Life is good here in Montreal. I spend most of my time leisurely cooking in our little kitchen or reading George Orwell books in the sunny park. (We should hit 30°C this week!)
You don’t need much money for either of these activities: just a few quid for dinner ingredients and the occasional bus fare to the library. The good life is there if you want it. You just have to stop buying pointless stuff and quit your job as soon as you can.
Much like the protagonist in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, however, I’ve not been able to stop my mind from drifting periodically into the vulgar world of money.
The preoccupation is partly due to an idle interest in economics but also—less comfortably—an abstract and groundless fear that a life without significant income is somehow sinful or unsustainable and that my good life here and now is tantamount to hubris. I know my fears are the result of growing up in an environment in which the Protestant Work Ethic reigned over all of us; and I know very well that I can live here for a long time without sucking up to the money god. Yet there is a nagging homunculus on my shoulder insisting that I should be doing something more lucrative.
I usually deal with this by playing Louis Armstrong’s version of, “Lazybones” loud enough to drown out the homunculus’ ridiculous witterings:
Hey there lazybones, lyin’ in the sun, how you gonna get your day’s work done?
What day’s work, man? I’m too busy baskin’ in the noonday sun.
I can’t recommend this approach enough. Who could worry about money or status when this song fills the air? “I don’t wanna make a dime, nohow”. Thus spake Satchmo.
At the nearby Bank of Canada HQ in Ottawa, a massive bagel-shaped rock is displayed like a piece of corporate art. In fact, the rock is a Rai stone: an ancient form of currency from the Island of Yap in Micronesia.
These stones are often cited as examples of bizarre currency but they’re surely no more strange (less strange even, given their substantial nature) than the all but invisible digital money we use today. It was the scarcity of the rocks, often shiny and quartz-like, and the hard work involved in obtaining them and moving them around that gave them their perceived value. Silly perhaps. But digital money isn’t even shiny.
This week, our friend Tim visited us from London. He is the chap responsible for the typography of New Escapologist and is a seasoned world traveler. As well as keeping us all captivated with his stories of North Korea, Tim mentioned the Rai stones of Yap apropos of nothing. He couldn’t have known I’d been thinking about them so recently but there it was.
After listening to Tim talk about the stones, I felt less bad about failing to shake off the spell of money. Human beings have been investing meaning in otherwise useless baubles for thousands of years. One can’t be expected to forget overnight about something so deep in the spinal memory that its competing for headspace only with the attractiveness of large-breasted women and the fear of snakes.
My failed attempt to make money from the banks
I must confess to initially disregarding Tom Hodgkinson’s recent plea to boycott the banks but now I’m starting to feel similarly inclined.
I’d always appreciated that the banks exploit the poor, represent the evil of a Capitalism gone wrong and are responsible for the financial mess the world is in now, but as a customer with simple fiscal needs I’ve always been happy enough to allow my earnings to dribble into an invisible place somewhere in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. I hadn’t even chosen this bank specifically: they were just the first ones to send me a credit card when I became a university student in 2001. I was never an investor or earner of big money, I never borrowed money and I’ve never had a mortgage. I just needed a convenient place to put the money I was making.
Now that I’m no longer working in the world of conventional employment, I tried to move my savings around so that I might benefit from as efficient a banking architecture as possible. I would put my modest stash in the highest-interest and lowest-tax accounts I could find and enjoy the interest they offered. My planned system of savings accounts and ISAs would generate £500 per year. This is a meaningful income to me: as a frugalist, £500 represents a month of typical living (to put it another way, I believed that efficient book-keeping could equate to an annual discount of one twelfth of my total living expenses. Better than a kick in the balls).
It’s not as easy as that though. I came across huge problems:
1. I’m currently living in Montreal and my banks are apparently based in England, despite being gigantic multinational organisations to all other intents and purposes. This simple fact generated untold communication problems, expensive long-distance phone calls and unnecessary banking fees. The banks, it seems, either haven’t caught up with the International business environment the rest of us live in or they function in a deliberately naive fashion in order to restrict the movements of their poorer customers. So much for the HSBC being “The world’s local bank”.
2. Even opening a bank account or making a transaction takes ages, let alone the research you need to do to find the best banks and the best accounts. I could feel my hair greying as I sat in front of the computer trying to make assuredly simple things happen.
3. Even though a bank’s only siren song is the chance to make money by letting them look after our existing money, they put obstacles in the way of the wiser lay-investor at every turn. For example, to access the decent 8% interest offered by one of HSBC’s more seemingly lucrative savings accounts, you must open an “HSBC Advance” current account. This would be an acceptable hoop to jump through in principle but the fees imposed by this current account precisely negate the proposed benefit of the savings account. After hours spent reading the small print and moving money around, you’re still making 0%.
Trying to make money out of the banks is a waste of time unless you’re a banker (though I am yet to try stoozing. Has anyone reading this had positive experiences with this technique?) You need to become a serious investor by educating yourself as to the world of stocks and shares, or forget about such vulgar things altogether and go read a book in the park.
For theoretical (rather than day-to-day practical) material about economics, I recommend Filthy Lucre by a Canadian philosophy professor called Joseph Heath. Here’s the fellow himself talking about his book: