Be polite and cooperative We humans do best when

center_img Given the scope of financial bad news – to wit, it affects the majority of households in the country, or will, and cuts across almost all age groups – the clamor for the government to do more, including using punitive taxes to wipe the smirk off the faces of the fat-cat rich folks snapping up all the bargains as in the paragraph above, will only grow louder. The politicians and the Fed, well aware of the trends in motion and needing to address out-of-control and unpayable government debts, will continue to pursue aggressively loose monetary policies, and will continue to do so until they can no longer hide the inflation by jiggering the numbers. Dear Reader,Earlier this week, while the dew was still on the ground, I slipped out for a quick nine holes at the down-market course I belong to.Given the hour, I had the place to myself except for a trio from a nearby adult housing complex who tee off every morning at 7:30 sharp, the moment the course officially opens. As I was playing solo, it only took me two holes to catch up, after which my brisk forward progress slowed to the viscosity of the maple syrup so popular in this area.It was thus, standing on the third tee communing with nature and wondering if the old dear stuck in the right bunker would ever get out, that yet another elderly gentleman landed on the second green and made quick work of it, then somewhat sheepishly (it seemed to me) fiddled with his scorecard, apparently not wishing to disturb my solitude.  Never minding a bit of company, and realizing that my forward progress was likely to remain hindered – the trio ahead of me being notorious for not encouraging others to pass through and thereby beat them off the course – I waved the new fellow over and invited him to join.Being hopelessly nosy, it was not very long thereafter that I asked Phil, my new companion, what he did for a living and was informed, after quickly consulting his watch, that exactly one month and one day earlier, he had retired after 40-some years as a housing contractor. As a consequence, he now spent his days playing golf, exercising, puttering around the house and trying his hand at writing a book.“So, how’s the whole retirement thing working out?” I asked, while waiting for one of the white-haired road blocks ahead to register a score with his third putt.At which point a cloud formed over his countenance.“Well, we planned for this for years, but we don’t have a lot of money. I think we’ll be okay. I think we have enough to cover our cost of living,” he replied, adding, “at least I hope we do.” The inflection in his voice spoke volumes about just how uncertain he actually was about his prospects.A few holes later, while killing time waiting for two of the three active oldsters to hunt down their balls in the copse of pine trees off to the left of the sixth hole, I mentioned conversationally how pleased I was with the new Foot Joy Contour Casual™ shoes I recently purchased to replace my old, worn-out shoes. The new shoes, which look and feel like a sneaker, are not only very comfortable but completely waterproof… which comes in handy when playing while the dew is still on the ground.“I have a friend who has a pair and loves them,” my companion commented, openly admiring the super-soft premium leather uppers and DuraMax™ rubber outsole. “I bought my shoes at the beginning of summer, and they have already lost their waterproofing. In fact, my feet are soaked.”“Well, these are actually quite reasonably priced,” I said helpfully, “only about $99.”His look said more than words ever could: A palatable desire to own a pair, but a desire to be left unfulfilled by the cold, hard realization that he just didn’t have the money. And probably never will.While I suspect my golf partner wasn’t aware of it, he now belongs to the new era of stoicism.My Introduction to StoicismIn my last column, on September 14, I mentioned a young genius who attended our Carlsbad Summit with her father. As you may recall, she entered MIT at 14 years old and graduated at 17, winning a highly contested Thiel Fellowship along the way.As some of you have asked, and it’s readily available in the public domain, her name is Laura Deming, and it’s her personal mission to find cures for aging and to commercialize any discoveries. (You can watch a video profile of Laura and her work on the Thiel Fellowship site).In any event, following up on a conversation I had had with Laura at our Summit, I reached out to her father, and a warm and interesting correspondence quickly developed.In the course of our correspondence, John sent me the unedited text of an interview he did with the New York Times titled “Educating Laura” (FYI, she was homeschooled). In that interview and in subsequent emails, John mentioned the positive impact his reading of the stoic philosophers has had on how he views the world. Paraphrasing, his exposure to stoicism has helped him to greatly reduce what he worries about and, as a consequence, live a far more relaxed and contented existence.Like many people, up until that point I harbored only a loose impression of stoics as rather dour individuals who habitually eschew life’s many