3 Enemies Of FIRE

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What would happen if everyone in our society decided to pursue early retirement?

Today, we’ll run through an interesting thought exercise.  There’s a new blogger in the Personal Finance space who I’d like to introduce you to. He’s had a fascinating life story, from “getting poor real quick” as a child to carrying $200,000 in student loan debt when he graduated from law school (yep, he’s now a lawyer, and he’s crushing it).

More importantly, he has a very interesting “voice”, as you’ll see below.  His name?  OthalaFehu.  Enjoy.

What would happen if everybody FIRE'd? Thoughts from @othala_fehu in today's Guest Post. Click To Tweet

3 Enemies Of Fire

The Year is 2037. The concept of FIRE has swept through this nation of ours. Upwards of 40% of the adult population consider themselves to be practicing some form of FIRE in their own financial lives.

Yea for Us!

Happiness is on the rise. We are living longer and looking better. Dogs and cats are getting along and nobody wastes money anymore. Our hero, OthalaFehu is on the Seventh printing of his Book ‘My Life at the Nutbar‘. His memoir sits at number #1 for the 40th straight week.  (Fritz edit:  Gotta have big goals, Othala!  Hope you comp me a First Edition.)

But there are problems.

First, you should know that the position of Devil’s Advocate comes naturally to me. I have had to defend people and/or positions nobody wanted to support, let alone hear. So here is something you may not want to hear about a benefit at risk: The safety net of our economy,  Medicare/Medicaid/Social Security. Provided you are a citizen, we as a country guarantee some minimal existence as a baseline.

But this system was designed at a time when there were way more worker bees for every retired person.

Too many retired peoples and not enough working stiffs puts a giant hole in our country’s system of “taxes coming in/services going out” model. Practicing FIRE is practically defined by large amounts of people achieving early retirement. Not good for what’s left of our New Deal.  Government support would wither under the weight of the heavy burden.

However, this issue could be dealt with by adjusting what we consider to be acceptable tax rates and acceptable levels of service.  We should be talking about that.

Today, I want to think about some consequences of widespread FIRE that are a little more nuanced than the obvious issues of Social Security.

Widespread adoption of FIRE principles would have THREE drastic, negative consequences and we should talk about them as part of this open discussion on the issue.

Problem Number 1

I have always found the story about the old woman who came to America after many years living in the Soviet Union to be a very powerful one. The story tells how she goes to the grocery store and breaks down crying, sitting on the floor looking at all the different types of toothpaste we have on our shelves.

We have a plethora of choices in this country, choices about anything and everything. We have high-end goods and luxury services, bargain basement generic and everything in between. Why? Because there is room in our economy for all of those different manufacturers and service providers to make a profit. They can all find a buyer.

empty-shelves1But alas, in our brave new world, FIRE conscious people would not be buying sweaters for their dog, or springing for the heated leather seats, or a double shot of espresso in their latte. (Did I do that right? I am not a Starbucks type. I like plain black coffee).  Editor Note From Fritz:  Dunno, but it looks right to me.  Then again, I’m a simple Maxwell House type of guy.

Point being, we would actually loose a lot of the fluff in the consumer market and would have a definite downturn in the breadth and depth of services provided for a fee.

Do we always want to fly coach?

Problem Number 2

My job is in the public sector. I like it, I really feel like I do valuable work and am part of a local judicial system my County can be proud of.

I work with many other people who are very professional and consider their performance to be part of their civic duty. They have also been there for thousands of years it seems.

judgeBut, if everyone is concentrating on stacking chips and getting out the game before 40, where does all of the workplace knowledge and experience come from? I did not feel like I really hit my stride until I had been lawyering for 10 years. Does too much FIRE Brain Drain the infrastructure?

There is something to say for our time honored institutions being run by well-qualified individuals who consider their position to be a Career and not just a Job.

What about occupations where people are not in it for the money, like teaching?

Having your workforce concentrating on an early retirement timeline just over the horizon doesn’t lend itself to steady or vested work environments. This is not good.

If everyone's stacking chips for FIRE @ 40, who's going to become a 20+ yr expert in their work? Click To Tweet

I have a concern that targeting personal early retirement is by default a type of abandoning the collective society. There is already too much focus on the individual at the expense of the greater organism.

