts for hours at a time as they walk place to place. Maybe, like my students who love shopping, they can only get happiness from the occasional dopamine rush.

I've managed this kind of frugal life that MMM leads since forever. I weirdly avoid most stuff, except for maybe ten or twenty books a year and one good bike. I don't like knick knacks, and almost all my clothes and dishes are second hand. It's just my nature. The hardest part for me was never ignoring the call of consumerism, but coping with social condemnation because I don't travel (much), because I've been wearing the same old coat for decades, because I refuse to own a car or even buy the fancy bike gear, etc. In our culture, social survival can depend on commodities. It really helps MMM that he has a wife that's on the same page. The bulk of us are fighting against the stream, which can be exhausting.

It's clearly economically beneficial, however. My chance disinterest in stuff helped me pay off a house on my own by 35 because 90% of my paycheque went to my mortgage. But I still haven't saved enough to retire. I've been counting on my pension rather than investing. That's where I really fall short of MMM's teachings.

He seems like a great guy and all, but he kinda implies that if you're not retiring early, it's because you're not living frugally enough by choice, that you just don't understand how much you can avoid buying, and that you just don't understand the math involved. I think it has a lot more to do with not having enough income at an early age to accumulate that level of savings necessary to live off the interest. To his credit, he explicitly explains that he's talking, specifically, about his frustration with the wealthy who can't seem to manage. This is from his About page:
"This blog was born in 2011 out of exasperation. Six years into this early retirement, life was going well and our little boy was growing up nicely. But many of my friends and former coworkers remained broke, constantly complaining about how hard middle-class life is these days, and how much they would like to be able to afford to lose at least one of their six-figure salaries so someone could stay home with the kids.
First of all, hold the phone! Like me, and unlike Lao Tzu, he writes because he couldn't stand to watch people falter so consistently while he was thriving. It's not entirely, "Here's what I do in case you're interested," but more, "Here's what you should be doing, you dopes!" It's hard to completely let go of ego, I know. Secondly, although his concern was his friends who were big earners, judging from a brief glance at his forum, his message seems to have been latched on to by people with far less earning potential. It's great for them if they find greater happiness with fewer things, and it's great for the world if they curtail insane consumerism, but it's a bit of a pipe dream to think they can retire so young without a six-figure salary in their 20s. And, umm... is it a little bit of a sham to allow people to think they can?

On Retiring in Your 30s

He takes an interesting stance around bike locks. He had his bike stolen once, and considered starting to lock up his new ride, but decided against it because it would costs him much more in time locking and unlocking over the years (at an estimated $50 for each hour of his time wasted). He came to the conclusion that "If you can't afford to lose it, then you can't afford to buy it yet." It is nicer to just lean the bike against the wall, but I've had enough bikes stolen that mine is currently locked up inside a locked garage. I'm too fearful to go the distance and not have insurance (in fact it's almost 10% of my yearly expenses, and that's after parring it down). If my house went up in flames, I want to know that I can rebuild as it was without going into debt. I can't do that stoic, it's all for the best, thing very well.

He explains that the trick to retiring young is reduce our needs, then to save enough to cover our needs x 25, then we can live off the investment income it generates, but that level of saving is way easier said than done. He was lucky enough to make a small fortune at a young age. When I was 28, I was taking home about $20,000/year. It was amazing that I could pay off a house on that (mainly by filling my house with tenants), but there's absolutely no way I could have banked half a million. I was about 40 by the time I was up to $55,000/year, and then even if I banked $30,000/year, it would have still taken me to my 60s to get enough together to retire. Thank god for my pension plan!

I just did my taxes today, so I spent a minute to figure out my expenses this past year. I think I could manage on about $25,000, but that's just the basics. I think he has ways of cutting these bills even further. Here's my breakdown for 2016 (everything's rounded up for some nice round numbers):
This ignores the fact that I have solar panels, but I prefer perceiving them as offsetting the cost of some of my unnecessary hedonistic desires rather than my bills, so I left those out of the equation.

I can't do much about the dramatically rising property taxes in my area (up 30% over the past ten years, compared to 20% the previous decade), but I could likely change the way I eat to manage on less than $288/week for a family of four (slightly more than average, but apparently more than double what a prudent family should spend). Well... it's not really likely, but it's definitely possible. I love grabbing take away on my way home from work, and I live near one of the priciest (but yummiest) food stores in all the land. And if I use MMM's bike lock analogy and calculate the amount of time it takes to make dinner every night and to go store to store hunting for the best deals, and the effort it would take to get my son off protein bars and my girls off fancy shampoos (the food amount includes assorted sundries), then it would cost more in my time in the long run. And if we look at Epictetus, Epicurus, or the Tao, all of them would caution us away from that kind of laborious conflict.

But these past couple years have been different with two kids in university. That's added another $30,000 in bills in tuition, books, and various emergency needs. I'm not sure how he will be able to pay for his son's schooling without some extra cash coming in from the blog.

He also keeps about $30,000 stashed away for emergencies. This was a good year for me on that front - my furnace made it through the winter (so far - knock wood), but that money could go in no time if something tragic happens. I'm really lucky to have benefits with work, but once my kids finish university, they're on their own for all their physio, meds, and whatnot. I know how incredibly lucky we've been to have managed so well. This entire exercise was a good reminder of how much luck plays into financial stability, so I'm uncomfortable with MMM's suggestion that it's all a matter of wise choices: If you were as smart as he, you'd be retired by now. I think not.

I am, however, stuck in a security rut, really wanting an on-going income to guarantee my future needs. MMM is so much better at not worrying about the future than I'll ever be even though I fully realize the futility of worry. But I also wonder a bit at the ethics of living off investment income. It's not reaping what you sow, which just feels a little wrong. He's exploiting a system that maintains wealth in the hands of the few.

But, it's not like I have to worry about that myself. No matter how little I spend, I still couldn't possibly bank enough to live on the interest. And a blog about how lucky he's been likely wouldn't get quite so heavy a following!

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