Mankind is hard-wired to work, sez Nick Boles

Bollocks, sez the ermine. I could stop there and make this the shortest post on here, but such spurious claims should be consigned to the dustbin of history along with the idea you would die if you went over 30 mph and other such folly. I’ve batted on this wicket before, but it’s a good fight IMO.

Take it away, Nick:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral,” he writes.

“Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense.

“Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging … we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work.

Why ever the hell not? If the robots are as good as they’re cracked up to be, then let ’em have at it. Where did this argument that work was an essential part of life come from? Clearly historically human work has been needed to arrange the world to a state more congenial to human life, such niceties as having food in the winter etc. We probably needed a narrative for why things were so shit at times, in Western culture I’d suggest it started with the Bible, to wit

17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground;

Clearly the search for knowledge was disparaged in Paradise1, once the necky Adam had chomped on the apple he got a right bollocking, In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread and all that. No work, no eat, buster, who’s a clever boy then?

When the Ermine household still had a telly, we watched a series by Niall Ferguson titled Civilisation – the West and the Rest. The dapper and erudite  Niall was no match for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation,2 but he made the premise that this was turbocharged by Martin Luther, to the effect that the rest of the world got to eat our dust up to about 1950, curiously the date so many of us would like to wind the clock back to. The problem with elevating the doctrine of redemption by faith alone is that it is an invitation to slackers to sit on their backsides, so Luther gives these idlers a pre-emptive bollocking

Works are necessary for salvation but they do not cause salvation; for faith alone gives life.

and there we have it, a straight line of reasoning from Luther to Nick Boles, via the collective unconscious transmitted through culture.

In living proof that children have no taste, the young Ermine read a lot of science fiction back in the day. I recall my mother’s face blanching when I told her I had identified Asimov as one of my favourite authors at the grammar school entrance interview after the exam. I got in anyway despite this undesirable taste for pulp fiction.

Today’s readers should bear in mind this was a world where I saw Nasa putting people on the moon live on the school TV. There was no such thing as global warming, and the Limits to Growth hadn’t been published. These were the days when the white heat of technology was going to give us electricity too cheap to meter, well, that is, if it didn’t kill us first. As such the primitive awareness of my juvenile mind saw nothing wrong with the implied myth of continuous progress that underpinned Asimov’s stories, and anyway, he was a good storyteller.

I had a particular penchant for his Foundation series, but the story that Nick Boles and his fellow Calvinist work is good for you boosters need to read is probably The Naked Sun in which we are introduced to the Spacer world Solaria, settled some two and a half thousand years hence. It is populated by humans called Solarians.

Now it has to be said that Solarians are sick puppies by our standards3, not particularly physically but mentally/culturally, they hate being in each others presence, communicating with each other through screens. Anybody with teenagers probably thinks we are nine tenths of the way there already, Asimov’s genius lay in anticipating this pathology of the human makeup before it was technically viable and out there for all to see.

Solarians would never have tolerated being in the same room as each other, but we’re getting there

Solarians have the edge on our teenagers because they have cracked the work problem totally. They are vastly outnumbered by their robots, who do all the work. Our Nick really wouldn’t like it there.

Now I don’t believe for a minute that we will be colonising outer space, ever, and the pressing problem of using fossil fuels to vastly increase our population beyond the carrying capacity of the energy flow into the planet doesn’t bode well for the idea of settling Spacer worlds in a couple of thousand years. It’s not impossible, because perhaps as people get richer they have fewer children and we might be able to reduce the overall population to a sustainable level and have energy left over for that sort of thing. Or we might split into the .01% who own all the robotic resources and the rest of us be left to starve. Let’s hear it from Elon Musk

“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great – and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

— Elon Musk, CEO and Lead Designer, SpaceX

Yup. Makes you wonder why Peter Thiel is such a lightweight then and has given up on seasteading as being technically too hard – at least you get a free atmosphere and fish. Maybe he should hitch a ride to Mars.

One of the main issues with Nick Boles is that a lot of his vaunted work is going to be shit work, like Uber or bussing tables and getting coffee. Now if we could train capitalism to value, or at least tolerate people, then let’s get the robots to do the work. At the moment we have people doing low end work that a little bit of investment could get the robots doing, and then let’s all chill a bit and get rid of this antideluvian work is good for you concept. In a world where human work was needed to keep it habitable and people fed, yes, we needed religious prohibitions on slackers. If the robots are up to scratch then we can let those prohibitions go and stop lauding work as an innate Good Thing. I figure a universal basic income would stop companies taking the piss and employing people on zero-hours contracts doing work a bit of investment could automate. Shit work should be automated out of existence.

