Monday, August 08, 2022

No for Now

One way to pay for a Universal Basic Income would be to build up the capital to dedicate to it. 

That is true of everything. Not all good ideas are good business ideas, but you can pay for good ideas that can’t pay for themselves. Our spending choices are seldom made in isolation. There are trade offs. 

This is why it is so hard to build up capital when immediate needs are forced decisions. Many people borrow for emergencies because they have no other choice. They can’t afford to wait. This means they end up paying more than they can afford, because the price includes interest. If they couldn’t afford to pay upfront, they may struggle to pay the loan off... so they can end up paying interest on interest. They can’t afford to wait OR to borrow. 

Each spending decision is not simply about whether you want the thing or not. Spending decisions have consequences. If you open one door, what door does it close? Broad Framing is the abilty to stand back and evaluate your decisions in context. Saying, “No” to one thing may enable you to say “Yes” to another thing that is more important to you. 

Being able to hold onto things that are important in the long term is one of our biggest challenges. Giving equal weight to our future selves. Building capital is a cost effective and powerful way to prevent forced short-term decisions... if you can fight off the short-term decisions that stop you from building capital!

Tristan da Cunha
The World's most isolated island
Decisions are not made in isolation.

Friday, August 05, 2022

Build It

The global population is due to tick up to 8 billion. So in reality, any practical implementation of a Universal Basic Income is going to have to have simplifying assumptions. “Human Rights” are a goal... an agreement of how we should live. We then need to build that reality. 

I prefer the model of bottom-up collaborative savings vehicles, or “Community Wealth Funds”. A Stokvel 2.0 or a “Stokvel that went to Harvard”. England was in a bad way after the Napoleonic Wars. One of the ways we used to deal with hard times was to head to frontiers. We don’t really have the ability to head somewhere with nothing but a strong backbone and willingness to work. The area the 1820 Settlers arrived in had been a warzone between the isiXhosa and Dutch settlers for more than a hundred years. They had cattle markets, and that was where the word Stokvel came from. An Afrikaans name given by isiXhosa people to an English market, and made their own. 

“Collective Savings Vehicles” are not uniquely South African, and the mixed-kitchen origin of the idea would have come from and gone all over. There are growing Sovereign Wealth Funds, like Norway’s Oil Fund. Australia has changed the countries savings culture over time through the gradual introduction of powerful Superannuation Funds. 

Wealth needs to be built over time. It is a slow process that has to start somewhere, and with protection, can slowly gather increasing momentum. The key question is “how do you sustainably pay for a good idea?”

Nguni Cattle

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Obstacles to Capital

Clear and present dangers stop you from building capital. By definition, there isn’t “extra” if there isn’t enough. 

One of the challenges for designers of Basic Incomes, or builders of Pension Funds, is when you should allow access to those funds. Should you be able to borrow money and agree to pay back, from your basic income? Should you be able to cash in retirement money to build an extension to your house or go on holiday? 

Similarly, how do you build capital when everyone around you is living hand-to-mouth? Especially when the need is so raw and so clear. As South Africans, we wrestle with in-your-face inequality, but even though we keep inequality in country-shaped containers, I don’t think moving to another container absolves you of responsibility. 

But what responsibility? How much should we just focus on the things we can control? The idea of being a “half-hearted fanatic”. You don’t want to be a martyr. It is a long-term game, and you can give more if you look after yourself too. You do need to be honest about what incentivizes you and keeps your energy up. 

I don’t think you can live in isolation and only focus on your story. Our stories are intertwined. Gradually, my reading on “learning and happiness” shifted to learning more about Universal Basic Income. The idea that everybody should get a regular income as a base from which to work.

Hard to grow without protection

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Rules we See

The way we see the world is path-dependent. Which means occasionally we have to reassess the way we remember seeing things. I didn’t grow up feeling like I was wealthy. I grew up with money fights and money anxiety. I felt like my life was quite simple. 

In retrospect, and in a South African, or global context... that is not true. I was part of the Durban Youth Council when I was 16 years old. In 1996, Theresa Mthembu was the mayor of the South-Central Durban Council and took me on a tour of some of the areas I had never seen. We went to her house in Umlazi, and though it was on the other side of the hill from where I lived, I had never been. 

In the Apartheid world I grew up in, you had the highway winding through Kwa-Zulu Natal, and you could drive from bubble to bubble. This is the same highway the Comrades Marathon is run along, with suburbs along the route. 

On the outside of the suburbs, you had the areas that supported them. In the whites-only areas, you would still have domestic workers, gardeners, and people working in shops. People who kept the system going but were hidden. Like in the connected world we still live in where we still limit the movement of capital, goods, service, and people. 

In that transitionary period when things started opening up, you could go over a hill and see an area that is home to half a million people. Something you can’t unsee. 

Wealth is always relative. When we consider how well we are doing financially, we tend to benchmark aspirationally against those doing better. This means people seldom feel like they are doing well financially, and are at peace with their finances. We are communal animals and our communities set the rules we see.

Chosen Path

When I reflect on my path, there are often people who arrive at a similar point to me. Path making is so complicated that they normally veer off. I bump into others and have fun memories of the portion of the path we have shared, but it is very unusual to stay in a similar place. Life happens. 

