Cap T

I’m thinking I may get to a point where I have to stop blogging because all it feels like I’m doing is making the world worse with my angers, fears, and frustrations but we’re not there yet. Sorry.

The good thing about a blog is I can’t share and amplify the negativity the way I’d be able to on a platform like, say, Twitter, so it’s a slower slide here than it was there.

But I can screenshot. So here is a funny/sigh of depression tweet I saw today:

[Alt text for anyone who needs it. The tweet is from John Rogers (@jonrog1) and it says “Yet another evening I close my eyes, pinch the bridge of my nose, take two short sharp breaths and remind myself millions of people led satisfying, meaningful lives during the fall of the Roman Empire.”]

I think this tweet highlights a very important issue I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, which is Cap T.

I can’t find a resource on the internet that explains it, so it’s possible it was some sort of fevered not-real memory of mine, but I have a distinct memory of sitting in the back row of one of my econ classes during my MBA program and having the professor describe lifetime spending behavior and mentioning that it was all about the Cap T.

It stuck with me because for some reason I and those around me found the way he said it-he was a pretty droll guy-funny.

The basic concept is this: That we spend over our lifetimes based upon our lifetime earnings.

So it’s reasonable to go into debt for, say, college, if you believe that you have fifty years of earnings that will pay that off. Which is why so many people have this spending/earning pattern of going negative early on and then having a surplus later in life until they ultimately even out at the end.

Now, one could dig in on that and debate how much it holds up because I know my mom, for example, is fully determined to never pay off her student loans and just die with that debt and have it be written off. But for this post, let’s just run with it.

Because I’ve found myself applying this concept-or my weird understanding of this concept-to life decisions in general.

For example, do I stop the writing and go get a “real” job that pays more because I have 45 years I need to be planning for and this field probably isn’t stable enough to support me for that long?

Or do I carry on as is because the world as I know it right now may not exist in ten years so why build towards a future that won’t be there? Might as well enjoy what I can while I can and then pick a new future up out of the rubble when it all goes to hell.

Those questions are both asking what decision to make based upon the Cap T for our current societal system as well as for my career field and for me personally.

Let’s talk that through because it probably makes better sense if I explain it more. (And even then, well. Sometimes what makes sense in my head does not make sense to anyone else.)

So.

I was brought up at a time when the American way of life seemed very stable. This was also at a point where college was basically expected for most careers.

(My dad was an accountant for a while during a period of time where you didn’t need a college degree or certification to be one. But by the time I was 18, that had changed and he’d had to switch careers. I think that was probably true for a lot of fields. My stepdad was employed as an engineer while he got his degree at night school. Not something as likely to be an option by the time I was 18.)

And for me, standing there at 18 looking forward, the world felt like it would continue as-is until I reached old age and retirement.

Which made things like going to college and buying a home and saving for retirement and all of those other things that are common recommendations today make sense as a solid life path.

But for that path to work over the course of 70 years, there are things that have to be true now and that have to remain true over that entire time period.

A stable currency, for example.

We fail to acknowledge on a regular basis that currency and its value is actually just a social construct. The US dollar (or any currency) has the value it does because we all agree that it has that value. (And generally there’s a government working hard behind the scenes to make that true.)

A dollar bill without that agreement is just a piece of paper. Electronic records of money are just bits of data.

It is the government and the individuals that make up a society that give currency its value.

There are multiple countries where the physical currency of that country basically became worthless at some point because that system failed.

I have some Cambodian money in a box somewhere. Its worth? Nothing. Even when I was there people who lived there wanted to be paid in USD not Cambodian money.

If you own physical goods, you still have those goods when a currency collapses. But any savings you have? Gone. Worthless.

Another thing that has to remain stable is property rights and the stability of the property you own.

If part of the life plan is to own a large home in X location you have to believe that X location is going to exist 70 years from now. And that it will be livable.

A couple weeks ago (?) there was that video going around of a house on stilts in North Carolina being washed away into the ocean. Homes have been lost to tornadoes and hurricanes and fires, too. I had a friend in NM just last month who almost lost their retirement home to a wildfire.

Right now insurance will cover the cost of replacing a home that’s lost to something like that. But for how long will that be reasonable? And you can’t rebuild on an eroded shoreline or in a flooded marsh.

You also need to believe that the government won’t change your right to own your property. I know of people who have seven homes spread across the world, but they aren’t physically in those homes. They can’t be.

Which means they require property law and respect of property law in order to maintain their ownership. That requires a stable government and a stable society.

It also requires a government that doesn’t decide that you aren’t allowed to own that property because you are of the wrong religion, skin color, or gender.

And what about resource availability?

If you’re going to build a life in one place for seventy years you have to assume that water and electricity and all of those things are going to be available to you in that location for that period of time.

This week there were schools on the east coast that were dismissed because of high temperatures and a lack of air conditioning causing health risks. If you live in an area that requires air conditioning or heat to be livable but you don’t have the right power grid to run that air conditioning or heat, what then?

There are others factors that we could discuss, but I hope those three examples at least give you an idea of all the factors that come into play when considering the Cap T of the current dominant life plan most of us follow.

