Let’s Get Real

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Shall we start tonight’s post with a shockingly beautiful, profound quote?

This is from Haruki Murakami, The Japanese writer after whom my wife and I named our oldest son.

“If there is a hard, high wall and an egg that breaks against it, no matter how right the wall or how wrong the egg, I will stand on the side of the egg. Why? Because each of us is an egg, a unique soul enclosed in a fragile egg. Each of us is confronting a high wall. The high wall is the system which forces us to do the things we would not ordinarily see fit to do as individuals.We are all “human beings, individuals, fragile eggs We have no hope against the wall: it’s too high, too dark, too cold, To fight the wall, we must join our souls together for warmth, strength. We must not let the system control us – create who we are. It is we who created the system.”

This quote was used against me to devastating effect, as a criticism of the smug logic of my post yesterday.

And here is the explanation from my friend who launched the attack.. The answer to my question, “Beautiful quote, but who’s the egg and who is the wall?”

“They say that the top 1% owns something like 90% of wealth in the world. We are in that group despite the range of wealth within the 1%. I’m just wrestling with the classic redistribution of wealth problem. Because much of what we spend goes to further enrich the rich, it’s only either tax-and-spend or charity that frees up capital for the poor. In theory (and I know it’s not simple), we need to be taxed more or be made to give more to help address wealth disparity and all its attendant ills. Not spending money is easy for you and me because we can afford it and are wired to feel bad being wasteful. What I wrestle with emotionally is how to allocate what I don’t spend toward savings vs. using (it) to address the present needs of the 99%. We are all eggs. The wall is the system that justifies giving nothing. But my instincts remind me of other motivations for action like generosity that I often neglect. The wall is is the economic language of efficiency that suppresses and even extinguishes generosity. Your post “Never Pay Taxes” had triggered a momentary paranoia about our fading collective interest. ……For full disclosure, here are my recent biases: (1) I just returned from Mexico where greed and injustice abounds. (2) The consequences of poverty is on my mind working with crusaders at the County. I appreciate your thoughts and value your criticism.”

Tough to argue with that right?

To waste time splitting hairs on the ethical dilemma of how to justify tax avoidance as a self proclaimed progressive in America is self-indulgent from just about any angle.

I am, (and I would guess that you, the reader, are too) the product of extraordinary luck. I was born into the richest of first world countries. I was spoon fed an education and a nutritious diet. I was sent off to a four-year summer camp called college to pursue the career of my dreams.

Because of this massive inheritance, I can now pump dead dinosaurs into my SUV, while sipping a drink made from roasted Third World beans capped off with a frothy soy emulsion, and motor around my town, my butt warmed all the while by the electrical heating elements built-in to my leather seats.

And what talent has allowed me to live this dream existence?

Dumb luck.

The odds were not in my favor.

Statistically I could’ve more easily been born into an Indian slum, a Somali tribal zone, or a North Korean work camp.

But I wasn’t. And so all this luxury is just the baseline. The assumed. My entitlement.

So where to go from here?

Is it possible to justify this indulgent early retirement philosophy simply because it strikes me as such an important and positive thing?

Maybe not, but you know I’m going to try….

As far as I can tell, we humans are just dumb animals like any others.

Our unique cerebral cortex has given us the ability to make amazing tools, to overcome our predators, and to overwhelm our prey.

For the time being, we are a huge evolutionary success story.

But our social structures have created huge disparities in resources among humans. (Let alone between humans and other species.)

So what is a resource rich, lucky member of the 99th percentile of the most successful species on the earth to do?

After all we’re just dumb animals. And just as the impulse for survival and procreation dominates each individual within a pride of lions or baboons, so too is this impulse written in bold repetitive type onto our own genome.

So what are our options?

I can imagine a few different approaches.

1. Ignore the injustice and go about your life.

This is what most of us do 99.9% of the time, probably because it is the most adaptive thing to do; The most in keeping with the central message of our DNA. “Survive and procreate, and don’t waste time. ”

2. Step away from the chaos. 

If the game of survival is too messy, why not take the monastic approach? Take an oath of celibacy to avoid the messiness of competition for mates and resources.

Do like Mother Teresa, Or the Dalai Lama. Tend to those less fortunate. And avoid earthly comforts. Bury your animal nature. Stop playing the game.

3. Pursue happiness.

This is where early the retirement philosophy comes in.

By recognizing the illusory quality of endless material striving, The early retirement enthusiast is able to pursue happiness without ceaselessly tending to his ever-expanding appetites, and constantly fending off his perceived material threats.

He is compelled to become efficient so that he can save more money so that he can retire sooner so that he can stop working and be free.

But this drive for efficiency is just an accidental antidote to his ingrained animal impulse to always extract more from his environment and from his fellow humans.

His own greed for freedom allows him to recognize when he has collected enough, and voluntarily exit the workforce undistracted by his secondary greed for things.  (This is where my argument is weakest, I have no evidence for this impulse but the anecdotal experience of my own little animal life.)

And when he exits the workforce, his job remains. And someone else moves into it. And the wealth is spread around a little (not through a redistributive taxation policy, but through each individual player pursuing his own animal instinct for freedom. )

Sure. It’s incremental. And it takes time. And it assumes that for most of us our desire for freedom is paramount. (And what’s so adaptive about a drive for freedom?)

But what is the alternative?