Neoliberals will take pot shots at all sorts of things about a universal income. The owners of capital4 like houses will drive up rents and enrich themselves because people can pay more. After all, Piketty identified the problem, which is that the return on capital is increasing faster than the return on labour, so people who have labour and no capital are losing the fight. Not many of us are born with capital to our names, although the Guardian claims there’s hope for the millennials now, as we go back to the future and dynastic wealth starts to matter.

All of these are indicative of an economy running up against natural limits to growth – capital accumulated slowly across generations in the centuries before the Industrial Revolution, but when productivity was boosted there was enough so that people in decent jobs in first World countries could accumulate wealth across a working lifetime in some cases. Productivity is falling and growth is lower than it was in the Sixties when I read those stories of extraterrestrial derring-do. Nevertheless, the Solarians have a good message for us, and we can read it in the story of the uber-rich, down to the Kardashians, the Ecclestone girls and all sorts, all the way down to Ermines. You really don’t need work to have a good time. It is a way, and it’s right for some, but don’t generalise, Nick. Work is overrated.


  1. one of the dreadful things the EU has been doing with our money along with spending it on Welsh roads and deprived areas in England has been setting up a website to disseminate European art, from which I got the cover picture The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man by Rubens and Breughel. You can read all about it and download a massive 9Mb image so you could use your 4k TV as a display of the finest art in the continent, all for free. I really am so glad we voted to get away from such effete pursuits. Presumably the Arts Council will use its vastly improved grant resulting from the Brexit dividend to do something similar in a year or so, focusing on British artists of course… 
  2. I was a little squirt at primary school then. The Ermine household was too poor to even know anyone with a TV never mind have one so I have never actually seen this, but my mother bought the book and I read it. I am of the general opinion that children have zero taste so it was probably largely wasted on me, but perhaps some of it stuck. 
  3. I’m not sure what it says about me, but I have a sneaking suspicion the Solarians would view us as the sick puppies, and I’m minded to say they really do have a point, in a world where for example we pay the Bath vice-chancellor half a million sods plus £2 biscuit money while we condemn young people to indentured servitude paying student loans off without having the balls to tell enough of them they aren’t bright enough to realistically get any return on investment. Not to mention a world where Nick Boles shoots his gob off about work being an inherent good. 
  4. Yeah, I know. And shares 😉 This is why we need regulation, to stop the owners of capital grabbing all of it. Nobody seems to be thinking never mind pitching for the happy medium 
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Simple Living in Suffolk is no more

WordPress is great as a blogging platform, but this Christmas period is the third time my self-hosted WP has been hacked over the odd ten years of running this, and I’ve had enough.

I didn’t give up work to spend my days trawling through loads of computer files to look for exactly where the particular cyber scum had crapped on. It was time to give up the fight against the tosspots of this world. People are always more tossy than I can be clever.

So the solution is that WordPress can have the problem. I even considered paying for it for a moment, but then decided against it. I’m not so vain that I need to have my own domain name at this stage, because I don’t monetize the site. If Monevator can’t work out how to do that then I sure as hell aren’t smart enough 😉

But I do learn and appreciate the dialogue. Mrs Ermine even talked me out pulling the plug by offering to pay the WordPress rent. So I moved the content and comments to WordPress.com.

The ermine didn’t get where he is today by paying for things he can’t touch. I have no mobile phone subscription, I don’t rent anything if I can avoid it and one of the first wins over spending I got on deciding to leave work was to shoot all subscriptions and then take it from there. I’m not going to break that habit yet, but the WordPress corporation can have the work of keeping the Mujahidin Cyber Army out of their sprawling and messy code. And I don’t ever want to see PHP again.

Oddly enough I can still make websites using old-skool passive html – using Jekyll is a good way to dynamically process pages and create a great website on something historical that doesn’t change much. It would even do a very good attempt at blogging. But the tragedy of all static html is that there is no comment system, for that you need the database, and that’s where it all starts to go pear shaped. Since interacting with commenters is the whole point of blogging IMO jekyll doesn’t work for blogging.

