Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Double negative

I didn't set out to blog about grand themes, but that's how it's been shaping up. I can't imagine sustaining a rate of a post every couple days, always on a topic of life-or-death importance. At some point I'll either have to slow down the pace or lighten up the subject matter. But for now, here's another post on life, death, etc.

Having recently graduated from law school to embark on a career, I figured it's an opportune time for me to read up on managing one's personal finances. The consensus seems to be that Your Money or Your Life is the book to get, at least for the big picture of how your money should fit into your life. (Go here for the official "detailed summary" of the whole book.)

So I'm reading it. I'm in no position to critique the book as a whole -- I'm just a couple chapters in. But I do have a couple problems with it. Not only do the authors, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin (hereinafter YMOYL), set out to frame your life as negatively as possible (which seems excessive!), but they also botch some basic facts.

They try to break down the amount of time you have left to live. If you're an average 40-year-old, you have 37 years left to live, which is 329,601 hours, which they call "life energy." That's all fine with me. Moving on: "Assuming about half of your time is spent on necessary body maintenance -- sleeping, eating, eliminating, washing and exercising ..." Again, still sounds reasonable -- I have no problem with that assumption. But they go on: "... you have 164,800 hours of life energy" -- that is, only half of the rest of your life -- "remaining for such discretionary uses as:

• your relationship to yourself
• your relationship to others
• your creative expression
• your contribution to your community
• your contribution to the world
• achieving inner peace and ...
• holding down a job." (pp. 55-6)*
You see the problem, right? Now, this is from the revised edition of the book, so no one pointed this out to them in seven years. Assuming they're right that 50% of your time is spent on body maintenance, it doesn't follow that you only have 50% of your time available for things other than body maintenance. You can eat food ... while developing a relationship with someone (or yourself!). You can go for a walk or a run (which, as he says, is body maintenance because it's "exercise") ... while trying to achieve inner peace. You can think creatively in the shower. If you're lucky, you can write a song in your sleep.

The bottom line is they've implicitly eliminated "half of your time" from what counts as your real "life." I don't think that's a minor technicality! As I said, I'm still expecting to get a lot out of this book ... but I have to question whether someone who makes such a consequential calculation error is the person I should be taking advice from about how to make a budget.

This got me thinking about Thomas Nagel's essay Death, from his book Mortal Questions. He asks whether death is really so bad (assuming there's no afterlife).**

Here's Nagel's argument in a nutshell: If death is bad, it is “bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.” His proof of this is that we consider it unfortunate to have a relatively short life, while no one thinks it's unfortunate to be dead for a relatively long period of time. No one would say that Haydn is less fortunate than Schubert because Haydn died in 1809 and has thus been dead for longer than Schubert, who died in 1828.

OK, so death is bad because it takes away life, and life is good. Well, if that's what's bad about death, then death is always bad, because death always takes away your chance at living more life, even if you live to be 100. (This is still Nagel's argument, not mine.) The fact that it's normal to die before you reach 100 should be no consolation: if everyone died in agony, that would plainly be bad even though it would be normal. Death at a ripe old age is really "just a more widespread tragedy" than dying young. And here's the last sentence of the essay: "If there is no limit to the amount of life that it would be good to have, then it may be that a bad end is in store for us all." That's it! No uplift!

Well, that's about the coldest, most impersonal philosophy of life (let alone death) that I've ever seen. Isn't a whole huge dimension missing from this? Life isn't just some constant that you either have more or less of. It's not just quantity -- it's quality too.*** To point out the obvious, people have different attitudes toward different stages of life. When you expect that something will probably happen (death at an old age at the end of a full life), you're well prepared to accept it. Acceptance is a reasonably good feeling, and feeling good is good. I don't think any further argument is needed to justify a feeling of acceptance (unless it's actively causing harm somehow, e.g. accepting the smell of a gas leak). It may be an arbitrary fact about the world that death at 80 is normal, whereas death at 40 is shocking. But once we take that arbitrary fact as a given, it's not arbitrary to structure our expectations around it.

But that's just what I think, and I'm just a blogger, so what I say has no credibility because it hasn't been checked. If you want to know what the experts think -- the ones who have credibility because their words have been printed on dead trees -- it's: you only have half as much potentially enjoyable life as you thought you had, and ... it will end tragically.

But it's even worse than that. I don't have the space to list all the ways YMOYL tells you your life is not as good as you thought. But suffice it to say that they seem to write off most of your time spent at work, as well as any time running errands. (I'm sure that later on in the book they'll give examples of people who enjoy their jobs, but that's certainly not the picture they've painted so far.) When you add all this up -- or I guess I should say, subtract all this down (?!) -- you really don't have much life left that's enjoyable rather than drudgery. But, as we learn from Nagel, it's all over much too quickly.

