There’s a whole genre of collapse-oriented investment writing. I’m something of a connoisseur of the form. But one really needs to treat that sort of literature as pornography—interesting to read, if you’re into that sort of thing, but almost nothing in it is stuff you’d actually want to do.

There are two ways most collapse writers go wrong. One is to assume that keen insight into the nature of the problems we face will allow one to make a bunch of smart investment moves in advance—as if there were some advantage to being the richest guy standing in a post-apocalyptic world.

In his recent post Where Should I Put My Money Before Things Collapse? John Robb avoids that trap pretty well. He understands that the systemic nature of the problem makes attempts to align your investments with the underlying trends pointless:

Looking for a safe asset class today, is like a Soviet bureaucrat in 1989, sensing trouble ahead, looking for the directorate with the safest job.

The other is to assume that there will be a collapse event. Those writers seem to suggest that you can spend your time until collapse behaving much as you do now (with some occasional time off to stock your shelter and practice your marksmanship), and then spend the end times hiding out in your shelter. That’s wrong, because there’s no reason to assume that there will be a collapse event. It’s at least as likely that things’ll go on much as they have been, with occasional points where a bunch of people lose their jobs, yet another class of investments suddenly becomes worthless, and various things (such as food or fuel) spike up in price.

John Robb does pretty well avoiding that trap as well. He understands that the only sensible response is to find a lifestyle that works now, and that will continue to work as collapse proceeds.

Just as he indicates, the right responses to problems like peak oil, peak debt, climate change, environmental degradation, habitat loss, and so forth are going to be community-level responses. With that in mind, he’s putting his money into supporting efforts to create that community response and those communities.

Having said all that, four decades of reading collapse literature have convinced me that collapse happens slowly. Very slowly. Slowly enough that we’re going to need to go on investing in ordinary investments for quite some time to come.

It seems like it would make sense to want those investments to be informed by the societal problems that we face, but my experience has been that an understanding of the sources of impending collapse doesn’t lead to useful investment insights.

There are a lot of reasons. First, as I said, collapse happens slowly, meaning that shorter-term trends will end up dominating. Second, a lot of governmental power will be brought to bear in support of pre-collapse norms, meaning the sort of large profits that might be produced if your investments do align with the large trends are prone to being seized or taxed away. Third, the situation is intractably complex, meaning that even a clear understanding of several of the problems may yield predictions that end up being trumped by other problems—no one can say whether peak debt or peak oil will influence the course of the economy more strongly or more suddenly.

The upshot is that investing for collapse is as pointless as Robb points out; I merely disagree with his analogy. Rather than being like a Soviet bureaucrat in 1989, I figure it’s more like being CEO of a department store chain in 1969. There are still opportunities to get ahead following the old arrangements, but all the most powerful forces of society, human nature, and nature itself are arrayed against you. You’d be much better off charting an entirely new course—and Robb’s suggestions are good ones.

I’ve already shared this on Google Reader (you can follow my shared items if you’re interested), but I wanted to blog it as well.

The always-interesting Dmitry Orlov is interviewed by Lindsay Curren in Transition Voice. As usual, Orlov is funny, but here he’s hitting on a lot of the same points that I like to hit on—that is, the points that I think are important—and is saying some really interesting stuff:

There’s this iron triangle of House-Car-Job, and the entire landscape is structured so you have to have all three or your life falls apart. People have to be creative in escaping from there.

He has a bit of advice (that I’m living right now): Retire immediately.

. . . make what ever adjustments are needed considering that you’re not going to have much of an income. Have a little bit of an income. But get rid of the mortgage, obviously. Get rid of the car.

He suggests that you shirk off for a couple of years and see where that takes you, then go back to work and earn enough to support the kind of lifestyle that you’ve already adjusted to.

A lot of people have, of necessity, already done this. But a lot have taken the opposite tack: they have abandoned any hope of every retiring. With their retirement savings destroyed and their kids unable to support themselves, they’re figuring that they’re going to have to keep working for years—maybe a decade or more—past what used to be retirement age. But that’s a crappy strategy. (For many reasons, but especially because it may well not be possible. There’s a good chance that your job will go away, even if it seems secure now. And there’s a good chance that your health won’t allow you to maintain your current pace, even if it’s holding up pretty well so far.) Orlov’s suggestion is a much better idea.

