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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Musings on Power

Posted by Tim Stobbs on May 20, 2015

I was watching the first Harry Potter film the other day with my kids and I was struck by a statement made towards the end of the movie when Harry is confronted by Professor Quirrell “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to see it.”

The first time I read that phrase it stuck in my head a bit, but at the time I considered it typical bad guy drivel to justify what they have done.  Now that I’m a bit older and cynical I have to admit…he is actually very accurate in that phrase.  Pardon?!?

Ok, bear with me for a minute or two.  You see the use of any power (political, economic, hierarchy…you get the idea) is only limited by two main factors: the morality of the user of said power and the potential consequences of the action.

The first limit of morality is basically only a construct in the mind of the user which may or may not align with your particular version of morality.  So this is why you have some managers who inspire their staff and try to improve the outcomes of the people under them and other managers use their power to inflict suffering on others.  In both cases, the user of the power feels justified in their actions by virtue of the morality that only exists in their own head.  As such, there really isn’t any universal good or evil but rather instead only your particular perception of those concepts.

For example, would you accept the idea that killing another human is a evil act?  Ok, let’s say you agree.  So if you then killed someone while defending your wife and children from an attacker, is that evil?  I would guess you would think not, but again consider that initial sentence…if killing someone is evil does the context of the act matter to make the act good?

Now consider if we can muck up something that should be straightforward as murder, just image how much grey area exists in the rest of the world.  For example, is any of the following behaviours good or evil?

  • Taking a second serving of dessert.
  • Picking up money off the street.
  • Feeding a homeless person.

The answer in each case depends on the context of the situation and your personal morality.  I can easily imagine in every case where the action could be evil or good.  For example, feeding a homeless person might be considered an easy good action, but what if you are enabling the person to continue their drug habit and beat their spouse and children.  Do you still feed them?

In the end, good and evil are simplistic constructs that only exist in our heads.  They don’t have any existence in reality other than what we imagine them to be.  So the first part of that original quote by Professor Quirrell is correct: there is no good or evil.

Now we move on to second limit on power: the potential consequence of the action.  Since good and evil only exists in our heads we decided to try to direct other’s morality by writing it down into law or in some cases we use social acceptance to drive certain behaviours.  Yet there is a flaw to this line of thinking…after all, it is nearly impossible to find someone who at some point has broken a law?

For example, have you ever in your life jay walked?  Odds are yes, and yes it is illegal, but you still did it.  Why?  Because you likely at the time you thought the potential consequence of the action was so minor there was limited risk of getting caught.  Or when was the last time you went just 1 km/hour over the speed limit?  Yesterday, last week by accident…regardless you broke the law, but just didn’t care about the consequence or didn’t think you would get caught.

Therefore the risk of getting caught and punishment are drivers in your mind on your actions and a limit to any power you wield.  Yet the irony of this is in fact the odds of getting caught on most things are actually fairly damn low.  There are not cops on every street corner handing out tickets to jay walkers, they only have so many resources and thus focus on other things first.  The same exists just about everywhere…so if you don’t fear the consequence of your action you don’t have a limit to that power.

For example, at your job they get to direct you to do lots of things (when to show up, when to leave, how long to work on something…etc), but they have very few options of actual consequence to motivate your actions.  They can only really:

  • Assign you undesirable tasks
  • Offer disapproval for an action
  • Alter your rate of compensation
  • Fire you

That’s it.  So when you cease to be fear those consequences the power they can wield over you becomes almost non-existent.

So now that you are free of your fear of the consequence of your action (or at least of getting caught in many cases) and you are free for your notion of good and evil since it only exists in your head in the first place…you start to agree that there really is: only power and those to weak to see it.

In effect this is what having enough retirement savings grants you: economic power.  At which point your application of that power is only limited by your imagination (what is possible and what is good/evil to you) and the consequence of the action.  If you no longer need your job, you can tell them to go screw themselves.  Or if you want to live somewhere else you can move.

Yet there is a downside to this power.  Once you realize the limits of it are largely self imposed, you options to wield it become nearly limitless and your choices in life become infinite.  But a large number of choices makes it harder to pick an action or result, so using that power becomes actually fairly damn hard to do.  It takes considerable effort to think about a larger number of options and narrow them down to a more manageable scope.  Often this is where your fear of change kicks in and people get stuck in the one more year of work syndrome…they are in effect trying to delay change to avoid making that final decision to quit.

So what do you think about power?  What changes have you noticed in yourself as your economic power has grown?