Now, aren't Nagel and YMOYL**** both making the same mistake? They both seem to be assuming that experience -- or, in other words, living -- is this fixed thing that's just sitting there, waiting to be objectively analyzed, assessed, weighed. But really, given a particular experience (say, working at your current job), you have tons of flexibility in how you experience it. No matter what you do, you can certainly choose to experience it as meaningless drudgery. (Incidentally, the next essay in Nagel's book is about whether we should see all our endeavors as meaningless.) But unless you have a really low-quality job (I'm thinking coal miner here), it's a pretty good bet that you can decide to just go ahead and be energized by your work, feel a sense of "drive" and "mission."***** OK, I'm making that sound a lot easier than it is, I know. But so far (again, just a couple chapters in), YMOYL makes it sound impossible. And if you can even think about shifting to a more positive mindset for your job, you can certainly do it for walking to the grocery store and buying food to bring home and cook dinner with (all of which the authors would apparently count as wasted time).

I may have an update later, once I've read and absorbed all of YMOYL. But it's 9 steps, and they look like they might take me a while.

* Bullet points and ellipsis in original. [back]

** In addition to excluding the possibility of an afterlife, he also excludes the concerns of people (or things) aside from the person who dies. In other words, he's just asking whether death is subjectively bad for the person who dies, not whether it's an objectively bad thing for the world as a whole. [back]

*** If I'm right about that point, then this has huge implications for a lot of controversial issues. [back]

**** Sorry for the lack of parallelism, but YMOYL is a co-authored book. What was I supposed to say -- "Nagel and Dominguez and Robin both make the same mistake"?! [back]

***** On that topic, I have to eventually read Flow. Without having read it yet, I wouldn't hesitate give it my completely unqualified -- in both senses of the word -- recommendation. [back]


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

The ideal is to be wholly present in everything you do, whether it's taking out the garbage or inventing the Worldwide Web. No time is ever wasted.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

PS, Neil Young wrote "Down by the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand" on the same day, while he was in bed with a 103ยบ fever from the flu. Good multi-tasking!

Ann Althouse said...

I read "You Money or Your Life," and I love the idea of becoming financially independent, but if the point of becoming financially independent is to do what is meaningful to you, wouldn't it be way easier to get a meaningful job in the first place (or to find what is meaningful in your job)?

I think the book is good for political activists and others who specifically care about doing something that isn't profitable.

Simon Kenton said...

"YMoYL" is a guide to finding where you are, financially, but you could learn as much from using a copy of Quicken, and get tax portability at the same time. From a technical perspective (ie, teaching you how money really works), YMoYL is a crappy blueprint for achieving financial independence. And it is disfigured, as your parents point out, by the assumption that all modern jobs are mired in quiet desperation. There are more types of jobs now than in all history, and some of them are perfect - you come home exhausted, excited, full of ideas you can't wait to implement tomorrow, disbelieving that you are actually being paid to do something so wonderful. The essence, the base, for getting rich is "consume less than you create." "Create," not "drudge through," or even, "produce." There are lots of jobs that let you actually create, or provide actual service.

For a primer on starting a mature economic life, the agreeably vulgar "The Wealthy Barber" is what I give everybody your age who has had a standard high school education. Takes about an hour to read. Jejune, but covers all the critical bases.

When you want to start thinking about how you actually take the bits of capital you are regularly accumulating each month and multiply them, there are two books to read. First is "The Intelligent Investor." Graham, who was Buffet's mentor, was a polymath (4 degrees in one day: math, classics, english, and philosophy) of whom it was well said that his teachings have made a number of people rich, while it is difficult or impossible to find anyone his teachings have made poor. Graham you read with pencil in hand, jotting tests and hypotheses you will apply to potential investments.

Second is Bernstein's "The Four Pillars of Investment." If you are not willing to focus the time and intelligence necessary to buy individual stocks, he teaches how to use mutual funds for wealth.

Largely missing from these 3 (it's mentioned in "Barber") is one of the best ways a young person can provide real service while creating wealth: housing his friends, ie, real estate. I've a simple prescription about debt: "Debt is GREAT. Wallow in it. So long as other people are paying it for you. Otherwise, Never Use Debt." No one in their right mind would pay you to go on a vacation or buy an GPS or get a small airplane. But they will pay your debt if you provide them agreeable housing. When you come to buy your first house, rent part of it to friends, and when you move on, keep it. From a tax perspective real estate is the only game in town. Out of the batches of real estate books, I recommend none. Get a mentor, and/or wing it.

Being financially independent IS fun. Money's fun, and whether you personally come to like it or not, it's one of those teachable, relatively simple skills the mastery of which makes your life go a lot easier.

John Althouse Cohen said...


I'm not so sure that the book is geared toward "political activists and others who specifically care about doing something that isn't profitable." He gives anecdotes of counterculture, anti-consumerist types who are hoisted by their own petard because they just end up needing to focus more on scraping by. They rejected conventional notions of how to make money, but then that caused them to end up with very little money, so they had to come up with odd-jobs on the spur of the moment that weren't very profitable, and had to spend all the more effort on those endeavors because of how unprofitable they were.


You have the honor of being the first person ever to comment on my blog who doesn't know me (or who isn't related to me). Thanks so much for the book recommendations and financial advice. It'll take me a while to implement all of this, but I will look into it.

I'm glad to hear you're fairly sympathetic to my qualms about YMOYL. I had been assuming that it was really great and I just wasn't seeing it. But maybe it's just not that great.