The paradoxical thing about wealthy societies, according to church historian Glenn Sunshine, is that they eventually become more expensive than their wealth. This is because wealth often comes with added complexity. Wealth is not simply how many dollars you have. Dollars in and of themselves are worthless. Wealth, if you really think about it, is just the ability to do things. I have found this definition of wealth immensely helpful in conceptualizing goals about building it. More money means the ability to do more, but higher prices mean the ability to do less, as does an ailing body or mind. A man with a big garden and a lot of livestock is “wealthier” in some regard than a city-dweller with a lot of currency stacked up, at least when it comes to producing his own food. In this regard, there is little difference between “wealth” and “technology”, though “wealth” has usually a more positive connotation.
A car, for example, is a tremendous piece of wealth; it gives you the ability to greatly increase your ability to travel great distances or transport cargo and people. But a car, for the wealth it provides, is also a tremendous cost. There is the cost of acquiring the car, either with cash outright or via a series of loan payments. There are maintenance costs to owning a car. There is a fuel cost, as well as a cost to insure. And there is a depreciation cost, since cars have to be replaced.
The irony of cars is that they have slowly changed their status in our society. Where once a car was a luxury that could only be afforded by the affluent, now a car is more akin to a tax than anything else; a required element of life in order to participate in society. Our world has so engrained this piece of wealth into its fabric that not owning a car is something that is only feasible in very urban areas where public transporation is abundant. The rest of us need a car to go to work, go to the grocery store, go to church, or go visit family. The basic functions of human life in America require a car to perform; this fact is painfully obvious when you don’t have one, and when you can’t afford one. Most people can’t afford them. About 85% of all new car purchases are financed, and about 50% of all used car purchases are financed. The average car payment is approaching $600 monthly, and loan terms are on average 68 months, as opposed to the usual of 48 months. Where the car was meant to become an option of ultimate freedom and convenience, it has morphed into a requirement that very often necessitates debt slavery to obtain. Car prices have inflated substantially, as have gas prices, incurance premiums, and maintenance costs. It is not financially wise for most Americans to own a car, but they have to if they want to participate in society at all. That is the definition of a tax, and nations cannot be taxed into wealth. How did something that was meant to bring abundance end up bringing people to poverty?
Answer: convenience is a trap.
Wealth whose utility is convenience produces costs that eventually become more burdensome than the utility of the wealth itelf. Our society is full of big bloated do-it-all systems, and as a result, we spend a lot of resources to maintain those systems. Luke Smith’s article Why It’s Bad to Have High GDP makes the point that GDP is only a picture of one side of an economy’s balance sheet. GDP is not just what an economy produces, it’s what it has to produce in order to keep itself going. If you make $10000 per month but have $9000 of expenses, are you more or less wealthy than a man who makes $3000 per month with only $800 of expenses. In a way, the latter man is wealther, and probably happier to.
Complexity increases the GDP because each piece of tech, or wealth, stands at the root of a tree of dependencies. A car requires modern tires and steel and upholstry, as well as fuel and oil, and supply chains to provide all these things, and roads to drive on, and equipment to build and maintain those roads, and mechanics with knowledge t fix cars, and tools for those mechanics to use, and raw materials to build the parts and tools to fix the cars, and of course, a power grid to provide the energy to keep the lights on so we can see while we are doing all of this. The more dependencies a piece of tech has, the more fragile, bloated, and expensive it is. A failure of any one of these dependencies propagates up the tree to the root (because computer scientists always draw their trees upside down), and causes the thing itself to fail. A society propped up on these fragile pieces of technology is asking for a catastrophe. Consider how many devices you use in your home that require electricity, and how few you can use if the grid stops providing it. No lights, no appliances. Fridge and freezer are ok, for now. There’s some charge left in the computer, but no internet, so you can’t access your files on Google Drive or sent an IM to your family asking if they are ok. Same with the cell phone; it has some power left, but only enough for a day or two, and if the outage is widespread then cell towers will be on emergency power and used only for critical government comms like Fire, EMS, and Police. A battery powered handheld radio will at least get you contact with someone, if anyone is listening, and if it doesn’t run out of charge first. Funny enough, old landline phones work fine, but no one uses those anymore. And hopefully it isn’t winter. If you have a wood stove, you’re ok, but your modern gas furnace requires electricity, as does your water heater. You see the pattern: old, simple, low-GDP, inconvenient stuff good; new, fancy, high-GDP, convenient stuff bad.
This is, ironically, why wealthy nations are weaker nations.
The type of bugman who works hard to gamify and integrate all of his different technologies together into one big, efficient, convenient system is digging a hole that is hard to escape. When more and more of your life becomes dependent on an externalized and highly complex infrastructure of high-dependency technologies, it becomes difficult to escape from. Expedient conveniences bear tremendous financial and actuarial cost due to their increased complexity; they are more expensive, have more overhead, are more prone to fail, and need more regular maintenance.
The solution is to embrace simplicity at the cost of convenience. It is fine to have a car, or a gas furnance, or whatever, but do you have a backup plan that is more simple and robust? Instead of needing to sync all your data between all your devices, why not eliminate the need for syncing altogether by just eliminating all your other devices? I don’t need to sync anything over the web, because I only have a single device, this computer. You don’t need a bunch of stupid stuff on your phone. Instead of buying fancy tools to do the jobs you need to do, are there skills you could acquire in their stead to be able to accomplish the same thing? Could you use a rope to replace a ratchet strap in a pinch? Do you know how to start a fire using flint and steel? Could you debug a simple bash script, or troubleshoot a fouled carburator? None of these skills require being an expert in anything.
Every time you reduce complexity, you reduce liability and overhead. Trading a complex solution for a simpler one can often eliminate a whole bunch of other crap that you had in your life just to support it, and in turn free up a whole bunch of income to other endeavors. In this way, debt is another form of complexity, replacing the simpler technology of an economic transaction with a transaction mediated by a lender via a contract, a term structure, and multiple levels of risk for all parties involved. A major simplification and boost to robustness is therefore to eliminate or migigate debts, like choosing a smaller home, downsizing a car, and selling off assets that are currently financed, and paying off stupid consumer debt like student loans and credit cards. Other monthly obligations can be reduced by altering lifestyle choices or cultivating productive assets, like poultry, livestock, and vegetables. Play this game for a bit and you’ll see how much more restful, enjoyable, and fulfilling life can be without all the shiny garbage.