pleasures in favor of the equivalent of a bread and water diet.Intrigued by John’s references and recognizing a blank spot in my knowledge, I turned my morning study period to the stoics and quickly realized that much of what I thought about the stoics was wrong, and the rest lacked any real appreciation for the intellectual underpinnings of the stoic philosophy.While a couple of weeks of one-hour-a-day studies in no way qualifies me as anything more than an interested amateur on the topic, I thought that you might find some of what I have learned of interest… and maybe it’ll even motivate you to learn more on your own.For reasons I’ll explain momentarily, I believe that stoicism – voluntarily and out of necessity – will once again find wide favor in the degrading Western democracies. That’s because, as you’ll read, it offers a philosophically sound and entirely positive operating methodology for those who now find themselves, like my accidental golf partner, facing what is likely to be a permanent reduction in their previous standard of living.If you wish to fully comprehend the nuances of stoic philosophy, there is much to learn. Given the time and space constraints of this publication, I can only scratch the surface, but still want to provide you with some sense of what I’ve discovered about the stoics so far.For starters, my personal take on the “big idea” of the stoics starts by acknowledging that we are humans. As humans, we share certain undeniable traits with other animals. We feel hunger. We like sex. We die. We are communal in nature. Yet, unlike other animals, we have the capacity to apply logic and reason to the matters we encounter in our everyday lives.That ability to reason gives us the capability to make choices based on what we personally believe is right or wrong. It is here that things start to get interesting.The stoic, you see, believes that the interpretation of right or wrong, good or evil, is entirely an internal affair.Or, to quote one of the most famous of the stoics, the ex-slave Epictetus, “God has entrusted me with myself.”By extension, then, the stoic doesn’t rely on dictates purportedly passed down from on high, or blindly accept as good the arbitrary rules and regulations set out by the ruling elite.Instead, the stoic uses logic and reason in attempting to understand their own nature, how they fit into the universe, and what is required to live a contented life.In the first instance, understanding their own nature, a stoic accepts things as they are, not as they might wish them to be. For instance, that they will someday die (unless Laura first comes up with a solution!). As another example of human nature, the stoics understood that we humans are communal animals and that humans do best when they work together. As a result, they believed in interacting in a positive manner with their neighbors.As to where they fit into the universe, as I interpret it, this simply recognizes that there is a certain holistic aspect to the world we live in, and going with the flow will lead to a more tranquil existence.In my opinion, it is on the latter point – understanding what’s required to live a contented life – where the stoics really shine and offer hope for the new era we have entered. In this regard, the stoics were early on in identifying and understanding that there are aspects of life they have no control over.Once they accept they have no control over a thing, a practicing stoic puts it out of his mind.On that general point, the stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “Only a fool worries about death,” for the simple reason that it’s baked in the cake that we all die; it’s only a matter of when, and that’s nothing we have any control over. No control, no worries.Instead – and this is where the misimpression so many have of the joyless stoics comes in – the stoic lives in the moment, taking pleasure ouf of their time with loved ones (as well as the possessions they may own), but they do so with a set-in-cement understanding and acceptance that those loved ones or possessions can vanish in a heartbeat.Again, Epictetus…“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”Accepting that reality, a stoic doesn’t dwell on what the future might hold – because that’s out of their control – but lives in the moment.Desire & FearA key tenet of stoicism, as I read it, is that living a happy, contented life requires keeping both your wants and your fears to a minimum.On this topic, Epictetus, who is particularly good at putting his thoughts clearly, had much to say…“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.”