Problem Number 3

Lastly, my stated goal on my blog is to ‘retire early and leave some type of legacy for my children.’

That could go Two Very different ways. For what I need, I could be out at 45. I have already set aside 3 years of tuition for my kids to help them with college. I get to do what I want for 30 more years and watch my kids and grand kids grow up. No complaints.

But If I work til say 55, I leave my kids a couple million, easy at the rate I am earning/saving. What a leg up in life! But I did not exactly put myself first, I worked until slightly before average retirement age.

legacyI wish somebody set me up as a young person with a distinct life advantage. Don’t I owe it them to do what I can as long as I do not hate my job or suffer from staying there a little longer? I fight with myself to find this balance point. It is probably not easily understood by anybody reading this without kids yet, but trust me you want to give them every advantage you can and it starts to feel selfish to stop working prematurely (is that even the right language to use for someone professing FIRE?). Editor comment from Fritz:   Oh no, pls don’t attract the the FIRE Word Police to my blog.  I’ll never invite you back.  

These issues should be addressed in our FIRE community.

By and large, FIRE is an overall positive but to not admit it has shortcomings is a mistake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Devil’s Advocate, I thought it worth the risk to share some potential consequences for you to think about. Pursue FIRE if you wish, and feel free to “Fire walk with me”, but realize the potential consequences if the masses follow the same path.

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33 comments

  1. The diversity in our world – both the people and the things we can do with our lives provides the safety valve that we needn’t worry about such a scenario. It’s a bit like asking the following hypothetical questions:

    What if no one or everyone wanted to be a doctor or discover new medicines?
    What if no one or everyone wanted to be in the armed services?
    What if no one or everyone wanted to convert to Buddhism?

    Sadly, I will also add that the addiction of many first world societies to the hedonic treadmill is the ultimate reason it will never happen. Even if we could just get more folks saving 5-10% more than they are, that would be an amazing experiment to do and I would argue have more benefit than downside.

  2. I’m already FIREd so now you made me feel guilty. 🙂

    Seriously a total wild card in this whole argument is how much automation and machine learning is going to change things. If enough jobs are automated away in, say, the next 20 years, then problems 1 and 2 go away.

    There would probably be a need for a Basic Income since there would likely much fewer jobs to go around. This could partially solve Problem #3 because everyone would be entitled to a pension-like Basic Income.

    1. This is pretty much exactly what I was going to say. The economy is changing. If automation really does take over, then we would probably need to replace our current benefits system with a Universal Basic Income. Presumably the best way to pay for this in an automated economy would be a tax on capital, since labor won’t be making much money anyway.

  3. As a new blogger, I would like to give a shout out to all the friendly people in the FIRE corner of the internet. It’s people like Fritz who are helping really build something here.

    To any newbies, just get started. Ask around for help and advice and it will follow. Pretty soon you are writing a guest post and feeling like you are helping build something too. Thanks All!

    1. OthalaFehu, The “community” has been my biggest unexpected benefit in the 2 1/2 years I’ve been blogging. I was in your shoes at one point, and you’ll be in mine at some point in the future. We all help each other out, and the world gets along. Welcome to the club.

  4. Mr. Freaky Frugal and Matt bring up excellent points. Check out this article I came across from a website called Innovation In Textiles. Apparently, a Chinese company is opening a textile mill in Little Rock, Arkansas, and installing 21 production lines with sewbots developed by Georgia Tech. When fully operational, the mill will produce 800,000 T-shirts a day. It will only employ 400 people. Labor costs for each T-shirt is expected to be around 33 cents. Things are going to get very interesting in the next couple of decades. The way we’ve understood employment is going to have to change. Maybe 20 hours of work per week will be considered full time employment in the future. I imagine that most people will be freelancers or consultants. I also imagine that we will need to institute some form of universal income. Charles Murray has suggested scrapping all our entitlement programs and just giving every adult $10K a year. Will that suffice? Who knows? But at least people like you, Mr. FF, Matt, and Fritz are talking about it. Thank you for a very provocative post, OthalaFehu.

    1. “Labor costs for each T-shirt is expected to be around 33 cents.”

      Think about that quote. That’s textile manufacturing, in the USA, with USA knowledge, funded by the Chinese. What a strange world in which we live.

      PS – I’ve got a LOT to say about Universal Income, but won’t get into that in the comments. Perhaps a future post.