It’s also part of the wider shift I mentioned last time. I want to get away from the nitty-gritty of making particular things happen – it is the creativity of writing that I am after rather than making computers do something. I want to spend time in places like this

Brean Down, Somerset
Brean Down, Somerset

than behind a screen. I took time out from battling the Cyber Army to go out and listen to the tawny owls hooting in the garden, because it is good to know what matters in this world more. So I want to use my time well, and in this quiet time of the year it is important to think about what I will not do as well as what I will do. Because every yes to the owls and the trees with the moon is a no to something else like

1712_code

and I’ve seen too much of the latter 😉 Continue reading “Simple Living in Suffolk is no more”

Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement

It is now the winter solstice, the Holly King has vanquished the Oak King. It seems a good time of year to reflect on the balance of opposites, because uneasy lies the head that wears a crown...

The search for wisdom to go with knowledge is one of the themes of the second half of life.Joseph Campbell talked about the value of myth in passing on wisdom, in his magnum opus The Hero with a Thousand Faces. For nearly two decades after my mid-twenties I hardly read any fiction at all, and it probably impaired my ability to comprehend the mystery of being human. That was okay then – you don’t become an engineer because you have a burning sense of wanting to work with people and understand how they work 😉

Establishing themselves in society in the Turning Outwards in one’s twenties, most people find some aspects of their psyche easier to face the world with. The extrovert seeks the company of people, and feeds off their energy. I was not one of these, I was never going to become a salesman, a politician or a motivational speaker. The inferior function, that aspect of one’s psyche that is not normally set against the world, slumbers across the working years, it is not efficient to play a weaker hand.

In my case this is pretty much the whole of the humanities in terms of knowledge, and perhaps a gentling of the introverted nature. I didn’t pick any of this up when I retired in 2012,  perhaps the first few years were occupied with the process of recovery.

But I am picking up signals from these inferior1 functions, now that enough time has passed since stopping work, and now that I have moved. Although we knew a few people here from before, it is invigorating to start anew, and the people we are meeting here value different things in life. They are generally from a more artistic rather than an engineering background. It is early days yet, but perhaps widening the range of activities I cover offers a different kind of reward, developing what has been idle for a long time. I am learning different things – to take one example I have become a better photographer in the areas of composition and the decisive moment, while perhaps weaker in the technical control of the camera since I let this be done automatically a lot more now. I needed to push myself in different areas of the craft, ones I have left fallow too often because they weren’t my strong hand.

Jung posits that the inferior functions of the psyche  still run in the background, and as one gets older these seek expression, to maintain balance. I was surprised to come across the same concept derived from a very different angle from the author Brene Brown, with an unusual twist.

Looking at others, there is a general principle, that energy and capabilities need to flow, the water must find its way to the sea. What is suppressed backs up and will out, but I hadn’t really thought this extended to what is unused.

life as a journey

I am fortunate in that the town I moved to has several bookshops2, and on some previous visit a couple of years ago I picked up one that was remaindered for £5, titled New Passages, by Gail Sheehy. I had already read the original version titled Passages, (predictable crises of adult life) as a library book, and drew on a lot of it when I wrote Journey’s End. There was also a lot of dissonance for me in the case-studies of people as they went through the stages of life. I assumed the dissonance was due to the fact that most of the cases were American, and the book was written when I was a teenager so it describes a world several decades old.

The blurb of the new book was

At last, this is your story. You’ll recognize yourself, your friends, and your loves. You’ll see how to use each life crisis as an opportunity for creative change — to grow to your full potential.

Mrs Ermine appropriated the book so I never got to read it at the time, I figured she may as well read it first since I had already read the original version. I’ve only now started reading the new version, which was written in 1995, and the original version was written in 1976. And saw Sheehy had written about the end of my career when I was just over halfway through it.

“Just at the point when […] reached their forties. however, sweeping structural changes were revolutionising the American and Western European economies. A digital revolution happened under their noses. Worldwide industrial competition grows more fierce every year”

This did happen to The Firm, when I was in my thirties. I had just foolishly overpaid for my first house, so I kept my head down and sucked it up. I was lucky enough to be too young to be the obvious target for the massive rotating axe swung above the workforce’s heads in 1997. Some of those guys got fantastic payoffs, some in their 50s being able to draw their pensions immediately with no actuarial reduction, effectively transferring the cost of redundancy payment from The Firm to the pension scheme. And Sheehy foresaw that, and in applying it to the generation 10 years older than me, foretold what would happen to me just over a decade later.