“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.”The implications and benefits of “right sizing” one’s desires are obvious for someone living in a society that constantly urges us to buy the latest and greatest in everything – comfortable golf shoes included – even if it means going into debt to do so.That’s not to say that wanting something is wrong, but rather that living your life in a constant state of desire – say, for the latest model of iPhone – sets you up for constant disappointment should your desire not be met. In addition, almost by definition it means you are pretty much permanently discontented with that which you already possess.Similar to setting yourself up to steady disappointment by constantly forming new desires, the vast majority of us humans waste time and set themselves up for disappointment by fearing things that are also beyond their control… for example, their own death or that of a loved one. Or the loss of their wealth or health. A true stoic fears nothing, because he or she has taken the time to identify and accept those things that they have no control over. Again, no control, no worries… it’s just a waste of time.A stoic would rather spend their time identifying the things that give them pleasure and how to get the most out of those things for as long as they have access to them. But, again, there is nuance in the concept.As an illustration, a stoic might agree that imbibing a fresh, cold glass or two of Torrontés wine while sitting in a café with friends is an enjoyable thing to do. That enjoyment comes from a combination of flavor, ambience, companions and the soothing effect a glass of wine has on the human mind. But far too many people come to believe that if a little alcohol is good, then more will be better. Yet that convivial scene just mentioned is, I think you would agree, an entirely different thing than downing a bottle of whiskey night after night, an action that will over time ruin your health and lead only to sadness.“It is the nature of the wise to resist pleasures, but the foolish to be a slave to them.”The nuance in that quote, again from Epictetus, is not that you should deny yourself all pleasures… but rather enjoy them in moderation, for that’s how to enjoy them most.The benefits of delaying gratification may have a scientific foundation as well. In the Marshmallow Experiment, researchers at Stanford placed children alone in a room with a single snack. The kids were informed they would be left alone for 15 minutes and if they could wait until the researcher returned, they could have two snacks. On the other hand, if they just couldn’t wait, they could ring a bell and the researcher would return immediately and the child could eat the single snack. (A number of the children didn’t bother ringing the bell; they just gobbled down the snack.)While the test was originally set up to test one thing, by happenstance some years later the lead researcher stumbled upon a strong correlation between the kids who couldn’t wait and a host of lifelong poor choices leading to higher drug use, lower SAT scores, less successful careers, higher divorce rates and so forth.(Somewhat related, there is another body of research that shows that kids who grow up in high-stress environments overdevelop the part of the brain dealing with flight or fight, resulting in just the sort of pathology that would cause them to fail the Marshmallow Experiment… but I drift.)I had a very close friend who built a fortune worth on the order of $40 million, then died young of a drug overdose. His wealth meant he could have anything he wanted, and he had no shortage of “things”… yet, with no philosophical underpinnings to his life, he died chasing his transient pleasures, and miserably so.So, how do you find the day-in, day-out tranquility that is the quest of the stoic?For starters, spend some time thinking about what you really need in life, versus just those things you want. I have had a lot of fun doing this as part of my morning studies. As I look at the clutter around me from past fulfilled desires – a motorized canoe, a pool table, a Polaris Ranger, a fishing boat – all of which now sit largely unused, I can only shake my head at the folly of my chasing after material things of marginal utility.Secondly, learn to understand and accept that the nature of things means that a wide range of outcomes is possible in every aspect of your life… including your every interaction with other humans.An opportunity to practice being stoic was provided by my family’s need to visit a passport office about an hour’s drive away to renew a passport last week. As I knew this would entail interacting with human government agents, I mentally prepared myself for a wide range of possible outcomes, all of which would sync with the nature of humans. On one end of the range, the agents might be friendly and cooperative, or they could be bland and mediocre. Or they might be aggressive and antagonistic, even arbitrarily denying us that which we desired – prompt action in renewing the passport ahead of our upcoming trip.To a stoic, whether the agents are friendly or antagonistic would be irrelevant. That’s because you would accept that any of the outcomes mentioned above is very much within the range of possibility. Thus, the stoic would arrive at the passport office with zero expectations, instead paying attention only to what is within their own control – for instance, by making sure they had the required paperwork in hand. Furthermore, the stoic would approach the member of officialdom in a spirit of cooperation, because of the undeniable truth that humans do best when cooperating.If they were then met with an ignorant and agonistic bureaucrat, they might politely try to show the person the error in their logic, without judging the person themselves – because they are only human, after all, and thus, by definition, ignorance and antagonism are well within the norm – but they wouldn’t get upset because they entered the office knowing that that very outcome was always a possibility.If, at the end of the interchange, the stoic is denied what they seek, they would not worry about it, but rather go about their business on an alternative path. In our case, the transaction went off smoothly, which was just icing on the cake.While that may seem overly sheepish, when you ponder the matter from the perspective of living a happy life – a life that is largely free from frustration and fear – it begins to make sense. In the case above, if I had arrived at the passport office with a pre-determined attitude that the agent was going to be an ignorant government functionary, and that I was going to get my way regardless, I’d have been setting myself up for frustration.First off, my negative attitude would very likely have been communicated in conscious or unconscious ways to the person I was there to interact with, hurting the chances for cooperation. Secondly, if things didn’t go as planned, my frustration could have easily boiled over… causing my blood pressure to soar and maybe causing me to end up face down with my arms cuffed behind my back.Now, don’t get me wrong. I could be entirely in the right about my expectations – that the bureaucrat should just speed things along smoothly. But that’s not what I’m trying to get at. What I am trying to get at is that the stoics spent their lives studying what it takes to live a joyful life, and came to the conclusion that it begins with accepting the world as it is, and by adopting a mental framework that allows us humans to all but eliminate frustration and worries, thereby living our lives to the fullest.Put to music, I suspect the stoics would nod in agreement at the title of the classic Rolling Stones hit, You Can’t Always Get What You Want (but you can sometimes get what you need).But I go on too long, so let me move along.In his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, author William Irvine makes the valid point that most people go through life without an operational philosophy: we humans just don’t think about this stuff very much anymore. And so the masses ultimately confuse passing pleasures with life fulfilled and so spend far too much time and money chasing them.That lack of an operating philosophy also leaves us, individually and as a society, open to easy manipulation… for example, by banks and governments that urge us to go into debt. Or the media that try to work us up into a frenzy of greed, fear or anger in order to get more eyeballs on their advertising.What I find refreshing about the stoic philosophy as a foundation for life is that it offers a clear framework for dealing with pretty much whatever life throws your way, starting by taking control of what you can control and not worrying about the rest.While I have only scratched the surface of the ideals the philosophy contains, and in a moment will try to coherently tie these musings into matters relevant to the economy, to help set the baseline understanding of what a stoic is, here are some additional quotes from Epictetus you might appreciate…The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.Be careful to leave your sons well instructed rather than rich, for the hopes of the instructed are better than the wealth of the ignorant.It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.People are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.All religions must be tolerated… for every man must get to heaven in his own way.Only the educated are free.First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.To accuse others for one’s own misfortunes is a sign of want of education. To accuse oneself shows that one’s education has begun. To accuse neither oneself nor others shows that one’s education is complete.If you wish to be a writer, write.Do not seek to bring things to pass in accordance with your wishes, but wish for them as they are, and you will find them.Difficulties are things that show a person what they are.If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please.Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.If thy brother wrongs thee, remember not so much his wrong-doing, but more than ever that he is thy brother.Freedom is not procured by a full enjoyment of what is desired, but by controlling the desire.Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.No man is free who is not master of himself.He is a drunkard who takes more than three glasses though he be not drunk.Know, first, who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.The world turns aside to let any man pass who knows where he is going.We should not moor a ship with one anchor, or our life with one hope.The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.Practice yourself in little things, and then proceed to greater.Whenever you are angry, be assured that it is not only a present evil, but that you have increased a habit.Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish? Nothing else.Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth, is unhappy, though he be master of the world.Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.Never in any case say I have lost such a thing, but I have returned it. Is your child dead? It is a return. Is your wife dead? It is a return. Are you deprived of your estate? Is not this also a return?Silence is safer than speech.Control thy passions lest they take vengeance on thee.For those of you who are interested in learning more about stoics, following is an excerpt from my email correspondence with John Deming, in which he replies to my request for a good starting point in studying the stoics.As for stoicism, there are two entry points. And by the way, it certainly doesn’t hurt to impart stoicism to kids but with one huge caveat that I mentioned in the NY Times responses. Stoicism can easily turn into resignation to one’s fate. Wrong! The stoics do not teach that, but it can be one derivative interpretation of their meaning. But that sort of resignation is what killed progress all over Asia for 2,000 years. Buddha came to some of the same conclusions as Chrysippus, the original Greek stoic, but ended up with the concept of nirvana, one of the most counterproductive concepts ever conceived. Mises, by the way, utterly destroys the concept of nirvana and heaven in several places.First entry is through the modern field of psychology called cognitive therapy pioneered by Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis. One of the best and most accessible books is Feeling Good by David Burns. Any book by David Burns or Aaron Beck is good.But when I discovered Epictetus at David Burns’ recommendation, I hit gold. As usual, since all the original stoic works are in Latin, the translation makes a huge difference.Best entry into the original stoics is with one of the later ones, Marcus Aurelius. The best, most accessible translation (for any age) of Marcus Aurelius’s thought is the recent edition published by David and Scot Hicks titled The Emperor’s Handbook, A New Translation of The Meditations. Unfortunately, it’s not available on Kindle.Another useful entry point is William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, which is available on Kindle.The thing I like about Irvine’s book is that he avoids the Buddhist interpretation but gets the heart of the philosophy and its life-changing advice just right, in my opinion.David again. In addition to reading Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, I am well into Irvine’s book and agree that it’s a great overview of the philosophy and the role it can play in living a more fulfilled existence, one that is largely disconnected from the ideals embodied in the now debunked American dream.Which brings me, finally, to…The New StoicsSimply stated, based on the work we have done here at Casey Research, we believe that the long-running fiction that debt is money is coming to an end, and with it the debt-fueled, artificially higher quality of life enjoyed by young and old alike.The chart below shows the decline in the inflation-adjusted net worth of American families, broken down by income percentiles. As you can see, the folks in the top income bracket – shown in orange – continue to do well. And understandably so: just as a one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind, so are the families who have a tangible net worth kings in the land where everyone else only has debt.But it is the decline in net worth for “everyone else” that is so startling. It is the very picture of Doug Casey’s definition of a depression – a widespread decline in the standard of living.(Click on image to enlarge)In this next chart, we look at the change in family net worth by age group. Even a glance at the chart shows that while all the age groups have taken a hit in this crisis, even those who have lived the longest and therefore had the most time to accumulate wealth, the younger demographics have been absolutely crushed.That includes, it is well worth noting, the pre-retirement age group of 55 through 64. At a time when they should be building net worth to retire on, they are skidding hard in the wrong direction.(Click on image to enlarge)In the next chart, we see the inflation-adjusted median family net worth in the United States. Again, a couple of things leap out.One being that the country’s family units have taken a big haircut in the crisis. Most starkly, fully half of the families in the United States have less than $80,000 in total net worth.(Click on image to enlarge)Even in the top three deciles (not shown here), you find, in ascending order, an average net worth per family of just $128,000 and $286,000, respectively. Only in the very top percentile does the average family net worth – at $1.194 million – approach something a person can rely on to see them through a long retirement.Given the real rate of inflation and the near-certainty that it’s only going to get worse from here due to the money printing, it should be clear that the majority of Americans are in dire straits – though many of them don’t fully understand the serious consequences of that coming inflation to them personally.Put another way, the average person here in the US – and in most of the large Western economies – is on a well-greased slope to a new paradigm where their every desire can no longer be satisfied simply by pulling out a piece of plastic or hopping down to the local bank for a home equity loan.That’s not to say that the process of shifting from a consumer society to a saver society is anywhere near complete. In fact, thanks in no part to the banks being made whole by the Fed’s various machinations and lower interest rates, total consumer credit has rebounded to new highs.