Goodbye Paper Files

Posted by Tim Stobbs on December 15, 2014

Perhaps the most obvious downside of taking an active interest in your finances is the fact you tend to have to read a fair bit of paperwork and then figure out what do with that paperwork.  While my file system is fairly good at the moment I rather dislike the amount of paper files I have in the house.  So I decided to move to more digital files where possible.

To do this with all seven years of previous history is a bit of a pain.  So we decided to invest in a new all in one laser printer that also had a document feeder attached to the scanner.  The ability to load in 26 pages at once and then scan them all at once was worth every nickel I paid for the new printer.

So while I expected this project to take a long time I am already about 80% complete and I only started working on this last Thursday.  So all in I figure I have put in about 10 hours of my time loading documents into the scanner and then shredding them after the fact.  And I also immediately backup the files after I finish scanning for the day to an external hard drive.

Some key points to keep in mind if you were interested in doing this yourself:

  • Decide on your digital file structure in advance.  This makes finding things easier if you need to retrieve a document.
  • Keep in mind not everything can be digital.  Your paper T4’s from your employer and your T3’s from your bank may still need a copy in the event the CRA decides you would look good in an audit.
  • You need to embrace the limits of your technology.  For example, while my printer can print in duplex (both sides of the paper), the scanner can not.  So rather than try to keep the digital file in the exact same order I just split them into two files: front and back.  Yes this means more work if you need a particular document in some cases, but given I rarely look at these documents that is fine.
  • Don’t scan in something you really don’t even need to keep.  In my case I realized we had a few years of documents that were past the seven year cut off from CRA so we skipped scanning those and went straight to shred.
  • Work on stemming the inflow of paper where possible.  Sign up for digital statements where you feel comfortable and skip the paper copy entirely.

While I’m still working out a few issues with this process I find that I will likely keep about 80% less paper going forward.  Also the fact my digital files are much better organized and searchable by title means I can actual find a file much quicker than before.

Are you going more digital as times goes on?  Any advice from you pros out there with very little paperwork on how to handle the paper hoard?

What is Middle Class?

Posted by Tim Stobbs on October 6, 2014

So while reading a book the other day, it noted that despite the common usage of the term ‘middle class’ there is no definition.  So of course I did a little Google of that fact and the author was entirely correct.  I came across many definitions of income ranges trying to lock down what exact is middle class.

Then I came across one idea that I liked.  Take the median family income in a given country and +/- 40% that is the middle class.  In Canada for 2012, the median family income was $74,540 per year.  Adding our range of +/- 40% results in a the middle class being from a family income of $44,724 to $104,356 per year.  That is a broad range that covers a huge number of families in Canada so I think it could easily work as a passing definition.

Yet what stuck me the most about those numbers was despite considering myself middle class for the majority of my life I in fact likely never been a part of it.  Growing up I always knew we weren’t poor by any stretch of the imagination, but at the same time we never had expensive cars, overly nice houses or only bought a run down tiny cabin as a vacation property when I was in university.  So I never felt very well off either.  Yet looking at those values and doing a bit of an inflation adjustment, I was forced to conclude I grew up above the middle class.  Now that I’ve grown up and I have my own family that has largely continued.  Ironically other than a few of the early years of my career, our family income was also above that upper end of the middle class range.

Of course the problem of making a definition dependent on income is it ignores the fact I don’t spend the majority of my income.  Instead we save the majority of it and we spend on average a little under $30,000 per year, which of course is under the lower end of that range.  So which is it – am I’m under the middle class or over it?

In the end, the answer doesn’t matter.  Middle class is a way of referring to the majority of the people, not the upper class or even the poor.  It’s merely the bulk of the people who are trying to get through life.  It’s somewhat of a fiction which becomes useful to the political class since they can refer to the majority and allow even those on the edges to include themselves if they want.  Sort of like I have for most of my life.

Yet as we continue to save for early retirement I also become more aware that I have less and less in common with the middle class.  I don’t kiss ass or cower to those in a higher position than me at work.  I don’t fear losing my job since I have a decade of spending cash saved up.  I don’t try to blend in with my neighbours and I certainly don’t try to keep up with the Joneses.  In short,  I do what I want because I want to…nothing more and nothing less.

So I’m not middle class, but I’m not sure what label to us anymore and I’m not sure I even really care.  Labels are at best a crude picture of a person…a stick figure that lacks any meaningful detail.  So perhaps the answer is just be myself and let others call me what they will.

Do you ever worry what class you are?  Why or why not?