Sheehy’s description of the experience of the American blue collar workers presaged Donald Trump’s base. I shared  with them a roughly fixed work identity after I had job-switched in my twenties. I was intellectually agile enough to change field entirely, from electronics engineering to software/IT/networking as well as leading people as I drifted up the greasy pole. But it’s nothing like Peter Drucker’s3 exhortations

“you have to take responsibility for knowing yourself so you can find the right jobs as you develop and as your family becomes a factor in your values and choices. […]Simply being well-educated is no longer enough.[…] When you don’t communicate, you don’t get to do the things you are good at.”[^4]

Hindsight is always a wonderful thing. because all the decision trees that fan out from any one state have been collapsed into what did happen, the one path pruned from the bushy growth of potential outcomes. But I can’t help wondering what would have happened if the younger Ermine had picked up Gail Sheehy’s signal earlier. I can’t even take solace in the thought that others didn’t see that coming – Jim at SMHD saw the writing on the wall in his thirties,

I used to worry about losing my job in my fifties quite a bit, and it was quite a driver behind the saving and investing that I did in my thirties and forties.

Jim SHMD

and I am a similar age. Jim may have been ahead of the curve here. The Cambridge alumnus magazine4 Cam 81 has a spine chilling vision of the ‘new normal’ global economy 3.0 where everybody should worry about losing their jobs, pretty much stick your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. It’s automation wot’s doing it, and

the reason firms in high-income countries want to pursue automation is because they are under competitive pressure from foreign imports.

A deadly economic flat spin coming our way. But hell, the bear case always sounds smarter, so let’s all whistle a dancing tune and invoke the optimist’s cure-all ‘human ingenuity’ and hope it doesn’t happen, eh? Having seen Sheehy be right on the economic forces, I figured I would see what she had to say about the more personal future. Continue reading “Winter solstice thoughts on reinventing oneself in retirement”

UK FI/RE folk are fortunate compared to other Europeans

I guess we’re still European at the moment 😉 Though I do wonder if our good fortune is perhaps connected with our impending departure from the continent. I came across Mrs W of whatlifecouldbe.eu[ref]I was surprised there are so many German FI blogs, and surprised to see German blogs are written addressing the second person singular not the formal third person plural[/ref]- who is already FI at 32, this is their story. Basically Scottish lass goes to work in Germany in 2005, meets handsome young Romanian fellow starting college, ten years later they have a couple of nippers and are FI/RE. Even my grizzled and cynical old heart is warmed by the tale of chutzpah, enterprise and general derring-do.

I confess that when I read the story of what makes them FI, invested 100% in a single asset class of German rental property it makes me feel a little bit squiffy for the FI part of their future, particularly when I hear Mr W’s diatribe about the SWR and equities in general. But then I recall that he is still in his early 30’s at a guess, so while I intensely disagree with Mr W’s approach to diversification and cavalier use of leverage,  it will probably work out just fine in the end though probably not exactly as planned. These guys have got human capital in spades. It’ll be all right on the night even if something goes wrong with the FI side of things. This fearful Ermine would be scared of with the mix of leverage and lack of diversification. Unlike the Ws, I have already earned all the money I will ever earn, so I have to be more timid, because I have no human capital in reserve.

What makes you FI/RE in your 30s is very different from what makes you FI/RE in your 50s

The world is too unstable to convincingly clock off in your 30s, unless you have a very serious trust fund behind you. Yes for Petra Ecclestone[ref]Queensberry rules require me to point out that the Graun makes out that Petra earns her crust. Do you believe that explains how you get to own a Hollywood mansion at 25? Me neither[/ref]

Petra Ecclestone. unlike you or I, doesn’t need to earn the money to put into her investments

no for people who have to earn the money to become FI.

In Petra’s case her dad did the heavy lifting, though I believe her mum wasn’t a pauper either. Mr W nails it, however, when he says passive income is worth more than net worth. Back in the dark days of 2009, I took the same line, albeit in a different asset class, and started building a high yield portfolio – at the sorts of valuations one was getting then it was possible to envisage getting there. And in all fairness I still have that HYP, and it’s paying a decent steady return in aggregate for what I paid for it then. The bad odds for FI/RE are written in the stats of the SWR – if it’s 4% then you need to save 25 times your desired annual spending rate that is a big ask for a working life of 20 to 30 years. You ain’t got years enough to get there from here if you are looking to live a normal life of spending most of what you earn.

You can get there if you earn a heck of a lot more than you plan to spend, but you then have the living like a celibate monk in a brothel problem because you will be surrounded by spendy peers. You can get there if you are prepared to work for 50 years, because the faint whisper of assistance of compound interest may give you a bit of a leg-up[ref]A bit like NASA’s ion drive, compound interest’s action is feeble compared Saving Hard, the equivalent of the sturm und drang of chemical propulsion. But it keeps going steadily, and over timescales longer than a FI/RE working life it can add up significantly[/ref]. But otherwise it’s a very, very long stretch. In your working life it’s also good to be able to buy a house, which is a hedge against paying rent, otherwise you will have to lift your savings target to cover renting for the rest of your life, so it’s all a tough ask.

