Specialisation – is it making stuff better and cheaper but ruining our quality of life?

Even at school I learned that one of the things that set Man apart from other creatures was the division of labour. We don’t all have the same talents, I am a better engineer than horticulturalist or painter, whereas others probably paint better than design electronics or software. So it make sense I stick to the engineering and others to the painting, growing food etc.

That all works really well up to a point. Can it go too far? When I was sat school I believe that a town’s football team was drawn mainly from kids in the county. I’m not totally sure of that since I was never that into football, but let’s run with it.  These were trained up, and as a result there was a wide variety of football clubs playing at various levels.

Now they are basically businesses rather than football clubs – the pool of footballers is global, and more and more money chases fewer and fewer players. Obviously this optimises the quality of the football at the top  – it’s probably miles better than it was decades ago. However, it also makes it more inaccessible and remote – there’s probably a much lower chance of the football-mad kid across the road getting a chance to make a living wage playing football. That has been swapped for a very remote chance of him getting richer than Croesus playing football if he happens to be that exceptional.

That seems to be the general problem with our economic system – it is trending towards a winner-takes-all world, one of outrageous competition and stupendous rewards, or nothing, rather than one where there is a range of opportunities where most people can find a living that matches their aptitudes.

This winner-takes all seems to apply across talent ranges and even geography. In more self-sufficient times Britain was more evenly settled, but the modern economy is concentrating jobs and people more and more into the south-east. In itself that wouldn’t be so bad, but it inflates house prices unreasonably, and stretches transport infrastructure.

It is one of the dreadful ironies that just as information technology gets to the point that remote/home/tele working becomes practical and economic, we comprehensively reject the whole idea and concentrate our industries into specific parts of the UK. The M4 corridor for your engineering companies, Cambridge for advanced IT and software and biotechnology, London for finance and lots of other things.

The corollary of this is that you can either live where you can get a job but then you can’t afford to buy a house, or you can live where you could buy a house but there aren’t any jobs there, so you have to spend a fortune commuting. That will start to go up as oil prices increase, and it’s not going to a good place at all.

Globalisation has taken this pathology to a whole new level, as President Obama called out in his State of the Union address recently.

At some point, hopefully soon, we will have to ask ourselves what is our economy for? Is it to make as much stuff as possible for as little as possible? Or is it to give as many people as possible a good quality of life? I don’t claim to be an expert, but I suspect the economy we will end up with in the former case will look very different from the one to realise the latter. And at the moment we are running down the first path.

The Road Less Travelled – A Better Way to Buy A House

I read M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled a few years ago. Like any powerful message, it can easily be distorted if received by someone not ready for the signal. If you are of a Calvinist worldview that work is good for you then you may find confirmation of your world-view in the “life is difficult” opener of the first chapter, Discipline. You’re only looking at part of the story there, but you have to get further into the book to find that out 😉

In particular, he speaks for the virtues of grit and determination to achieve anything, to wit

  • delaying gratification – valuing future gains sometimes at the cost of present comfort
  • Accepting responsibility for one’s own decisions

I was reminded of this book when I read Monevator’s guest post from Tejvan Pettinger titled “Reasons to buy a house instead of renting“. Now in my view, at the moment there aren’t any reasons to buy a house instead of renting, it’s one of those things I learned by doing it in 1989 at a similar time on the cusp of a recession.

Mark Twain said

A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way

So it is with buying a house at a time like this…

Way back in 1988 I was in the Broadcasting House BBC bar at lunchtime, sinking a few beers as one did at the time of the liquid lunch to send off a departing colleague. I was a lonely grunt engineer, surrounded by beautiful people, all talking about one damn thing, which was how much their blasted houses had increased in value, or their friends had made on the sale of theirs.

I slowly drank myself to a stupor, trying to forget that at the end of the day I was going to get on my bike and cycle along the Western Avenue to Ealing, where I had a crummy bedsit with a electricity meter that took 50p pieces and I needed to get some salt to put round the perimeter to keep the shiny black slugs from invading the room.

What is it with rented accommodation and black slugs?  I encountered similar blighters in someone’s rented room on the first floor in Ipswich. Do landlords install them to stop their tenants getting too comfy I wonder?

Anyway, I managed to avoid standing up in the bar and hollering “STFU you smug lot, I am on an okay wedge working for this firm and I have no hope of buying a house in this damned city of my birth because of sleazeballs like you making a mint out of my misery”.

The modern equivalent of that is to get on pricedout and housepricecrash and blame the baby boomers for it all. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I felt just the same pain, but I couldn’t yell it out to loads of people on the internet. And I’d have queered my pitch with the girls, though I probably didn’t improve my case on that front by sinking five pints of E.S.B. so that at least if the situation didn’t look any better it felt less bad.

There’s actually a positive takeaway for this for the priced-out generation. Every young generation is “priced out” in their twenties, because the greybeards have all the money. How did the greybeards get it? The same way as I did – working for three decades! Despite manful attempts to spend it on holidays, booze and toys some of it stuck around 😉

When I got home I resolved to tackle the situation. I could either try to find work with Goldman Sachs to get the pad I wanted (I fancied a cool flat somewhere in Bloomsbury, please) or I could get the hell out of London and find somewhere I could afford on the sort of job I could get with my skills. I had spent all my energy railing against the unfairness of it all, and only when I had independently discovered what M Scott Peck had to say about taking responsibility could I find resolution to the problem. The next year I was in a different job, in a different part of the country, and stupidly putting down money on a house at the peak of the Lawson boom. Less than 20 years later, I had paid off the mortgage on the house I bought after that, despite nursing a shocking loss on the first house.