Someone like my grandma who is now in her 90’s did well following that plan.

The problem is, I think we are in a transition period right now where the old model is still a viable model for a short-term Cap T but it isn’t for the long-term.

And the thing I personally struggle with is when that’s going to switch over. Is it five years? Ten years? Twenty? Fifty?

Where is the inflection point? Because that inflection point impacts how to act now.

For example. I sold my house last summer and I can definitely see right now in this moment that renting in a market that’s in demand is not ideal. Rents are twice what they were a decade ago and rising. Also, if you own a home you have property appreciation in a market like this.

(You also have maintenance and all those other costs, so home ownership is not the perfect choice for every person, but it’s a good one in general if you’re staying in one location and definitely a good one in a world of rapidly rising prices.)

But.

In a world of potential instability, is acquiring physical assets, like a house, and locking yourself to a singular location actually a good idea?

I personally think there will come a point where the better strategy is to own say four condos in vastly different countries/regions/states and to only own a limited number of physical personal mementos that can be easily transported. Everything else would be virtual and not location-dependent.

This as opposed to one large home in one fixed location with a large amount of physical property.

So better to own four thousand-foot furnished condos versus one four-thousand-foot home. (Assuming you have the wealth to make that choice.)

But, the question is, have we reached that point yet? And if not, how fast is that instability going to develop?

Maybe not in my lifetime. Maybe it’s something I personally don’t need to worry about. Maybe the old model will hold long enough for someone my age to be fine.

I don’t think that’s the case, though.

I’m not good at climate change, it’s not my area, but from what I’ve glimpsed I think we’re more in the 20-year range for these changes rather than the 50-year range.

My grandma has been able to live a full life that worked under the old model. I don’t think I or my peers will be able to. And I absolutely don’t think someone who is 18 now will.

So what different choices should someone who is 18 today make than I did when I was 18 or than she did when she was 18?

Should they still go to college? Should they still aim for homeownership and a job in a physical office space?

What about someone like me who is theoretically halfway through?

Because on top of the society Cap T, we have to look at our own. How long will you personally live? If it’s a year or two, look around and act accordingly. If it’s decades, though? You have to factor in so much more.

As of a week ago or so I have now outlived my dad. He died about a month before his 46th birthday and that’s the one that’s right around the corner for me.

Because he was ill he never had an expectation of living to 90. He was always operating on a Cap T plan that was the next two to five years with hopes of more but no expectation of more.

That meant no 401(k) contributions. He wasn’t saving for retirement. Or making those sacrifices now to work his way up the ladder to be rewarded in thirty years. He knew he’d be dead before he got to the top or to retirement.

(It made him a good father. He wanted to earn enough to keep us fed and housed, but because there was no professional ambition beyond that, his energy and his time went into being there for us while he could be.)

So what about me? Obviously I made it past where he did. But what is my Cap T? Am I planning for 90? Am I planning for 50?

Also, I skipped the industry Cap T. What does publishing look like in five, ten, twenty years? Does self-publishing as I know it right now have a Cap T that matters to my planning?

I think it does. But is its Cap T longer or shorter than the current societal Cap T? Which will go down first?

That I don’t know.

And for the most part this all ends up being an intellectual exercise, because there are so many moving parts one person can’t possibly account for all of them.

I can’t even see what’s going to be impactful in six months. There are things percolating below the surface right now that will emerge and flip all of this on its head in ways I can’t anticipate.

A year ago some analyst somewhere knew that Russia invading Ukraine was a possibility. And they even probably knew some of the downstream impacts. But I couldn’t see that coming.

Or when COVID emerged. Some people knew something was going to emerge because that was their field. I even knew that the US expected some sort of pandemic at some point because we’d done emergency planning on it 15 years before that. But did I know what would emerge and when? No.

So in a sense you have to go higher-level.

I can’t tell you what is coming or how fast the change will be or in what direction it will be. But my instinct is that there is absolutely going to be an inflection point that flips a lot of things on their head at least on a local level, most certainly on a regional level, and probably on a national level.

And it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. For some on the local level it’s probably already here.

But I don’t know the exact timeline. I know it makes me more short-term in my thinking, but not fatalistically so. Maybe that’s the wrong mindset. Maybe I should be BAU (business as usual) because Cap T is long enough I won’t be impacted.

It’s hard to know.

A while back someone asked me why I didn’t start up a business to run AMS ads for people. They told me how much money they’d made doing so based off of what they’d learned in my book (and from other sources) and it was sizable.

But to me doing that as a business was an unstable path that could crumble underneath me at any moment. One algo change and suddenly I’m losing people money when I told them I’d make them money.

Five years on (?), though, it’s held up better than I would’ve expected. And I probably would’ve been able to deliver results for people. (shrug)

So sometimes I’m over here wide-eyed, chewing on my thumbnail anticipating an imminent collapse and instead it takes ten, twenty years before it actually materializes.

Cap T is not actually easy to calculate. The real world is much messier than a graph on a chalkboard. But it is kind of fun to think about.