Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Your Bank Balance is at Zero

Your Bank Balance is at Zero
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My brother and I were awfully nerdy. In our pre-teen years we spent a lot of time on an Atari 520ST, playing clumsy video games and momentarily forgetting just how hard the fates had hit us with the “dork stick.” One of our favorite games was called SunDog, and something from it has stuck with me for a while now.

The fantasy of nothing

In SunDog, you travel from planet to planet, trying to do… something. Sorry, I can’t quite remember the actual point of the game. What I do remember is that you’d land your ship on various planets. Generally you started without any currency, but this world was yours to explore. Even at 12 years old this seemed exciting to me: having nothing meant little to lose, meanwhile, who cared, so long as you could discover new things?

SunDog was a game, and very little more; nevertheless, I can’t help but see how similar this game was to our actual lives. Aside from those born lucky, most of us arrive with very little currency, but are fortunate enough to have a whole world to explore. In SunDog you’d quickly become consumed by the game and worry about losing what you had managed to acquire. Life is like this too.

How we all turn into everyone else

Upon completing college, I momentarily fooled myself into thinking that I was different. I needed not a car, mortgage, or houseplants. There was little possibility that I would be caught by such trappings. No, I was special: a unique snowflake ready to embark on a great adventure filled with excitement and pure experience.

Sadly, it turns out that all that adventure I had imagined required cash. Neither train tickets, hostel bookings, student loans, or beer seemed to be on the same page as me. My activities closer to home weren’t all that different. Paint, canvas, brushes, all needed to be paid for as well. (And, yes Dad, I did buy a lot of CDs too.)

Soon, a few extra hours at my part-time job seemed like a good idea. Shortly thereafter a full-time opportunity seemed too good to pass up (I figured I could always cut back my hours later, If I chose to). With this small infusion of cash, I soon found myself reasoning out why a house would be a good investment, and how having a nicer car would help me, “visit my parents more often.”  (In truth, I thought it might help me fare better on dates.)

Get a cage early

Monthly payments are a brilliant thing for businesses looking to snare ongoing revenues. $70 or $90 a week really doesn’t seem like such a big deal for a car that is “yours,” smells “new,” and feels so good to sit in. First houses are much the same: “if the bank thinks I can do it, I guess I can do it!” These choices that seem so light and liberating are in fact attached to 50,000 pound weights, which very few ever seem to escape from.

Suddenly, the bills for the house renovations, assorted costs, and those “easy payments” seemed a little more daunting than I had first anticipated. I soon learned that having no cushion quickly leant stress to every aspect of my life, and I grew to resent the choices I had made and these things that once seemed so convenient and benign.

I was, however, incredibly lucky to have this experience in my early twenties, when I was still young enough to correct course. I did go on to experience other cages (of my own devisal) later in life, but those are stories for another day. The experience I gained was one of simple perspective: ownership goes both ways.

We’re renters for life

When it comes to one’s household, most either rent from a landlord or from a bank. The first option allows either party to sever the agreement rapidly. The second gives the occupant the opportunity to paint the walls without fear of having to vacate two months later. Look at either a little more closely, though, and the line gets fuzzier. The landlord doesn’t actually have the ability to act that quickly, and the bank can actually repossess the structure in spite of one being able to proudly exclaim, “I’m a homeowner!”

In my mind, it hardly makes any difference. I’ve now been on both sides of those situations, and neither seems to be a clear winner. You make your choice and you live with it, or, you change something. The point I’m trying to get at is that the notion of ownership isn’t quite as clear cut as we often like to think it is.

In addition to this, I’d like to return to that SunDog analogy because I think there’s another key parallel worth noting. No matter how much you manage to accrue during the course of the game, at the end, there’s little value to it aside from perhaps some sense of mastery in having completed the game successfully. You turn off the computer, and whatever you did in it remains there locked. Hmmm…

Drawing back the lens

Few of us want to die, as evidenced by such statements as, “if I die…” (like there’s some  possibility of an alternative). I hate to break it to you, but the only real variables are how and when. Other than that, we’re probably best to accept that you and I are both just toast. I find a kind of liberty in this knowledge. In fact, it suggests that most of the things I fret over are largely inconsequential, and that I shouldn’t squander these moments.