Revolution doesn’t work. Because the oppressors are animals, and the oppressed are too.  When they switch places the roles change but the dynamics do not. The proletariat becomes the sadistic Communist Party, and the czarists become oppressed laborers toiling away in Siberia.

And Saints are great, but they’re just too few and far between. They are mutants like the impossibly tall giants or the impossibly short little people who live on the edges of humanities bell curve.  There are just not enough of them to really bring about change.

And as far as I can see, feeling guilty about injustice, or wailing about the wall that cracks delicate eggs, accomplishes nothing.

The egg is still the egg cracked on the ground. And the wall is still the wall impossible and large.

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4 Responses to “Let’s Get Real”

  1. Robert February 21, 2014 at 6:33 am #

    For this one, I’ll answer the math problem first and not lose my–in this case–5 minutes of thought. LOL.

    You argue this as if wealth is a zero-sum game. I don’t think it is. Your working hard and enjoying life isn’t depriving someone in Somalia from doing the same, nor will your stopping and moving into an early retirement help that person or “create a space” for someone else. If anything, you are an investment vehicle for society, and the investment society has made in your education and training is now being repaid. Sure, you are benefiting from it, but so is society. If you quit early, it is possible that society’s investment will not be repaid or earn a profit. If you work longer, the resources that society would have had to invest in your replacement can be invested in something else, and the person who would have done your job can do something more productive (not saying you aren’t productive; I’m saying that replacing you because you quit early is not productive).

    Look at it another way. If this were a zero sum game, then maybe ethical 1%ers should just commit suicide and take themselves out of the game, freeing up resources for the 99%. Or for yet another way of looking at it, you can argue that traffic accidents, homicides, etc., are bettering society by freeing up more “spaces” for others to find work. No…I hope you agree that wealth and work are not zero sum games. These are not ways to increase societal wealth or wellbeing.

    Your examples of the luck of birth illustrate that it is the wall that makes the difference–what system you are born into has a huge effect on your success. So you can work for better walls, as well as stronger eggs. We have different views on how that can be done, but it is a marketplace of ideas and yours are as important as mine.

  2. Miles Dividend MD February 21, 2014 at 5:59 pm #


    These are good points. But I write about myself simply because it is the only perspective that I have, not because my specific job or my specific wealth is particularly important. Substitute a union autoworker. It’s just as good.

    So let’s forget for a moment about my use to society and my particular job.

    I am not arguing that wealth is a zero-sum game.

    What I’m trying to convey in this post, is that I wish to live in a world with a little less extreme wealth and (much more importantly) far less devastating poverty.

    But I don’t believe that simple redistribution works. it is too unnatural and counter to our animal nature.

    My thesis then is similar to the justification for “the free market.” the pursuit of early-retirement harnesses our own animal selfishness towards a greater good, unconsciously, and naturally. And this putative greater good is one in which there is less exploitation of resources, and fellow humans, and surprisingly a more even distribution of resources.


  3. Elenor February 23, 2014 at 9:27 am #

    Interesting discussion. Just found your blog. As I see it, the problem with ‘structuring your own life’ on behalf of other people (e.g., NOT retiring early because here are starving people in Somalia) is just foolish wishing. All thes… let me rephrase that: MANY of these ‘early retirees’ are not going to just sit like Smaug on their pile of ‘gold.’ They’re going to be doing something else — as I understand from a brief flirtation with the Mustache blog; he is actually WORKING at stuff, in addition to being retired. (Stuff beyond teaching others financial wisdom.)

    Because they no longer “contribute” (if you can call it that) in the way most folks do (slaving away 9-to-5 and paying boatloads of taxes to be misused by the govt) till ‘actual’ retirement, if you make it and can afford it…) it SO does not mean they have ceased to contribute!

    Anyone who views, say, “travel” as a misuse of an early retiree’s money (i.e., s/he *should* have spent it in charity), is ignoring the value gained — the folks employed! — to provide those travel services! If early retirees stop, say, going to Thailand, and spending money with the Thais — have you HELPED the Thais, or hurt them? The employees of the airlines? The hotels? The taxi driver who drove you to the airport? Why must ‘charity’ be seen always as just a handout to someone who is unable or unwilling to work? Why is someone who works and saved very hard to retire early seen as somehow avoiding some responsibility to others?

    I think this oft-used concept of “responsibility to others” gets used as a way to pull the ‘crab’ who is escaping the ‘pail’ back down to the bottom with the others… (Google it, if you’re not familiar with the metaphor…)

    • Miles Dividend M.D. February 23, 2014 at 10:30 am #


      Thanks for checking out my blog.

      It seems to me that we might be conflating two issues in this discussion.

      The first issue is “is it immoral to pursue early retirement?”

      The second issue is “is the pursuit of early retirement beneficial to society?.”

      The answer that I think I would give to the first question is that it depends on what you compare it to. But for the most part when compared to what most of us are doing (i.e. spending most of our income on unimportant stuff and working long careers to pay off self-imposed debts.) it is an incremental step in the right direction.

      The second issue is very difficult to parse out. Consuming less is certainly bad for the economy as it is currently structured. But the Way the economy is currently structured is quite simply unsustainable from ecologic perspective. So perhaps then this is a model for a transition to an economy with less explosive growth, but shorter careers, less poverty, and less environmental destruction.

      With few exceptions, we are all hypocrites, and guilty of some transgression, but to be cynical and ignore how our own culpability, is usually just simple laziness.

      Better to struggle honestly with these questions, I think.


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