Check out the whole interview: No shirt, no shoes, no problem.

In 2008 I posted Ron’s paper on Peak Debt. He recently extended his work, in a new paper called Peak Debt and Income.

Once again, I’ve got a piece up at Wise Bread that provides an overview of paper:

Laszewski creates a simple model of the economy as a tool for investigating the question of how to get household balance sheets back in order after suffering the problems diagnosed in the earlier Peak Debt paper…

Really, though, you ought to read the paper. (The math in this one isn’t as tricky as the math in the original Peak Debt paper.)

Fabric on loom

 

 

[This article originally appeared as a guest post on Self Reliance Exchange, but that site no longer exists and the successor site doesn’t seem to be using my post. Rather than just let the article disappear, I figured I’d post it here.]

Fabric on loom
Fabric on Loom

There’s a reason we don’t see more self-sufficiency: It’s not frugal. It almost always takes more time to make something than it takes to earn enough money to buy one—and that’s without even considering the time it takes to learn the skills (let alone the cost of tools and materials). On the other hand, frugality is a powerful enabler for self-sufficiency. So, how do you find the sweet spot?

My wife spins and weaves. I have a beautiful sweater that she hand knit from hand spun yarn. It’s wonderful—and it’s comforting to know that my household is not only self-sufficient in woolens, we produce a surplus that we can sell or trade. But the fact is you can buy a perfectly good sweater at Wal-Mart for less than the cost of the yarn to knit it.

If you try to be genuinely self-sufficient—in the sense of producing through your own labor everything your household uses, like a hunter-gatherer or a subsistence farmer—you’re going to be poor. Your neighbor who works at a job for wages or a salary is going to be better off by almost every measure.

Oh, his factory-made microwave meals won’t be as good as home-cooked food from your garden and his furniture from Ikea won’t be as good as what you make in your wood shop. But he’ll have so much more! In the time it takes you just to build a kiln he’ll earn enough money to buy a thirty piece set of Corelle ware. Unless he’s only making minimum wage, he’ll probably have enough left over to buy an iPod—and you’ll never be able to make your own iPod from sand and vegetable oil.

That’s why we have trade. If everybody specializes in one or a few things, and then trades with others for what they need, everybody can be better off. It raises your standard of living, but it means that you can’t be self-sufficient.

There are still many reasons to do for yourself. You can make exactly what you want, instead of having to make do with whatever happens to be available on the market. You can use superior materials, and take them from the environment in a sustainable manner. You don’t have to worry that the stuff you use was made in a sweatshop by children or prisoners or slaves. You aren’t dependent on the continued smooth functioning of the vast global economy. But you can’t be self-sufficient in very many things—even if you had the skills and the tools and the land, you’d quickly run out of time.

So, we find ourselves trying to figure out where we belong on the continuum between actual self-sufficiency and ordinary self-reliance. How do you find the sweet spot? Here are my thoughts:

  1. Focus on necessities. It’s a lot more important to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and housing than it is to be self-sufficient in tennis rackets and rollerblades.
  2. Focus on capabilities. Instead of trying to fill your pantry by hunting and fishing, do enough to maintain and improve your skills—and then start developing your next capability.
  3. Focus on what’s practical. It’s really hard to be self-sufficient in window glass and impossible to be self-sufficient in digital watches. Don’t waste your time.

Start with the few things where homemade actually is cheaper, like gardening. Then move on to things that can be done as a hobby—and that you’d enjoy doing as a hobby. Don’t let point #1 above (necessities) keep you from developing self-sufficiency in something that’s fun and interesting just because it’s not important. It may not be important to be self-sufficient in beer, but the equipment is cheap, brewing is a pretty easy skill to acquire, and the result is better than what you can buy.

Finally, remember that there’s a vast range between being “self” sufficient and being dependent on a global supply chain. It’s almost as good as self-sufficiency to source things from your neighbors. Short of that, it’s still an improvement to source things closer rather than farther—your home town, your region, your state, your country.

Once you set your priorities, don’t hesitate to go with the cheapest option for things that don’t make the cut.  That frees up money that you can use on the important underpinnings of self-sufficiency—things like land and tools in particular, but also things like books, training classes, materials to practice with, and so on.

Then you’re in your sweet spot.