From a population control standpoint, though, this sort of thinking isn’t all that useful. Get people thinking that many of their decisions don’t really matter and you start to get an unruly populace. All of a sudden the game is completely different: If I’m going to die anyway, why do I need to panic about mortgage payments? If I’m on my way out, maybe I should take in some scenery instead of racing for a promotion. If I can’t take any of my stuff with me, was it ever really my stuff?

I’m not saying anything particularly new here. We all know that it all amounts to very little. The fact of the matter is that we elect to buy into the game most days, and for good reason. Monopoly isn’t much fun until you get into it. Saying, “it’s just a game,” every 30 seconds will quickly reduce the experience to one worth avoiding. Life isn’t that different: achievement is gratifying, consumption is fun, and the small victories along the way aren’t inconsequential. Experiencing these things necessitates treating it as a “for real” thing. Nevertheless, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask yourself whether you’re playing the right game.

The problem with ownership

I don’t wish to deny anyone the pleasure of material comforts. I am no pious monk living in bliss on some mountain, and I have no aversion to technology or creature comforts. What I do wonder is whether we might all benefit from rethinking our stuff, rather substantially. My strong belief is that owning is a limited construct that diminishes more than it adds.

On a personal level, owning is inconvenient. You need to pick it up, store it, clean it, move it, and dispose of it. My suspicion is that the last point I noted will increasingly become a bigger issue. I predict that within the next 5 – 10 years, we’ll (rightly) start having to pay for disposal. Beyond that, there are the associated costs. Buying a house isn’t just about buying a house. It typically means also buying a hammer, wall fasteners, door mat, lawn mower, rake, fertilizer spreader, mouse traps… and the list goes on. Sure, renting a house comes with some of these costs; my point is simply that a single purchase often necessitates the acquisition of many other things.

My greater concern is that ownership makes us think in “me” terms, and this is horribly destructive. It leaves us thinking that we’ll accept a low priced product from Walmart, in spite of how the costs were externalized, be it child labor or environmental abuse. It leaves us wary of lending things to others, fearing that they may not be returned. The perverse reality here is that by sharing, we can all get access to stuff when we need, it without even having to pay. Besides, when it comes down to it, most of the stuff you own will end up selling for 50 cents or going to goodwill in the event of your death. Truth be told, your kids probably don’t want your crap either. They are too busy buying (and hoarding) their own.

The joy of renting

By owning your music collection, you’re forced to store it, organize it, and back it up. Why not just subscribe to a service that allows you to listen to what you want, when you want? The cost will likely be more agreeable than owning, while freeing you from some unnecessary burdens. Or, instead of owning a car, why not join a car co-op within which you can get the car you want, when you want it, free of the hassle and substantial cost, of owning one?

Embracing a rental mindset allows you access to all the same stuff, with (most times) fewer headaches. Even if you own a house, you can house-swap it with someone on another continent and experience something completely new. Curiously, you do in some ways “own” experiences more than material possessions. By starting a local sharing network, you can get access go your neighbors tools, and vice versa, while building community. By giving away your ideas, you stand to gain access to other interesting people, new insights, and ultimately, access to even more ideas.

A rental mindset reminds us that every material thing we have is only in our possession temporarily. We don’t own our computers, we’re just renting the gear, until it goes to rest in a landfill. We don’t own our ideas, they are simply an amalgamation and mingling of those many influences lent to us by others. And we don’t even own the money in our bank accounts or investment portfolio. As we recently witnessed, it only takes a bit of collective panic to reduce the agreed upon value of these things substantially.

The long view

One of the things we do own is our legacy. Long after we’re worm food, the things we’ve done, said, thought, and fought for, will remain. A rental culture is better in tune to this actuality than one locked in in the illusion of ownership.

Your decision to give back to your community will impact the lives of others. Your decision to not drive a car will extend our species’ stay on the planet, and the quality of it. Your choice to do more than collect a private mountain of riches will afford you time to consider the needs of others and seek to understand them. This last point will pay out greater dividends than owning any object adorned with a “desirable” logo. (For what it’s worth, when I see a Louis Vuitton handbag, I’m not impressed; I just see a sucker. Same goes for your BMW.)

All of us, from the dawn of time to the end of our existence (and beyond) are connected. We’re all drawing from the same pool, which means you can’t actually own anything. Such a notion is solely a remnant of a less sophisticated and socially evolved time. That being said, you can experience almost anything, and if you’re crafty, may never even have to pay for some of it.

Isn’t that infinitely better?

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