July 26, 2013

The Startup: Best option for retirement.

So, I am 42. I have no retirement. I had some at one point, but had some brilliant idea that if I fixed my house up (cause otherwise it would have either fallen down or been condemned) then, it would be a pretty good place for my family to live and we would have a decent amount of equity built up. So I cashed out my retirement and by the time I got the place fixed up, most of our equity evaporated in the housing meltdown, and my company which serviced the real estate and mortgage industries kind of went with it. Fortunately, we were able to sell before we lost the place, but we got a lot less out then we had put in, even though we bought a major fixer-upper and it was a pretty decent place with a little bit of key work needing to be finished on it when we sold it.

I know, long sob story. I am not the only one who lost just about everything in this downturn. We moved to Texas looking for work, which never panned out, and ate through what little we had left. We finally ended up in my parents basement and I picked up an online consulting gig. We managed to pay off all of our debt with the consulting before I got a regular job. It doesn't pay that bad, all things considered. But it doesn't have any retirement benefits, no options, no future. I should probably have opened up a IRA or something by now, but I haven't cause we have been catching up on years without insurance other things where anything that could be put off was. So, back to where I started. I am 42, and have no retirement.

Funny thing. My father was exactly at this same point when he was my age. He went and got a job with a big mega corporation, that put a decent amount into a 401k. That lasted about 10 years, and then he got laid off in his early 50s. He was able to land a similar position with a much smaller company, but it was big enough to have 401k support as well. He put in his time there and retired at 62 1/2. Turns out, what he saved wasn't enough. They have social security, and a little bit from his retirement savings, but big things keep eating into their principal. He needed at least double what he put aside, if not triple.

So, here I am in a similar situation, only no 401k. I make enough, and have no debt, but I don't have much extra. I also have no equity in a home or real estate anywhere. So, I have been figuring what I am going to need for retirement. Trying to figure out what my best options are. Where I live is very close to work, but doesn't have the lowest cost of living. The schools are good, but still have the typical problems public schools have. In any other direction from my work at the same distance, the cost of living stays about the same, but the schools are not as good and some of the neighborhoods can be quite creepy. I have 6 daughters, so, I get a little paranoid about safety sometimes. I can lower my cost of living if I go far enough away, but then the commute becomes very long, and I don't really save much.

If I were to try to get a comparable job with another company in the area, I could probably get better pay and a 401k, but when I started to do the math, I found myself looking at the same situation my father has found himself in. He worked himself nearly to the bone and when he finally retired, he doesn't have enough. So, this led me to think about what my options are, and how each of those options might affect my eventual retirement. I looked at doing contract work and freelance work. I looked at setting up my own consultancy. One option was to find a better job I could do with a much lower cost of living. There were only 2 options I came up with that had an expected outcome that exceeded my expected needs. All of the other options would use up the next 20 years of my life and leave me short of what I need.

Both of the positive options had to do with startups. First, if I were to come on as a very early founding team member or early key-hire, and the company had a successful liquidity event after 3 to 5 years, I would probably have more than enough cashable equity to cover my needs and then some. This is even more the case with the second option, where I am the founder of the startup, and it also eventually gets to a liquidity event. If it were successful, it wouldn't have to take the next 20 years either. In both cases, it is not a sure thing, but it is a big risk.

I have done startups before, but there were lots of things wrong with how the business was set up. One of which, they were primarily service oriented where I was exchanging my time for money. There is only so much you can get when you exchange your time for money. Sure, there are a few (patent lawyers?, brain surgeons?, industrial spies?, former presidents?) that can charge very high rates, but I am not one of those. While I can make a decent living doing doing service oriented work, it will never create wealth like a successful startup that has a product can.

So, since startups are not a guaranteed route to success, and the other roads are dead ends, what is to be done? Well, make sure you pay attentions to the mistakes you make, and learn from them. The thing that makes startups the best option is that, you are not limited to one. Even successful startups have a tendency to be on a short time table. A solid liquidity event often is within the first 4- 7 years. Even when it isn't, startups are very quick to adapt compared to established companies. And, then there is the whole lean iterate and pivot approach. One startup, many shots on goal. If it isn't working, take what parts do work, and try something different with them. Sounds easy right. Well, if it was, there would be tons of successful startups out there. Oh, wait, there are. Still is easier said than done. Just don't quit. Kind of a bit harder with a large young family and a day job to support them. I guess my iterations just have to move slower. But, fortunately for me, I have never been short on great ideas. I just need to get one to the point that its greatness is readily apparent.