I have learnt to hold lightly to the teams that I am a part of, no matter how much I like them. To hold lightly to the friends that live nearby. Unless it is your life partner, where you have made a commitment to make the hard decisions, and do the work, to forge a path together. With others you care about, paths can cross, fade, reconnect, or run alongside. 

I am fortunate to have a deep bench of friendships, but everyone is wrestling with their own struggles. I do not see enough of anyone. 

Some have taken very traditional career paths. They have built skills and knowledge around a long-term goal of a role they want. They have a clear picture of where they want to be. Others respond to choices life presents, as life presents them... still building, but with less premeditation. Some choose incredibly simple lives, massively reducing what they spend and living more contemplatively. Others have chosen noble professions, but are grappling with financial struggles. 

Some people’s paths are harder to identify with, because there is insufficient overlap. 6 degrees of separation is the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other. A chain of “friends of friends”. The further along that chain, the harder it can be to understand other people’s decisions. This is true even of immediate friends with no chain to obscure. 

We make different choices, and our choices frame future choices.

Points of Contrast

The entry ticket of the community you are a part of goes up if the choices the collective choices they have made were good business ideas. This can limit the ideas you can choose to focus on if you want to be a part of those communities. To eat in the restaurants people eat in, send children to certain schools, or live where and how they live. 

It is easy to say, “don’t judge yourself based on your peers”, but it can get more practical than that. Going to visit a friend for dinner, you can’t help but see their comparative lifestyle. It is more challenging to see the whole picture. We only see what is conspicuous, and process the immediate points of comparison we notice or pay attention to. It can be difficult to hold on to your values and choices when spending decisions become joint decisions because of peer pressure. 

Part of stilling waves of anxiety, is realising that each wave is not the only wave. Each thought is not the only thought. There are others. The thing you are aware of in a particular moment will pass. 

When I stopped working and starting writing and thinking about non-monentary things, I realised that most of my friends were happy, but they had made a wide variety of choices with trade offs and consequences. Every opportunity you take, closes the door to other opportunities. Keeping all your options open can mean not actually experiencing any of those options. We can’t do everything. 

The other realisation I had was that there are a whole bunch of people who aren’t even in the position to question their choices. What can happen if you are solely focused on financing your own choices, is you can forget about the hills in Umlazi. Other bubbles are out of sight and out of mind. The nature of global apartheid is that not everyone has the same opportunity.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Imagining a Post Work World

In order to consider a “post-work” world, I had to do some reading about minimalism, and explore the reasons why we get tied into expensive lifestyles. 

The default can be to commit to paying off the debt of expenses that end up controlling us. Each spending decision has unintended consequences. Minimalism doesn’t mean you don’t like the thing you don’t buy. It isn’t a case of “I don’t want it”... normally you do want it. The better question is, “in the broader context, is it worth it?”. 

At the time when I stopped working, I was single, and I had no dependents. I believed I could sustain paying for the things I valued if I held a broader context in mind. 

I get quite defensive of the younger version of me. The problem with being contrarian, and doing something that is different, is that almost everyone tells you that you are wrong before you do the thing that is different. Still, I took my shot. So, when I had to go back to work, there was an awareness of the obvious and plentiful, I-told-you-so retorts. 

The world is complicated. Plans change. I still believe it is possible to live off capital in a post-work world. There are consequences. I learnt a lot in my 6 years of attempting to step away from the world of money. So, I try and be compassionate to the younger version of Trevor that stopped working. 

I still think strategizing around how to release ourselves from the constraints of how to make money is something worth giving energy to. I still want to figure out a way to direct less of my time and energy to thinking about money. What I did realise about a year and a half in what just how fortunate my bubble of friends and colleagues were. 

There are obviously stresses, but decisions have consequences. There are tradeoffs. People make choices. Honestly reflecting on choices and constraints is a privilege.

Contrarian Choices

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Relax into Discomfort

The process of learning and engaging with the craziness of the world creates trials where it is okay to make errors. When you are in an environment where you have confident control over the risk of ruin. 

It is not a big deal if things go wrong. You want to be surprised. Like a child who delights in things not going in the way they expected. You can incorporate that learning and curiously see what is going to happen when you again poke the unknown. Confident in the ability to relax into discomfort to create powerful questions. 

This is something I have to work on. I find that when you care, and like caring, it can create tension. Those I care about the most sometimes don’t get the best version of me because I care so much. When something becomes so important that nothing else matters, humour can disappear. You can lose the things you care about most because you are trying too hard. 

One of the ideas I have wrestled with is “unconditional love”. The lack of boundaries can ironically mean it is impossible to relax. I don’t like the idea of escape hatches. I think you need to do the work when things go wrong. You can’t build if you are constantly restarting. 

Returning to some basic self-care, and holding onto the ability to repair, recover, and regenerate, can increase the capacity for commitment. Awareness of the limits of temporary learning, and when retreat is necessary. 

You don’t need to learn through pain. Controlled stress is sufficient. Playing within limits, and having a good sense of what limits you are comfortable with. Part of investing is taking risks, but you are not rewarded for taking risks. You are rewarded for adding value. 

The key to a powerful timeframe is self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-love, and returning to a foundation of basics.