    2. I have to believe this exact same conversation was happening at the dawn of the industrial age. It’s a very John Henry tale. Machines taking over the work done by the people, and where will they turn? We’re really still transitioning into the Knowledge Age. The bulk of the workforce is not digital native, and they didn’t grow up with the Internet. They (we) witnessed its rise. The way digital natives will handle employment will, by necessity, be far different from the hybrid we’re doing now.

      I agree that the current model is unsustainable if technology keeps replacing manual jobs. We’ll just have to change the model. Besides, if the birth rate keeps declining — it’s already at record lows since tracking began in 1909 — we won’t have enough workers coming up the ranks to take over all the jobs currently filled. We’ll need automation to maintain productivity, let alone increase it.

  5. Guys, I think the model which suggests we provide a baseline income works in countries that are much more homogeneous than ours, like say Scandinavian countries. America has an enormous ‘us vs them’ problem which would make it reluctant to provide universal income without work.
    If anything I think that as we move towards a service economy the pitfalls of hyper capitalism will exacerbate these ‘crabs in a barrel’ problems.
    I’m glad I get to bow out under some semblance of my grandparent’s system, I worry about what all this looks like for my grandchildren.

    1. I’m getting a lot of thoughts as I read these comments, so I’ve decided on a lengthy reply here to outline my thinking:

      First, I love the lively exchange in “The Community”, and love how thoughts grow and mature as a group of smart people add their thoughts on the “network”. That’s one of the things I treasure most as the author of this blog. Recognize that I value that, and just want to set up some guard rails.

      I’m a bit concerned about where this discussion on universal income is heading. I agree with a lot of the comments made thus far, that’s not the point.

      Think about things this way. We’ve got some really smart views in “The Community”, and have an environment of working together in a unified effort (trying to make our blogs grow!). It’s a truly unique place in this increasingly divided world, and it’s invigorating. Think about if a community like that (like ours) could debate a hot political topic in a forum that wouldn’t get tainted with the “ugly” of the political environ.

      Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s possible. The world is simply too divided. Therefore, I’m going to maintain my position of political neutrality for my writings on this blog, and will avoid getting into the debate on Universal Income.

      Let’s just all be friends here, we’re all going to be retired soon and none of this will really matter in the long run.

      Love you all. 🙂

  6. For those that want or believe UBI will be necessary, are you willing to go back to work now or work longer to pay for it? Taxing Capital only works as long the Capital producers are profitable. If everybody is trying to survive on 10K to 20K a year, I’m not sure how many of them would survive.

    UBI leaves an inherent bad taste in many American’s mouths because it goes against a fundamental belief that you need to work for what you earn. American’s what want to get ahead have always used ingenuity to create things others want or build better processes to make existing things better. It will be the continued spark of ingenuity to save the day, not UBI.

    As to your 3 points, they are very hypothetical and as others pointed out, we are all so diverse that FI/RE is not everyone’s goal. And your problem #3 solves the problem of some of those that are seeking to get out of the game early.

    1. Love ya all, (and this isn’t aimed at you ChrisCD but at the wider readership), but wanted to you see something I just wrote. Have a look at my newly formed “blog position” on political debate in the comment above (it’s a diatribe!). I’ve decided to avoid engaging in political discussions, though I love that stuff and watch things closely. Trust you all understand! Wow, love the debate, tho, wish I could jump in….

      Thanks for stopping by, ChrisCD. You’ve been an active reader for a long time, and I appreciate that!

  7. I just read “A Year of Living Danishly.” To some degree, because of the social net in Denmark, most people can do what they want (which is why I try to be FI). But most people work, doing things they actually like doing and taking a great deal of pride in their work. Their employers have to make the work environment attractive, and they have to give in to work-life balance.

    Look, maybe it would be a lousy situation for a lot of people. Or, maybe, employers would have to try harder to keep good employees happy so they’d work because they wanted to work, not because they had to work. It might help rebalance the scales a bit.

    That said, I don’t see any danger of a massive societal shift where most people hit FI by 40.

    1. I love this debate on social programs and their impact on mankind. I’ve got a LOT of thoughts on the topic, but have decided to implement my “blog policy” of not getting involved in political debate in the words I write on this blog.

      It’s a great debate, and it’s fun to watch, but I trust you all understand if I sit in the stands?