If I can do that, I am sure I can create enough wealth and get to an adequate liquidity event. That will take care of my retirement needs. Even if my retirement looks a lot the same as what got me there. The difference, I won't be financially dependent on it's outcome, and I might just get there a lot sooner.

July 12, 2013

Self sufficiency, the global economy, and 3D printing.

For a long time, I have had a dream of being self sufficient. I would like to have my own land that is paid for, generate my own electricity, raise my own food, provide my own materials, and pretty much live without having outside expenses. Yeah, I know, that certainly does not seem practical in the current day. Especially when taking into account high technology and our interconnected economies and lives.

But, it gets me thinking about the concept of self sufficiency. Self sufficiency can apply to more than just an individual or family. It can apply to towns, counties, regions, states, and even countries. It certainly applies to our planet. If we can't get it here, we don't get it. That could change one day, but we are a long way from mining asteroids and living on other planets. On smaller scales, though, self sufficiency is largely discouraged in the world.

Historically, that hasn't always been the case. For example, not that long ago, every family who lived in the Kingdom of Tonga was required to grow a garden. They had to grow a certain amount of food to take care of themselves. Even though they still had trade, and bartered things back and forth, the policy was set to make sure that each island was able to take care of itself, which for a bunch of small islands which are prone to be hit by hurricanes, can be important. Still, the storms did come, and could sometimes destroy all their food and wipe out the population of an island, but this policy was a strong factor in avoiding famine and want. It also made sure that people were contributing to society.

Today, areas that are not self sufficient in a regional sense, are more prone to disasters and famines. They might receive help from outside, but if they don't have local resources, recovery and survival are more difficult.  True, we have lots of charity, but isn't the best charity helping others provide for themselves.

I suppose the proponents of the global economy would disagree. They want everyone specialized, and only producing their specialized goods, which are then sold the world over. Technology and the costly manufacturing plants needed for modern cars, computers, and so forth require immense investment and concentration of resources to be viable from a business perspective.

Even more so, globalism has embraced the idea that all people should be active consumers. An example of this is a recent policy from China. They want to bring the peasants into the cities and make them part of the global economy. The idea is they will have jobs and be active consumers. Currently, these people are very poor, but are marginally self sufficient. True, they have no benefit from technology and are without much that most of us in the modern economy consider essentials. On the other hand, they produce most of what they need. Might globalism be more efficient in producing what they need to survive. It might, but it will sacrifice any form of independence they have, and eliminates diversity.

The downsides of globalism exist on both the personal level, such as the loss of independence, and at the global level. If the world needs a certain commodity, and it is made too uniform, either in the place it is produced, or in what is being produced, the risk becomes much higher that it will be disrupted. A classic example is the banana blight of the 1920's. The banana that people sold was called the Big Mike. Commercial growers wanted to sell that one cause it tasted best. Unfortunately, it was a monogenetic crop, and a single fungus wiped out the global production. Fortunately, it was not a staple crop that kept large populations alive. Today, we have massive homogenization in crops, as certain seed companies seek total monopolies of major food crop seed production. Corn, wheat, oats, and to a lesser degree rice and beans are all being subject to this process. At some point, these monogenetic crops will be wiped out by some kind of disease that targets some uniform defect or weakness. Then we will have world wide famines and all the horrors that come with it. Technology is being used to create and strengthen globalism, but while it does make some very wealthy individuals, it doesn't necessarily help the poor.

