Getting better at life under late-stage capitalism

I have always been an optimizer. I spend way, way too much time, energy, and attention optimizing things. Which is, you know, fine, even though my net benefit is small or zero, largely because I don’t focus my optimization efforts in places where I get the biggest payoff. (I’d say that I don’t optimize my optimization efforts, but I don’t want to tempt my brain into trying to do that. It would not end well.)

One place where my optimization efforts did end well has been in optimizing things for life under late-stage capitalism.

I was helped by a couple of lucky coincidences and a bit of lucky timing.

Purely because I enjoyed doing software, I became a software engineer at the dawn of the personal computer era, which gave me a chance to earn a good salary straight out of college, a salary that grew faster than my expenses for most of the next 25 years.

Whether because of my upbringing or my genes (my grandfather was a banker), I liked thinking about and playing with money, which meant that I was doing my best to save and invest during a period when ordinary people could easily earn outsized investment returns.

It worked out very well for me. I’m as well positioned as anyone who isn’t in the 1% to do okay in late-stage capitalism. (Frankly, better positioned than a lot of the 1%, who find it easy to imagine that they deserve the lifestyles of the 0.1%, and if they live like they imagine they should will quickly ruin their lives.)

This whole post was prompted by a great article that looks mainly at the efforts women make to optimize themselves under the overlapping constraints of health, fitness, appearance, and financial success in the modern economy. Highly recommended—insightful and daunting, but also funny:

It’s very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible…. But today, in an economy defined by precarity, more of what was merely stupid and adaptive has turned stupid and compulsory.

Athleisure, barre and kale: the tyranny of the ideal woman by Jia Tolentino

One focus of that article is on “fitness.” I put fitness in quotes because of the way, especially for women, so much of fitness is actually about appearance. Perhaps because I’m not a woman—also perhaps because I’m already married, and because I’m older—my own perspective on fitness has gotten very literal: I want my body to be fit for purpose—fit for a set of purposes which I have chosen. I want to be able to do certain things because I have found the capability to be useful. (I also want to be able to do certain things that I can’t do, because I imagine that the capability would be useful, and much of the exercise I do now is intended to achieve those capabilities.)

In a sense, optimizing for fitness is really neither here nor there as far as optimizing for late-stage capitalism, which is mostly about money. And yet, really it is. My fitness suffered during the period I was working a regular job. Getting fit and staying fit takes time. To a modest extent, you can substitute money for time—you can pay up for the fancy gym where the equipment you want to use is more available, or take a job that doesn’t pay as much but allows you to squeeze in a midday run. But now we’re right where we started: optimizing for life in late-stage capitalism.

I should say that I’m delighted with how well my life has turned out. If I’d had any idea how little I could spend and still have everything I really want, or how early I’d have saved up enough money to support that modest lifestyle, perhaps I could have avoided a lot of anxiety and unhappiness along the way. But who among us has such luck? And more to the point, maybe some of that anxiety and unhappiness were crucial to my making the choices I did that got me to where I am.

I worry just a bit about my irresistible impulse to optimize, but like everything else about me, it got me to where I am. And, as I say, I’m delighted to be here.

The moderately grim truth

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.