      1. LOL, Fritz. I’m sorry if I’m hijacking your guest post with my liberal mess…it is probably smarter to sit on the sidelines. While I try to stay respectful, I realize things can get heated quickly.

        I’ll just leave it that people work for noneconomic reasons too. FI can give people the flexibility to do meaningful work on their own terms.

  8. Great post. I think your kids will get a better leg up if you are just present. Then you can teach them how to make money and be financially independent instead of expecting a wind fall from you. Retire early and enjoy.

      1. Thanks Fritz. My brother is of the Empire mentality. Maybe in 20 years he and I can write a post about how each of our lives played out. Me striving for fire and he striving for world domination!

  9. You are also assuming that consumers buying things drives the economy, which it doesn’t. The economy is driven by saving and investing (which is done in the stock market in new products/companies/ideas). And of course FIRE types are already “driving” the economy much farther than the average consumer.

  10. Ok Fritz, on a lighter note. If we all FIRE in short order, at the very least all the best FIRE related blog names will already be taken and future bloggers will have to really scrape the bottom of the pun/quip barrel for domain names.

    1. NOW we’re having a serious discussion! Great point!! Let’s go invest in a few retirement domain names, sounds like it may offer better returns than the markets! We can split the profit. You in? Smiles.

      Thanks for the “lighter” comment to wrap up the “heavier” discussion earlier in this chain. Well played, my friend.

  11. I don’t think those problems are that serious for several reasons. One, FIRE people spend just as much after they retire as they do while they are working so there is no impact on the economy. Also as the boomers retire we are going to be withdrawing from 401k’s/IRA’s and that deferred tax will be rolling into the federal coffers. Many of us didn’t go the Roth route because we made too much money to qualify and doing the back door thing didn’t work for high earners close to retirement. Finally most people will choose to work, like me, even if they don’t need an income. There may be a few people happy to live on a sailboat or in hostels and travel full time, which does sound cool, but they are a decided minority. I only work part time but I’m still paying a ton of taxes on a six figure self employed income in part because of the skills gap that you alluded to. Because I know a lot about what I know I can earn well north of $200 per hour and set my own limited hours. I think there will be a lot of contract consultants filling that gap the way I’m doing. Also I may not be paying quite as big a tax bill now but when I have to someday start taking RMD’s then my tax bill will likely exceed what I paid in my peak earning years.

  12. Great thoughts, here is my 2 cents after reading the article

    Problem 2 is not necessarily a problem. It assumes FIRE means doing no more work. What if people go fo FIRE where it means: work on my terms, on projects and subjects that I like. That leaves room for experts to have 20+ years of expertise. You need to accept that they work 4 days a week or take 3 months off to backpack… Possible?

    Problem 3 is a on my mind. For now, I plan to teach my kids the values of money and investing and frugal lifestyle. I hope to gift them a debt free education and a serious support when they go for a first mortgage. That is about it.

    ———
    And after the comment sections: AI and automation will be a big big factor the next years. Indeed, just like the industrial revolution. New jobs will come, for those that can handle those jobs, other jobs will disappear and what is left will be low level job. Is Terminator one bridge too far to add asa side discussion?

  13. Interesting thought exercise! It’s true that our society would look much different than it does today. I believe that society adapts to the forces placed upon it by those who live within it. Today’s society looks the way it does because we behave the way we do. If we behaved in *another way* (for example, FI at 40), then our society would adapt to those forces and adjust accordingly. I don’t think that society would effectively stand still while so many of us call it quits early. The shelves would still be packed, just with different items.

    One of the most interesting aspects of this hypothesis is innovation. If the majority of our society FI’ed at 40, how much more time would people – ordinary people – spend on improving their own lives. Inventing new ways to do things. Write. Enjoy life by traveling. Take pleasure in the simpler things in life. When we are consumed with full-time work, it’s tough for a lot of us to think about anything outside of our jobs. But without those jobs taking up so much of our precious time, how much further along would our society be?

    …ah, interesting to think about indeed!

    Great read, OthalaFehu!

  14. Othala, this is awesome! I agree with all your points. I think MMM wrote a post on this topic, but your discussion seems more realistic.

    I do wonder that if more people embraced FIRE there would be a change to our culture and economy. Would we be able to adapt so that these issues have less of an impact?

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