However, technology might also hold the solution to these problems. It revolves around a different approach to manufacturing. Specifically, what is being called 3D printing. We are still a ways from being able to do this, but if each community had the means of manufacturing anything they can get the raw materials and the plans for, it would change the balance from massive investment into huge centralized facilities to localized production of everything but certain raw materials. Certain raw materials are by their nature scarce, and located in adequate concentrations in only a few places in the world, but the rest, the bulk of the materials could be produced locally. Sure, the designs that are used for those machines are not going to be locally produced, but if I could run down to the local 3D manufacturer and have them print up my new smart phone or kitchen appliance or perhaps even my custom fit name brand running shoes, and pay them for the goods and be on my way, my local economy would benefit. True, the designs and services like the custom fit design used for my running shoes would have to be provided elsewhere, but that is why the internet and 3D printing have to go hand in hand. And it lets product designers reach a much broader market without the manufacturing headaches. It might even help encourage people to consume more intelligently. In being closer to the source, people often appreciate it more.

When this is really available, then the local economy can be highly self sufficient, while still being part of the global economy. Local economies would still have to produce or purchase raw materials, but the overall commodities become much simpler, and with it, much more resilient to economic disruption. Not to mention, wouldn't it simplify life?

June 28, 2013

Caring for the poor. Teaching them to fish might not be enough.

We have a lot of poor people in this world. But what is meant by poor can mean a lot of different things in different places. I really don't thing anyone would disagree that a single mother in Central America that has only a piece of dirt with no electricity, running water, toilets, or even a roof overhead is poor. One of my neighbors recently went there trying to help the extremely poor, and met this woman. She has about as close to nothing as one can get. She just wanted to have enough food to keep her and her 2 year old son alive for another week. I read many articles about poor people in various parts of the world who just want food. That is truly poor.

There are other kinds of poor. We have an ongoing debate in this country on how to help the poor. Our federal government has dozens of programs to help the poor. We spend unfathomable amounts of dollars trying to address the problem of America's poor. Unfortunately, the more of these programs that get used, the fewer that do all they can to work their way up out of poverty. It doesn't seem to mater how much we give them, it doesn't raise them out of poverty.

I suspect, there are several factors involved here. The first is opportunity and it is a double edged factor. There are many in the extreme poverty that simply do not have opportunity. There are many in fact, even if they knew 'how' to fish, could not feed themselves as they have no access to the fishing waters. Before we start teaching people how to take care of themselves, we need them to have access to the means to take care of themselves. The other side of opportunity applies to those who have the opportunity to life themselves up, but who have a better opportunity to just take the hand outs and not have to work for it. I am not saying the poor in the US don't work. Many of them do, but there are those who do not. Our means testing is very imperfect, and often those who get the most help, don't need it nearly as much as those to don't get the help. I have know quite a few families over the years whose expertise covered which forms and programs to leverage to get a maximum payout from the government.

The second factor is motivation. Those extreme poor in places like Central America, Africa, an so on would do just about anything to improve their situation. They work harder than just about everybody on the planet when they have opportunity. They have motivation. They lack opportunity. They also lack skills and training. If they have the chance, the will get the skills and training. The flip side is that those with robust social programs don't seem to have the motivation to work hard to improve their situation. It isn't that they don't want better. They do. But if they get too successful and trying to improve their situation, they will reach cutoffs for the programs they are using, the their success will ultimately penalize them and leave them worse off than they were before. They are motivated, but motivated to become better at utilizing government and other programs which provide for their needs. They are motivated to avoid too much success.

It is really tragic that this dichotomy exists. We need to find a way to have programs that taper better. That don't penalize those who are finding success. And, we need to find a way to take the resources we dedicate to the problem of poverty, and use it more effectively. Whatever the solution, it should be simple to administer, and difficult to defraud. And most importantly, it should be easily copy-able by those parts of the world where the truly extreme poor and in abundance.

March 11, 2013

Is growing income inequality inevitable?

I recently had a short twitter conversation with @RepBrianKing regarding wealth and income inequality. He had posted a link to this YouTube video that discusses the subject. I had responded that "our policies that have become more slanted towards so called socialism, have made things worse not better" and later that "Income inequality is a big threat, but neither socialist nor conservative approaches will work. They both make it worse." This led him to ask the question in the title of this post, "Is growing income inequality inevitable?" Well, the short answer echos the Lorax: "Unless.". The not quite as short answer is "It will be difficult to do, and certainly not guaranteed, and will require some very new approaches to government policy." The long answer needs a lot of explanation. I will first address the problems, then the solution, and then the challenges of implementing such a program.