A Different Way to Buy a House

What I found so delightful about “Reasons to buy a house instead of renting” was that Monevator himself pole-axed the argument, with a single sentence in the comments outlining a different way to buy a house – the road not travelled.

I followed the traditional path, buy a house in my late twenties, spend the next 20 years paying for it. I was lucky to stay in the same job and location for 20 years, that sort of job is becoming less common now.  There’s another way.

What you are doing in taking out a mortgage is gradually buying a capital asset, that eventually by the time you retire should be paying your living costs for you. I don’t pay rent, and I don’t pay a mortgage any more. There are some parasitic housing-related costs associated with wear and tear that I do have to eat, but they pale into insignificance compared to rent or a mortgage.

The trouble with a house is that it is an illiquid asset, if you have to move for a new job you have to hope you can sell your house, or get stuck with the headache of being an amateur landlord.

What about the idea of pumping up your ISA and using the income from that to pay your rent? You get two things there, one is you build up a capital asset that roughly goes in line with house prices (house prices are usually high in booms and take a hit in recessions). You could use that to buy a house. The second is that once you have a capital asset enough to buy the typical house you would be able to afford on your salary, the income from those shareholdings probably makes a decent attempt at paying your rent.

I was in my late forties when I paid the last instalment on my mortgage. Monevator, by contrast, is out there in front 10 years ahead of me

As it is I’m in my late 30s with a portfolio big enough to buy a flat in London outright

Jammy b***d, good for him! Now there are significant differences – he is more entrepreneurial that I am, and I would imagine on what works out to be a better income – that is one of the advantages of working for yourself whereas I took the conservative and at the time safe approach of having an employer hedge all the business risks for me. Look at that difference in timescale. I did pretty well, discharging a 25 year mortgage in 20 years including one house upgrade, whereas Monevator has set himself up to be able to buy if he wished a decade earlier in his life, and in London, where he’s competing wit hthe financial whizz-kids and foreign shipping magnates inflating house prices.

There is much to be said for the investment asset approach rather than the bricks and mortar approach. With the latter, you are exposed for the full duration of the mortgage to losing your job and possibly having to sell up into negative equity or losing the house. Obviously with investments you can screw up royally or suffer a Great Depression, but provided you play safe and keep your wits about you then you won’t suffer a forced sale where your assets are marked to market.

Once you have the money to buy a house, and once you are old enough to retire/no longer need a job to survive financially, you can consider buying at a time of your convenience. For a house is a real asset, it is not purely a financial asset. That means it does something for you – it keeps the rain off your head and means you aren’t beholden to somebody else’s whim for accommodation. There are great advantages to non-financial assets in times of trouble, like the potential end of the eternal growth that industrial civilisation is predicated on.

They hold some of their value, unlike paper assets which can get rendered down to toilet paper by inflation or monetary disasters. But because of its illiquidity, if you have enough money to buy a house cash using the value of an investment portfolio, you are much better placed to tackle the modern world of insecure work and needing to move than you are as a mortgage holder.

I’m in awe of the road less travelled. It wouldn’t have worked for me (and many others) because I was an unsophisticated investor well into my thirties, so I wouldn’t have been able to build capital like Monevator.

My sophistication now is hardly much better, but my results are better, because I have learned so sit on my hands and do not churn my portfolio, and seek income which screens some of the wilder excesses (it’s not as simple as chasing yield which often drives you to excesses).

So the road less travelled is less travelled for good reason. It is hard, and it needs self-discipline and keeping one’s wits about you. Most people do not measure up to the requirements, so the conventional way of exposing themselves to the risk of negative equity and taking twenty or thirty years to pay down a mortgage is perhaps right.

But as M Scott Peck would be only too happy to remind us, there is value in the discipline of gaining the understanding of another way, and developing the skill to do it. Buying young and subjecting yourself to the whims of an increasingly dysfunctional workplace for two decades is not the only way. M Scott Peck would have the hordes of pricedout et al take heed, and perhaps look for the road not travelled. They could take their capital asset with them as they travel the country or continents seeking work. It is hard, because you have to forego the iFads and knuckle down to saving, a discipline which is forced on many in their thirties by the need to pay the mortgage or lose the house.

So I tip my hat to the intrepid travellers on the lonely road less travelled It is hard, but it looks like it may serve some of them well, and they deserve to get to the destination quicker.

Imbolc – as the light lengthens, so the cold strengthens

It’s the first of February, the ancient festival of Imbolc, the beginning of the natural world bursting into life in the UK. I got on my bike to cycle into work for the first time this year, and as I travelled along I enjoyed the sound of robins singing, sparrows chirping all around, chaffinches calling and great tits singing.

Nutters, the lot of them – February is also one of the coldest months of the year, and yet there are buds appearing on the trees and the birds are up for it. It doesn’t feel like it due to the cold, but perhaps Spring is really on her way 🙂 It is halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, and the beginning of the farming year.