I spent the whole decade of the 1990s hoping that the economic upturn would prove that the strategy of letting employees go the instant there wasn’t any work to do was unwise. Surely, I thought, those companies would suffer—missing out on business because they didn’t have the skilled employees to do the work (and screwing up on what business they did get, because rushing to hire new employees would result in picking up some duds).

My hopes remained unfulfilled. Oh, probably plenty of companies did suffer from an inability to hire skilled, reliable workers at reasonable wages. Certainly employers complain that they can’t, especially when they’re lobbying Congress for an expansion of the H1 visa program. But it didn’t matter, because the company’s were profitable. (Profitable companies may do as they please; unprofitable companies must kowtow to the financial markets.)

I’ve written about this before, in a two part series at Wise Bread called “What’s An Employee To Do?” Part 1 laid out the issue in some detail, and part 2 talked about the best strategies for an employee to follow. (There’s actually a lot of opportunity for employees in the current situation, as long as they don’t make the mistake of thinking of themselves as employees.)

Prompted by Tobias Buckell’s recent post Working culture, though, I wanted to talk a little about the broader impacts of the way we’ve come to arrange society, because there were other reasons that employers kept employees on during a business downturn. Business owners kept employees on during a downturn because they cared about them as people, because they were friends and neighbors, because the whole community suffered when one person lost a job.

A small part of the reason that things are different now is that this is less true. Managers are not as likely to live in the same neighborhoods as their employees. They don’t shop in the same stores. Their kids don’t go to the same schools. In any case, the decisions are being made far away. (The local managers were completely out of the loop when the site where I used to work was closed down three years ago.)

But that’s just been an enabler of this shift. The real cause is the behavior of the financial markets, which since 1990 have crushed any employer that tries to resist, by driving its stock price low enough that someone could acquire them and bring in new management—management that would lay off plenty of workers.

This isn’t new, of course. Business owners knew that going public meant putting their business in the jaws of the financial market nutcracker—but they made so much money it was worth it. You occasionally hear about the rare business owner who has declined to go public for just that reason—but you hear about it because it’s rare enough as to be news.

As Toby describes, Germany has structures and institutions in place to support businesses that are small and local. Unions are a big one—including the government support for unions that encourage and enable unions to work together in a block. Also important are rules that lean against market pressures for business consolidation, offshoring employment, etc.

Personally, I used to support a purely market-based approach. That’s why I spent the 1990s waiting for markets to punish the bad actors. I’ve changed my mind. It’s fine to leave the fate of the companies up to the markets, but it unacceptable to leave to the markets the fate of whole communities.

Similarly, I used to support the notion that the right way to address this sort of issue was education (because I believe in free choice). Yes, stuff made by prisoners, slaves, and children costs less. Yes, stuff made by heavy industry costs less if the manufacturers are allowed to wreak environmental destruction all across their supply chain. But surely people would make different purchasing choices if they understood that they’re not only paying to have all this harm done, they’re also putting their friends and neighbors (and themselves) out of work. There again, I’ve changed my mind. It turns out, I simply didn’t understand how much cheaper that stuff was than stuff made locally.

Given the option to have the accoutrements of a middle-class standard of living—clothes, dishes, furniture, gizmos—it’s become clear that most Americans will cheerfully accept any amount of slave labor and environmental destruction (as long as they don’t have to see it) and tolerate the destruction of local businesses and the bankruptcy of their neighbors.

They’ll complain about how it affects property values and how it makes it tough to find a job. But then they’ll take their unemployment check and food stamps and go buy the cheapest stuff they can find at WalMart.

Neither markets nor eduction are going to do the job. The U.S. needs to create institutional support along the lines of what Germany provides.

Via Dmitry Orlov, I happened upon America: The Grim Truth, which I think is worth reading, even though I disagree with both the forecast and the prescription.

It’s worth reading because I think it’s actually pretty good descriptively—it nails the split between the reality of the current situation and the average American’s perception of it. I am persistently amazed at the things that Americans just accept.

On food:

Much of the beef you eat has been exposed to fecal matter in processing. Your chicken is contaminated with salmonella. Your stock animals and poultry are pumped full of growth hormones and antibiotics.

On education:

In most countries in the developed world, higher education is either free or heavily subsidized; in the United States, a university degree can set you back over US$100,000. Thus, you enter the working world with a crushing debt. Forget about taking a year off to travel the world and find yourself – you’ve got to start working or watch your credit rating plummet.