THE PROBLEMS. (You can skip this section if you know all this already.)

1. Wealth and income inequalities. Wealth and income inequality are not the same and often get confused, but they are both problems. They affect everyone, but not in the same ways. Extreme wealth inequality will ultimately result is chaos, civil unrest, or even war, and perhaps even widespread slavery (think Roman or Mayan empire slavery, not just revolutionary war American slavery.) This is because ultimately, all the resources of an economy become concentrated in the hands of the very few, and the entire rest of the society ceases to have any stake in it, but become serfs in a new feudalism. We are not there yet, but it can happen. One of the most significant modern implosions of a strong society was the implosion of the Argentine economy in the early 1900s. It was a very robust and powerful economy, but the wealth had become concentrated. This led to war lords and ultimately the horrors that followed under years of political purges and dictatorship. Income inequality leads to wealth inequality, but it also has some immediate problems of its own. It has the tendency to lead to vast growing over-indebtedness.  Eventually all of that debt will turn into a massive default, which will wipe out the wealth of even most of the upper class (the 10% through 2%). True, they might maintain a slight income advantage over others, but their wealth will mostly be eliminated.
2. Broken safety nets. Today, we have social safety nets that are supposed to help keep the poor from abject poverty and misery. These include social security, medicare and medicaid, welfare, unemployment, disability, food stamps, and myriads of other lesser programs. Each of these are designed to address some specific ill or condition, but often contain elements that penalize real success at getting back on their feet again. For instance, unemployment provides up to 40% of what a person made (up to a cap), but if they happen to make a few dollars doing freelance or temporary work, it takes dollar for dollar from what they would be getting. They are immediately penalized for any small success, and the only incentive the unemployment provides is to not get a job or have any outside income. Any partial success they get immediately tears into what little safety net that they have. Also, some of these programs have cliff like cutoffs. One minute you have vital help, and as soon as you get a little success, the rug gets pulled out from underneath you. Another example is the minimum wage. Raising it does seem to help in the short term, but the prices on basic items, that have the smallest margins for businesses, get raised first and hit the poor the hardest, resulting in eventually lowering their standard of living.
3. Bad socialist policies. Socialist policies of tax the rich and redistribute it to the poor don't work either. They sound great in theory, but in practice, history has repeatedly shown it doesn't work. Look at Russia. After 70 years of the most stark socialist policies in history, their income and wealth inequality are worse than ours. Their rich are richer, and their poor are poorer. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but the fact is it doesn't work. 
(Why it doesn't work: instead of better equalizing the created wealth, it reduces the amount of wealth created while the distribution of that wealth doesn't actually improve. Instead it disappears into hidden, protected, or institutional holdings, and does so at an even higher rate. The rich and powerful find ways to position themselves within an even more influential power structure, and then become untouchable overlords. They only way to apply such a system is through extreme application of force, which dehumanizes both those being forced, and those doing the forcing, and doesn't end up being successful in the long run.)
4. Bad conservative policies. Conservative policies of flat taxation and minimal government regulation have a tendency to get blown out of proportion.  They turn into a wild west type scenario with the attitude of "You have have what you can take"  and the strongest, or best armed have a tendency to turn into thugs or robber barrons and they victimize others. Again, this dehumanizes both the victims and the victimizers. The reasons these conservative policies don't work are a little more clear than the socialist policies. They don't have the negative of reducing wealth creation, and it doesn't tend to hit the middle classes quite as hard, but the results are the same in the long run and those at the top end still get richer while everyone else gets poorer.
5. Corporate usurpation. Wealth and income inequality is made worse with institutionalization of the corporate mindset: a.  Our companies are too big to fail and  b.Employees aren't even slaves, they are numbers and calculations. Corporations are generally not affected by socialist policies as they generally are able to buy themselves an exception. They wield such unbelievable power in influence by the kind of wealth they can throw around, that only other corporations stand in their way. And yet, corporations keep getting bigger and more powerful. Too big to fail. They can nearly collapse our economy, and we will bail them out and transfer their liability to us, because we are too afraid of what happens if they go away. The individuals involved are part of that 1%, and they are untouchable. They can spend money that isn't even theirs to manipulate the world around them. If they do something repulsive or vile, they can hide behind their corporations and stand blameless. Our tax policies hardly touch them.