Having an unleveraged stash of wealth it’s the canonical way older people look at becoming FI – you build up enough stock of assets that the flow of income from them is enough to make up for the flow of income you aren’t getting from selling your time or skills for money.

At this point most Brits would yell Get into BTL in my ear and indeed that’s what an awful lot of people do. If you still carry a mortgage on that BTL then it’s a bit like taking out a mortgage to buy the assets in one’s SIPP or ISA, it obviously reduces the upfront costs and you can get a lot more bang for your buck. For someone like me that would be insane, not just because I loathe real-estate as an asset class with a deep and heartfelt hatred born of the way it hurt me early in my working life, but also because I don’t have any earning potential left – my human capital is close to zero. You just don’t carry debt when you are all out of human capital[ref]there are specific times when it’s okay for FI/RE people to carry debt because of the 55 limit on drawing pensions, but as a general rule, don’t[/ref], because it’s a drag on your financial capital. But looking at how Mr and Mrs W do it, I wonder if perhaps leveraged BTL is more healthy in the young than in the old.

We are greatly privileged in the UK in terms of tax-sheltered accounts

We can shelter £20k a year in ISAs tax-free and up to 40k a year in SIPPs tax-free, which is stupendous compared to the paltry $6000 annual limit for the US equivalent of a SIPP, an IRA. In Canada that’s about $15000 CAD, about £9k p.a. Here we have people bitchin’ and a moanin’ about the lifetime allowance of £1M, our North American FI colleagues would find it hard to get that much after a normal lifetime of working. Then there’s free health provision, which is a whole world of hurt for US FI/RE people, which is a lot of money you don’t have to save for.

Then let’s look at the situation in Europe – countries like France have a wealth tax, and countries like Switzerland charge tax on the imputed rent of a house. In Belgium No More Waffles is battling a dividend tax rate of 30%.

There is, of course, a case to be made that is all a byproduct of the way British elites are keeping their money to themselves, tossing a few crumbs for the upper middle classes, making it look like anybody could do that. After all Britain has an ignoble tradition of government facilitating large scale tax evasion through looking the other way as far as tax havens and things like trusts to circumvent the already generous IHT allowances. Perhaps the FI/RE community is just slipstreaming the kind treatment of wealth and its owners, because they have to save much more money at a much higher rate than normal workers are doing. The generosity of the ISA allowance is roughly the same as the median UK household income of ~£23,000. Your average FI/RE saver is chuffed if they get to a savings rate of 60%. Getting to 90% is a serious stretch, so let’s face it, that £20k ISA allowance is one for the rich – FI people earning £50k p.a. net and probably normal people earning at least twice that. The rest will struggle to fill it each year.

Of course all this lost tax probably makes living in Britain a bit more shit for other people, and as a result said elites get an angry howl of rage when they hold referenda. So perhaps we might have had a better collective quality of life if the tax-sheltering regime were not quite so generous, but you have to work with the world as it is.

It’s not all upside, however

There’s trouble brewing in the increasing shitstorm being made of Brexit, where none of the protagonists can agree what success looks like though they all have very fixed but orthogonal views of what it should be. That, combined with flatlining productivity could lead to serious unrest in the years to come. There are some things historically peculiar to Britain – the general godawfulness that is hideously expensive housing. The horribly unequal distribution of jobs with all the investment happening in the southeast and London. You can find cheap housing in the UK, just not near any work of substance. Then there’s expensive tertiary education, which could be circumvented by studying in Europe as Mrs W did, but is no longer an option[ref]Whether the Erasmus scheme that served Mr W (and Mrs W perhaps?) carries on for UK students after Brexit is unclear but probably no because of the issue with free movement despite the Brexit boosterism of the torygraph – even they have to confess the Swiss had to craft a replacement after they voted to can free movement. For the Torygraph scenario to be right the UK Government would have to craft a Swiss style UK Erasmus replacement and fund it for cheaper studying in EU universities than the high cost of studying in England. In other news, a flock of pigs was seen flying to the coast[/ref]

Be grateful for what you have, UK FI/RE people, and sweat it while you’ve got it.

Gratitude is good for the soul, and British FI/RE aspirants have a massive leg-up in tax privilege compared to many other First World countries. Celebrate your good fortune, and hit it while you have it…