Friday, October 01, 2010

Solutions Part Five: Low-Cost Lifestyle and Hybrid Work

National/social solutions are elusive, but we can change our own lives via simple goals: low-cost lifestyle, prioritizing and hybrid work.

I recently received an email from long-time reader Lee B. which encapsulated the key principles of household-level solutions to our uncertain, troubled times. Boiled down to their essence, these are:

1. low-cost lifestyle

2. prioritizing one's goals, energy, money and time

3. hybrid work--developing a mix of income sources, projects and investments in yourself and your own life

Here is Lee's story:

Some years ago, I fell in love with the wild Southwest and bailed out of the middle class. With my teachers retirement check from 10 years of teaching, I bought an adobe ruin and one acre of land in New Mexico. It was uninhabitable by any standard. It came with no plumbing, heating or any government interference. The taxes were $45 per year. I worked like a slave to rebuild what probably should have been bulldozed, and just a mere 40 years later it is a valuable restored vintage adobe ranchito.

Most of the construction methods I used, although traditional, wouldn't pass any building code. While doing reconstruction sporadically, I made jewelry, washed dishes, did all sorts of informal work to earn money. My tax burdens were very light, there were many people doing the same thing at that time, so there was no social stigma for using an outhouse, carrying water and heating with scrap wood. It was the eternal camping trip, it was a lot of fun!

Being young, reasonably healthy with no kids was a big part, but as you point out one's attitude and the proximate society determine whether this life is a camping trip or grinding poverty. The informal economy is what allowed me to put together a very satisfying life, sucessful legit business, raise kids, and manifest the real promises of the American Dream.

You are spot on about the corrosive effects of excessive government regulations, taxes, licenses and the rest of the constraints on our real freedom to make a life for ourselves.

The sad truth is that no government gives us freedom, we were all born free, governments only function is to reduce our freedom for their benefit.

Thank you, Lee. Despite the famous "can-do" spirit of America, the ugly reality is that we as a society have absorbed a "can't do" attitude in which everything that is different from the status quo is "impossible." As soon as anyone suggests an alternative, critics quickly tear it apart in order to dismiss it as "impossible," impractical, etc.

Excuse-mongers arise in limitless hordes to make excuses for why average Americans couldn't possibly do the "impossible." Regardless of the origin of the critic--left, right, center, Libertarian, etc.--the criticism all boils down to this:

"It can't be done because it would threaten the foundations of the status quo on which I am totally dependent. Thus any challenge to the status quo is a threat to my swag/lifestyle/value system."

Beneath the surface, the excuse-mongers are all terrified of the possibility that alternatives to the status quo are not just possible but viable. If enough people (say, the magic 4% which can exert outsized influence on 64% of the populace, according to the Pareto principle) opt out of the status quo, then the entire system is suddenly vulnerable to widespread, sudden change.

For the tens of millions who are totally dependent on the Central State/Plutocracy partnership remaining dominant, that is a terrifying prospect.

The "can't do" culture is one of passive complicity with a State/crony-capitalist status quo that actively stripmines the nation and the planet to benefit the few at the top. Those dependent on the State/corporate alliance have been effectively bought off and/or brainwashed--hence the desperate need to attack, destroy, undermine, co-opt and dismiss any and all alternatives to the status quo that can't be sentimentalized into a tourist attraction.

Let's take debt as an example. The standard defense of the status quo depends on the view that Americans are debt-serfs because they really can't live any other way. Without debt they wouldn't be able to consume 40% of the planet's output and thus they would somehow dry up and blow away in the first zephyr.

If Americans didn't borrow and spend, America itself would dry up and blow away. It's become a patriotic duty to take on a crushing load of debt for life.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, some Americans are ridding themselves of $125,000 in toxic debt in 26 months. Blogger/vet Tommy K. explains how he did it in his free e-book, Off the Economic Grid.

I can hear the naysayers already. The excuses are infinite for why this is "impossible."

Let me illustrate what is "impossible."

Playing guitar, violin or piano is impossible. If you have zero experience with any of these instruments, please pick one up and try to play it. It is truly impossible. Your fingers can't even hold the strings down properly, much less move around fast enough to play a song. There aren't any frets on the violin, so it's impossible to know where the notes are on the strings.

And so on.

Yet millions of people learn to play these instruments adequately, if not expertly. The learning curve is extremely steep, and the effort shock is strong ( Effort Shock, Future Shock and the Promise of Transformation, June 2, 2010).

The first steps are painfully arduous and the payoff meager. Slowly, through practice and devotion, one's skills advance. What was clearly impossible becomes easy.

So to critics who say, "I live in the city, I can't buy an old adobe," I would suggest looking outside the status quo for answers. Look into co-housing, group homes bought and shared by more than one household, warehouses--solutions will not be found by pursuing the status quo of buying a hugely overpriced dwelling with a gigantic mortgage, most of which ends up being interest paid to the financial Plutocracy over 30 long years.

As Eric Andrews noted in yesterday's entry, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions. Everybody has to fashion ones that work for them, generally through trial and error. Failure is our friend, our Master Teacher.

If you can fashion a very low-cost lifestyle, all else become possible. In a low-cost lifestyle, cash can be leveraged rather than squandered paying financial Elites and global cartels.

Once you can free up a little cash, invest in something you own: if not a piece of land or a building you can share/rent out, then invest in yourself: your own skills, an informal business, a "social capital" network based on giving rather than getting, a community organization you care about-- the possibilities are many.

Place the highest priority on preserving your individual autonomy: resist social determinants (you don't have a Masters Degree, you can't possibly succeed, you can't possibly be healthy because you can't afford a personal trainer, etc.), TV and other media brainwashing.

Establish goals and priorities and devote yourself to them with a 100% commitment. Correspondent R. Stephen recently attuned me to Americans' general inability to set meaningful priorities. Perhaps this is another example of the permanent adolescence which now characterizes our culture that I have described before, or perhaps it is yet another pernicious consequence of a media-addled culture based on insecurity and distraction. The exact causes are another topic, but for now the point is simple:

Do you have simple, clear priorities and do you act on them daily? We are what we do every day, and so daily action on a small set of priorities is the foundation of any solution.

Self-reliance and resilience are built upon multiple sources of income/work.Drawing upon a variety of types of work is what I term hybrid work: some is paid, some earns less, some earns more, some may be formal, some informal, other work might be unpaid but the payoff is social capital or work experience that gains new skills.

Once you have a very low-cost lifestyle, cash earned from menial tasks is enough. What is "impossible" for those with high-cost lifestyles becomes possible.

Recently, a professor whose annual household income was well above $250,000 wrote a self-pitying blog entry about how an additional tax on his income would crimp his lifestyle and basically preclude his living the American Dream. His refreshing bit of candor was widely criticized as Elitist.

But perhaps the gentleman was being savaged for a much more serious crime: he dared put into words the adolescent sense of entitlement which characterizes the entire American culture. Once stated so baldly, the rank absurdity of this over-reaching entitlement became painfully obvious. Thus it had to be savaged. But how many Americans think and feel the exact same entitlement?

Solutions cannot be found by following the status quo road. The constant drumbeat of propaganda sends these subtexts: the American debt-serf "lifestyle" is the best on Earth. Any alternative is either "impossible" or awful.

Perhaps, but let's always start by asking cui bono--who benefits? Perhaps all the vaunted debt-serf lifestyle really does is feed a rapacious global Empire and distract the debt-serf from the cold realities of their plight.

Solutions abound; the impossible is possible, with a bit of prioritizing, practice, fresh thinking and willingness to learn from the Great Teacher, failure.

All these ideas are drawn from Survival+.

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