On wealth:

America has the illusion of great wealth because there’s a lot of “stuff” around, but who really owns it? In real terms, the average American is poorer than the poorest ghetto dweller in Manila, because at least they have no debts. If they want to pack up and leave, they can; if you want to leave, you can’t, because you’ve got debts to pay.

On freedom:

Why would anyone put up with this? Ask any American and you’ll get the same answer: because America is the freest country on earth. If you believe this, I’ve got some more bad news for you: America is actually among the least free countries on earth. Your piss is tested, your emails and phone calls are monitored, your medical records are gathered, and you are never more than one stray comment away from writhing on the ground with two Taser prongs in your ass.

Even though I agree with just about all of that, I disagree on the prospects for the future.

First of all, the current situation is still an improvement over most of US history. Through our whole first century and a half, the average American lived a life just as dangerous, just as precarious, and just as vulnerable as the one described above. And if the average American didn’t owe just as much money, it was only because he didn’t have access to that much credit.

My point is not that things are okay now, but rather that the fact that things got better serves as an existence proof that getting better is something that can happen.

Second, although the situation in the US is very bad for someone who has gotten caught in the wage-slave/debt-slave trap, it remains possible in the US to opt out. It’s actually pretty easy, as long as you avoid debt. And avoiding debt is pretty easy: just don’t let yourself be sucked into the consumer lifestyle. There’s an awful lot of crap for sale—don’t buy it. There are plenty of big houses for sale—don’t buy one. You can live in a bigger, nicer apartment if you’re willing to live an hour’s drive from where you work—but if you live where you can walk to work, you don’t have to buy a car. With the money you save, join the rentier class.

I think we ought to change things, and I think it would be great if we could get the government to set rules that would encourage those changes—require uncontaminated food, prohibit predatory lending, protect workers from abuse, etc. But individuals can actually make those changes in their own lives without needing the government to act.

So I don’t see a need to flee the country. But that doesn’t mean that I think things are okay—which is why I think that’s a post worth reading.

I always enjoy James Howard Kunstler’s rants, and the recent revelation of sloppy bank record-keeping gives him a good jumping-off point.

It’s true that this rather seems to be a third strike by the banks. First, they lent money to people without regard to whether the borrower would be able to make the payments. Second, they made loans on houses that were wildly overpriced thanks to the housing bubble. And now, strike three, it turns out they did such a poor job of record-keeping that they may not be able to prove that they own the mortgage on the house!

The value of those mortgages was already somewhat doubtful, given that the banks only option was to foreclose and sell the house for a fraction of its bubble-inflated value. But if their bad record-keeping means that they can’t even foreclose, maybe the paper is worth zero. If the paper is worth zero, Kunstler figures the results will be dire:

With fraud absolutely everywhere in our banking system, like some advanced metastatic cancer, financial metabolism comes to a sickening stop. Nobody can buy or sell property. Nobody can trust any American financial institution. Money can’t circulate. Nobody will be able to get any money.

Personally, I doubt if most of the records are really lost. If the banks are willing to spend the money—hire a bunch of researchers, archivists, and paralegals along with some secretaries and assistents—I expect they can prove most of the mortgages. But it’d be expensive.

My hope is that this will mean, finally, that the banks will have a real incentive to do what they should have been doing right along—renegotiate the mortgages, writing the value of the mortgage down to something under the fair market value of the house, and the interest rate down to current market rates. If they keep proper records of these new mortgages, they can sweep the problem of the old, sloppy records under the carpet.

So, I’m rather more optimistic than Kunstler on this issue. In fact, I think it just might save us.

Ron has kindly let me host his fascinating peak debt paper on my site.

I take a quick look at the paper in my Wise Bread post on Peak Debt:

Is there a limit to how much Americans can spend?  Clearly there is:  All they earn, minus savings and service on their existing debt, plus new borrowing.  Since the Bureau of Economic Analysis puts numbers on those very items, it’s possible to see just how close we are to the edge.  In a fascinating paper, Ron Laszewski does exactly that.  The results are rather depressing.

Whether you read my Wise Bread piece or not, if you can follow the math, I urge you to read Ron’s paper itself: peak-debt-pd-020708.