(Click on image to enlarge)But, more tellingly, the household debt service ratio has fallen sharply. There are a number of reasons for this, including people walking away from debts during and after the big crash. In addition, the Fed’s cramming down of interest rates has brought the cost of credit – especially on mortgages – way down. That said, I also believe a big part of the fall-off in the debt service ratio is that people are waking up to the hard reality that they can no longer sustain their previous “have it all” lifestyles.(Click on image to enlarge)As a consequence of the simple realities encapsulated in the charts above, and the overarching pressures of the excessive debts at all levels that will remain a burden on the economy for as far as we can see, I suspect that an increasing number of individuals – maybe entire generations – will rediscover the commonsense ideas of the stoics.Specifically, that it’s better to live within your means, and that owning every new gadget is not a birthright. The party is over, but for the stoic, life couldn’t be better.Some Closing ThoughtsSo, what’s it all mean, in terms of the economy, going forward?Household deleveraging is likely to continue. That will put downward pressure on prices for non-essentials. Of course, this is all so much the better for the top percentile, who will be able to leverage their net worth to take advantage of the fire sales caused by deflation. Moderation in all things, including your excesses. Too much of a good thing is, well, too much of a good thing. Buying every new toy won’t make you happy and neither will being immoderate in your pleasures… whether it be adult beverages, sex, even physical exercise – I have a relative who is a total adrenaline junkie and one tick off needing institutionalization as a result of over-exercise. Miscellaneous“enuf, I’m out of here…” That’s how a friend titled an email in which he sent along an article that I quote from here. Here’s the quote…Having been held hostage by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the private contractor in charge of the state’s toll road, Faneuil, Inc. at a toll booth last year for paying cash and refusing to have a report filled out on them and their vehicle, Joel, Deborah and Robert Chandler filed suit.“Under FDOT policies in place at the time, motorists who paid with $50 bills, and occasionally even $5 bills, were not given permission to proceed until the toll collector filled out a ‘Bill Detection Report’ with data about the motorist’s vehicle and details from his driver’s license. Many of those who chose to pay cash did so to avoid the privacy implications of installing a SunPass transponder that recorded their driving habits,” reports The Newspaper.“They were likewise unwilling to provide personal information to the toll collector, but they had no alternative because the toll barrier would not be raised without compliance. FDOT policy does not allow passengers to exit their vehicle, and backing up is illegal and usually impossible while other cars wait behind.”The three-judge panel dismissed the suit, ruling that detaining motorists in order to record details about people who paid by cash was not a constitutional violation and that the state and the contractor could subject motorists to such treatment because, “In Florida, a person’s right and liberty to use a highway is not absolute.”This is merely the latest example in a growing trend of authorities treating people who use cash to pay for goods, bills or services as suspicious. Given that the use of cash cannot be used to track purchases or movements of individuals, extra layers of bureaucracy and intimidation are becoming institutionalized in order to dissuade people from using hard currency as part of the move towards a cashless society.David again. I have written in the past about the inevitability of government’s outlawing cash in favor of debit and credit cards. Once that happens, it will be a brave new world indeed, as our every transaction is logged and stored for further reference. I am betting it will happen before this crisis ends.Notification of pending stock sale. Per our corporate policies, a staff member has informed us he needs to raise some cash by selling half of a small position he holds in First Majestic Silver, which is currently being covered in one of our services. This is in no way a reflection of our view of the company, just a personal need for some liquidity.And with that, I will sign off for the week by thanking you for reading and for being a Casey Research subscriber. I hope I didn’t go on too long on the whole stoic thing; I just found it all quite interesting and thought you might, too.Until next week!David GallandManaging DirectorCasey Researchlast_img