28 February 2013

The Ponzi Life

A Berlin family of three has been living on practically nothing but love and the goodwill of others for more than two years and counting—not as a victims of the rough economy, but as activists who are on a money strike to protest what they call our “excess-consumption society.”

I’m not a fan of the materialism of this modern age; it strikes me as a particularly pernicious form of idolatry.  However, the idea that one need not work to enjoy life is simply stupid and foolish, and in many ways reminds of the Tim Ferriss “Four Hour” lifestyle, of which I wrote the following around a year ago:*

J.W. Black had a post taking on Tim Ferriss’s Four Hour Work Week, which I now recall reading roughly eighteen months ago.  I also recall that my main impression of the book was that it was nothing more than hogwash, a Ponzi scheme of sorts.  The reason I concluded this was because a simple question:  What would happen if everyone followed this guy’s advice?  Answer:  everyone would be poor because no one would be producing anything.

It also calls to mind the recent dustup between Mike and Chuck, when Mike encouraged Chuck to find a way to earn money online.  The fundamental problem shared by the Berlin family, Tim Ferriss, and Mike is that none of them are producing anything.  The Berlin family is straight up living off of others’ excess productivity, and Mike is hustling others’ productivity (although his role as a marketer/connector is far more defensible, though), and most of what Ferriss produces can be classified as feel-good bullshit.  He sells a lifestyle that few can attain.

And the reason that few can attain this lifestyle is because production is necessary to economic success.  An economy fails when it stops producing tangible goods that people need (especially if those goods are related to food, shelter, and clothes).  Now, it is certainly true that an economy needs more than producers; distributors and marketers play a key role as well.  But the value of distributors and marketers, for example, are entirely contingent on the value of producers.  Without production, distributors and marketers are completely worthless, as they have no product.  Thus, the notion that all, most, or even a decent number of people can live without money, or make decent money online via an affiliates program, or whatever bullshit Ferriss peddles is simply not true because none of these can escape the very simple law of diminishing returns, and none of these can escape the fact that they are contingent on someone else’s productive capital.

The success fallacy is clear in these examples, for those who succeed believe that their success was inevitable (in the sense that it clearly happened) and is therefore replicable.  The simple fact of the matter is that one person’s ability to succeed is highly dependent on a magnitude of variables, the vast majority of which one simply does not have control over.  Time and chance does indeed happen to everyone.  Not only that, the laws of economics and markets win out in the end, and so all men are subject to diminishing marginal returns and market saturation.  There is thus no point in trying to perfectly imitate a man’s success because it is impossible.  Perhaps you could attain some degree of another’s success, but this is not guaranteed, and so it is wise to take another’s job/career/money advice with a grain or two of salt.

* From an unpublished blog post titled, “An Economy of Tim Ferrisses,” originally written January 17, 2012.