THE SOLUTIONS (Read carefully)
These solutions are NOT a cafeteria plan. Only a few will be effective without the others, and then, not very much. They all need to be there in support of each other.
1. We need a fair wage act. This act would replace our current wage laws. It is focuses on real earnings of employees in an organization. Organizations with employees generate wealth, and those involved in generating that wealth need to share in that. Organizations (companies, non-profits, government agencies, etc) should be subject to a policy that can be expressed as: the highest compensated individual's total pay can not exceed the organization multiple of the lowest compensated individual's total pay. The organization multiple is determined by organization size. The penalty could be a fine, a corporate tax, or whatever would incentivize organizations to follow the policy. In order to be effective, private contractors would have to be included in these calculations, and total pay would have to include bonuses, commissions, benefits, stock options and any other compensation that has monetary value. The only thing not included in this is dividends paid to stock holders. That is covered later.
2. A better Fair Tax. You may have heard of the fair tax. It is mostly backed by a bunch of tea-partier, anti-IRS types. Sometimes I wonder if they really understand what it is they claim to support. Anyway, they have several things right, and understanding why those are right, and how to use them is important. On the other hand, they have several things wrong, which would make things worse if not addressed and corrected. Things they have right: First, a prebate that is equal across all registered citizens and residents and their dependents which can make even the worst regressive tax system progressive. In fact, if done right, it can be the first tier of a safety net that doesn't penalize success. Second. Taxing income only serves to perpetuate the income divide. Those at the top of the wealth scale don't make income. They make dividends and capital gains, but not income. And often they can offset those by so-called loses. Taxing consumption can be applied more universally, with less tax evasion, and is effective at taxing even those who get around the income tax. It makes shifts foreign trade vastly in our favor, without subsidies or tariffs. Things they have wrong: They want to exclude education and investments. Having worked in the education industry for years, it is an industry. It needs to be taxed just like everything else. It spreads the burden more evenly, and takes away the advantage of those who can afford much better education without paying part of the tax burden. Even more so, investment has to be taxed. It is the primary method of perpetuation of wealth without paying their fair share. The tax level should not be so high as to destroy investment, but if they can pay 5 percent broker fees, surely they can afford to pay tax. They don't have to pay taxes on the gains, just on the investment. It becomes part of the cost of investing. By taxing everything, including education and investment, we can provide a larger prebate, maybe to double what they are currently proposing. That large of a prebate would act as a first safety net buffer to those who are poor. It could greatly improve their financial situation. For those who make more, they still get the prebate, but it is much less significant to them.
3. 20% Accounts. These accounts take care of a large portion of the rest of the social safety net. They are the first tier of unemployment. They help employees feel a little less trapped, and give them a fallback when the worst comes. They are funded by the employer as a 20% match for all compensation for all employees. Who manages them is less important than the fact that they are there. They could be managed by the individual, by investment professionals, or even government agencies. Also, regardless of who manages it, it needs to limit risk for the bulk of the principle while still trying to have some growth. These accounts are generally not tap-able unless the person is unemployed, retired, or in special circumstances as determined by regulation.
4. Inheritance and Gift limits per recipient.  Those with vast wealth perpetuate others with vast wealth. They may have earned it, but they don't help society by creating an upper echelon of society who become untouchable 1%'s. But, what if they were limited in how much they could give to any one person. It could be enough that the recipient could do anything, but not enough to do nothing, or enough to usurp control and power over society. Those with vast wealth would have to spread their wealth out enough to cause it to re-enter the economy. Those who inherit such large amounts might be able to repeat their progenitors success, or they might just live the high life. Either way, the wealth gets spread out, and directly affects wealth inequality for the better.
5. Corporate size and influence limits. We need to make sure no corporation is too big to fail, or even big enough to establish a non-competitive environment. There are many ways to do this. One way would be to limit the number of locations a company can have. This would not limit franchises, as those are generally owned by others, but it would keep them from getting too big. There are other ways to limit the size and scope of corporations, but their size needs to be vastly limited. Some few corporations are of a nature that their size would still surpass reasonable levels, and those should be subject to very rigid restrictions that keep them from engaging in anti-competitive or undesirable behaviors.
6. Self sufficiency programs. It is in individuals', society's, and the government's best interest for communities, families, and individuals to be as self sufficient as possible. This reduces dependency on both society and the government, increases self worth, creates a more stable economy, and improves the overall desirability of the American life. At the same time, self sufficiency is highly dependent on individual attitudes. Attitudes can not be legislated or even regulated. But they can be affected with public service campaigns, and it is well within the scope of government in all but the most minimalist libertarian schemes to perform public education and service programs. Additionally, government can inspire and help develop programs to facilitate the success of those who have this attitude.
7. Limited scope additional safety net programs. There are still those who will be subject to extreme circumstances that prevent them from living at an acceptable level. They will need additional programs for things like disabilities, catastrophic medial conditions, or natural disasters. These programs should be designed, where possible, to help people get back on their own feet as quickly as they can, and should be very carefully monitored and regulated so as to not become abused or ineffective.


