The Two Roads to Wealth

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on April 18, 2016 in Uncategorised

Lately we’ve been wondering about wandering.

Strolling around our local barrio…ambling along the broad avenidas…sauntering through the nearby plazas…your editor has movement on the mind.

Being able to go where you want…when you want. That, after all, is one of the indispensable cornerstones of independence.

You might even say freedom of movement is to the spirit of independence as E is to mc2…Truth is to Beauty…Malbec is to juicy Argentine steaks…

One without the other is not merely impossible to imagine…it’s likewise an affront to physics, aesthetics, and taste—in roughly that order.

We’ll get to the present-day peripatetic in due course (that curious and growing cohort known variably as digital nomads, permanent tourists, perpetual travelers, and, in some circles, prior taxpayers.)

But first things first…

Long before all the trendy “P.T.” nomenclature came bursting onto the scene, there was the original…the genuine…what older Australians might refer to as the fair dinkum traveler.

In Wednesday’s issue of The Savvy Retiree Daily, we traced a long tradition of vagabond itinerancy back to where it all started…

Before Homo sapiens put down roots—literally, during the Agricultural Revolution—they were all “ramblin’ men” (and women). Our forefathers got about on foot, following food and opportunity wherever it took them.

Ramblin’ Man had little need for passports and travel visas. Mention “reciprocity fee” or “TSA pat down” to him and you’d likely be met with a blank stare…followed by a swift club over the head.

To say these were “simpler times” might be slightly overstating the case. Still, our great, great ancestors didn’t have to ask for days off…or tally up sick leave…or find someone to “sub in” while they were “off duty.”

Partly, this was due to the fact that they never really were “off duty.” What they were and what they did were one and the same.

That is to say, “hunters and gatherers” did just that; they hunted…and they gathered. But they also relaxed, exchanged goods, told stories, imagined myths, visited relatives, held feasts, conducted ceremonies, repaid favors, played with their kin, stared at the heavens and plenty more besides…

Nevertheless, the generally accepted narrative is that these “poor savages” barely eked out an existence. Rather, we imagine them roaming from berry bush to berry bush, laboring under a permanent and immovable cloud of scarcity, enslaved by their own technological ineptitude.

Sounds a bit grim.

And yet “the traditional wisdom is always refractory,” writes the American anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins.

Far from a picture of anxiety and privation, Sahlins paints a happier scene. In fact, he goes so far as to call these historical hobos the “original affluent society.”

Yes, you read that right…

Wealth before bank accounts…happiness before Facebook…fulfillment and satisfaction before designer totes and personal trainers.

Imagine!

But how can this be?

“There are two possible courses to affluence,” the professor observes in his fascinating (insofar as we’ve read) collection of essays, Stone Age Economics. “Wants may be ‘easily satisfied’ either by producing much or desiring little.”

We’re just getting caught up in his book (a recommendation from a The Savvy Retiree Daily reader, who might appreciate this small nod of gratitude) but already the ideas are rich and, as such ideas so often are, somewhat counter intuitive.

Continues Sahlins on the subject of attaining “affluence”…

“The familiar conception, the Galbraithian way, makes assumptions peculiarly appropriate to market economies: that man’s wants are great, not to say infinite, whereas his means are limited, although improvable: thus, the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity, at least to the point that ‘urgent goods’ become plentiful. But there is also a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own: that human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate. Adopting the Zen strategy, a people can enjoy an unparalleled material plenty-with a low standard of living.”

Wait a minute…haven’t we been saying something similar, albeit less eloquently, in these modest missives? That beyond a certain, basic threshold, more “stuff” doesn’t necessarily equal a happier, richer life?

In addressing the misconception that the Paleolithic peoples were “desperate savages,” Sahlins refers instead to their “affluence without abundance.”

When freedom of movement is assigned a high societal value, extraneous possessions are seen more as a hindrance than a blessing.

“Mobility and property are in contradiction,” as Sahlins puts it. He goes on to note…

“Of the hunter it is truly said that his wealth is a burden. In his condition of life, goods can become ‘grievously oppressive,’ […] and the more so the longer they are carried around. Certain food collectors do have canoes and a few have dog sleds, but most must carry themselves all the comforts they possess, and so only possess what they can comfortably carry themselves. Or perhaps only what the women can carry: the men are often left free to react to the sudden opportunity of the chase or the sudden necessity of defense.”

Now, as in ancient times, more “stuff” has a tendency to create more obligations…more hassles…more upkeep and repayments and restless nights.

Think more responsibility…more headaches…more bills…more commitments…more storage…more repairs…

And ultimately, more reasons not to “up and go” where you want, when you want…to be prepared for sudden defense, or to take advantage of sudden opportunity.

We’ll have more on less, next time.

Until then, enjoy your weekend…

Image ©iStock.com/Chananchida