Invest in nobody’s future

Paul Graham is a guru of tech investment nowadays, but several years back he was mostly known as the geek who gets it all—money, fame, good-looking, and wisdom. On his recent (a few years back) post, he talks about how we lose money.

So I started to pay attention to how fortunes are lost. If you’d asked me as a kid how rich people became poor, I’d have said by spending all their money. That’s how it happens in books and movies, because that’s the colorful way to do it. But in fact the way most fortunes are lost is not through excessive expenditure, but through bad investments.

In most people’s minds, spending money on luxuries sets off alarms that making investments doesn’t. Luxuries seem self-indulgent. And unless you got the money by inheriting it or winning a lottery, you’ve already been thoroughly trained that self-indulgence leads to trouble. Investing bypasses those alarms. You’re not spending the money; you’re just moving it from one asset to another. Which is why people trying to sell you expensive things say “it’s an investment.”

I think of the housing bubbles which I experienced in Japan 20 years ago, and which I am about to experience now in China/Taiwan. Millions of people lost their most important properties of their life, their life achievements, and their futures. I witnessed the society slowly removing rainbow-colored ornamentals from everywhere and replacing them with protection shields and warnings: The Great Gatsby effect.

The Japanese people still look back on the economic collapse with a pointed finger. Someone must be the ultimate culprit, yet they haven’t been able to find one. So they have learned not to talk about it loudly, because I guess they are afraid to discover that one truth: they brought it onto themselves.

Nobody wants to economically punish himself or herself. Why is it our fault that the future has gone away?

The other day I visited a friend’s apartment for an errand. It was a typical Taiwanese high-rise modern real estate, complete with a 24-hour guard, postal service, built-in security, modern design, and easy access to public transportation. Perfect, so far.

Another person was living in the apartment, so apparently my friend bought the property for investment. I stepped in, and saw that the room was about 6 by 6 meters, or a size of a public bathroom. There were a unit bathroom, a bed, and a space to…stand. There wasn’t even a space to stretch your body for some yoga. A business hotel might carry larger rooms. You could live in the room, but you wouldn’t want to.

As far as I know, many new apartments in Taiwan have the same structure: solitary cells inside a gorgeous enclosure. They are all “houses” for people to live in. But they are all built and sold as “investments” for people who want someone else to live in. They make sure the “conditions” are met. Air-conditioning? Check. Security? Check. Convenience? Check…

And to keep the “investment” affordable, they cut up the space into office cubes. Wait, with a bathroom and bed, it is even more efficient than an office cube: 24-hour working shift is now a reality!

Places nobody wants to live are created in order to “maximize” people’s investment. If this trend continues, in a decade or so there will be hundreds of unoccupied housing blocks and mourning people who lost all their savings, because the market has already began saturating as of now. And there aren’t kids to occupy new rooms anymore. A bubble pops, and the rest is (brutal) history.

People make investments in order to grow their asset, and that very action triggers a huge backlash in the end, which wipes off the asset they needed to protect. The sad truth is, they don’t even want the asset—in this case, a work-life blending cube—for themselves.

I see similar Optimization-Choking-Each-Other-Off effect elsewhere. For example, companies hire fewer full-time employee to optimize expense, resulting in even less income because they also wiped off potential customers.

Everybody operates under the assumption that everybody else thinks and acts differently. I don’t want to live in this apartment, but someone else would. We aren’t going to pay enough for our employees but someone else would. Everybody is trying to optimize his future through investment or reduction on somebody else’s life.

Well, that’s a gloomy view. But I cannot help thinking: who is getting happy in this picture? Isn’t it better to “consume,” instead of “invest,” and enjoy a romantic dinner, gorgeous trip, a bigger room, or an undisturbed month-long rest? At least that makes someone—you—happy.