Obviously, it is easy to miss potential challenges. This list is certainly not exhaustive, but these are definitely some of the challenges.  It will take a lot of effort to overcome just these.
1. Entrenched Ideologies. The first challenge exists because we as a nation and culture have taken our eyes off of what we hope to ultimately achieve. We instead focus on pet issues, programs, and platitudes that have little real chance of reaching those goals. Each political party and faction has these sacred cows, and anything but their way is considered unacceptable. There is a lot of momentum in these false hopes, and to get people to stop and think, and to realize that the status-quo is quickly tearing our country apart, will take a lot of effort and self control to break from the fixed mindset we are currently in.
2. Educating the populace. Our populations are pretty ignorant of how government really works and affects their lives. Most of our people can quote campaign slogans, but have no idea how those would translate into whatever they think they are voting for. Except for the politically active, very few have taken the time and effort to understand much about these processes. Worse yet, they don't even want to know. Getting them to understand that these things will help them will take a lot of effort and patience.
3. Getting the idea out. Before we can address entrenched ideologies or ignorant populaces, first we have to get the idea out there. It will take a lot of people who really believe these policies will work and that these are problems that must be addressed.
4. Finding effective evangelists. Not everybody is equally effective at spreading the word. There are those who, by means of charisma, or public presence, or fame, or some other factor, are much more effective than most at getting others to both listen to what they say and to believe it. It will be critical to find those public opinion leaders who can help establish an effective movement for these proposals.
5. Critical mass. As with many things, there will probably be some sort of critical mass. Once enough espouse these ideas and policies, there will be a landslide to follow. Unfortunately, where that critical mass is and how to get there is generally unknown.
6. Vested interests. Obviously, if you are in the top 1%, these policies do not benefit you. You are powerful and influential and are going to do your best to see that these things never see the light of day. If you are not in the top 5%, chances are these polices will benefit you. These ideas are not designed to punish success, however, and getting those who are in the other 4 percent to see that will be difficult. Still, under these policies everyone can still enjoy the benefits of their success, but will not be able to just pass it on to create a dynasty. The top 1%'s kids will probably start off with a moderate competitive advantage, but not an insurmountable one. They will have to work for their own success just as their parents did.

In summary, these problems are serious and will destroy us as a nation and a culture if not effectively addressed. I have been thinking about these issues for years and have come up with the what I feel is the best policy proposals to address these things overall. Not being a very effective evangelist, I have been called everything from communist to robber baron to fascist when describing these ideas to people. I hope I have done a better job of describing these this time. These ideas are formulated for effectiveness, not for selling. They pass the economic, psychological, sociological, historical and mathematical evaluations I have tried them against. Having said that, these are new ideas, and implementation rarely mirrors theory. Even if implemented, there are likely to be many pitfalls in the way, but in years of searching for solutions to these problems, I haven't seen anything else which seems likely to work.