Author Topic: Mustachian Society  (Read 3376 times)

Ishmael

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Mustachian Society
« on: March 21, 2013, 07:52:50 AM »
I recently re-read MMM's post "What if Everyone Became Frugal?" (http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2012/04/09/what-if-everyone-became-frugal/) and was intrigued with the discussion around Cindy's comments.

I think there's a big, critically important component that no one in the discussion mentioned, and I thought I would post my thoughts on the forum to see if my thoughts have merit or if I'm full of sewage water.

Economies don't seem to fail because of a lack of consumerism - they seem to fail because of a lack of capital flowing throughout the system. This is often associated with corruption, as some people/companies rip other ones off, and a lack of wealth distribution.

Picture a landscape, with a lake, in a hot dry place. This lake has streams flowing into it, but no outflows. Everything downstream of it is desert. A person comes along, and digs trenches throughout the desert, and water starts to flow into this area. Life flourishes.

A real life example: compare the Sahara with the Amazon. The Sahara has some resilient, highly adapted flora and fauna that are pretty neat, but the Amazon is breathakingly more vibrant and successful. The difference is the Amazon has a constant, regular flow of water throughout its entire ecosystem.

However, if the Amazon had a decade-long drought every 100 years, it would largely die off during that decade. But when the next 90-year normal period started, it would quickly storm back to life. (And gradually, life would evolve to become more mustachian and build up reserves of water to get them through this period :) )

What appears to have happened in the US is that the flow of money stopped. The banks seemed to be filling the lake (debt for mortgages), but the stuff they put in the lake wasn't water, it was something toxic. In the short term, life used it like water until it eventually caused many things to die.

In Europe, there seems to be a combination of factors. A lot of it seems to have been been related to the US housing bubble bursting and flooding toxic water into that economy, but also because some countries (e.g. Greece) were also using toxic water (unsustainable debt) to create a landscape with less good water than was flowing into the lake.

Tying this all back to my analogy, although the amount of water in the lake is and important factor, what is equally important to have a great society is that there is enough to saturate the ground and that it is distributed in such a way as to cover the landscape. And, that the Life that uses that water uses it efficiently to grow and prosper.

MMM points out quite critically that it is ultimately efficiency and innovation that improves quality of life in the long run (provided people have access to it). The part that the political "right" gets correct about the economy is that government is often inefficient and can pollute the waters - this can't be ignored or dismissed. Their "cure" is absolutely wrong though - keeping the water in the lake won't fix anything - it doesn't trickle out voluntarily - and it makes a pretty awful situation in the long term. The key is to ensure government is efficient (not easy!) and focused on improving the quality of life of everyone.

Tying this all back to my analogy, it doesn't really matter how much is in the lake to have a great society, as long as there is enough to saturate the ground and that it is distributed in such a way as to cover the landscape. Life that uses that water more efficiently will be more successful, too.

A troubling view of society in the long term is that the money flow seems to be drying up. The distribution trenches are being restricted and dammed. Pay/benefits are going down (in real terms), fewer workers are being asked to work more hours, etc. The middle class, the bedrock of a great society, is slowly dying. Corporations and the extremely wealthy are holding onto it, and only distributing to the elite at the top (who live in the lake with them). Sure, it remains possible for one of the fish in the lower streams to swim up into the lake, but it gets more difficult all the time to swim over dry rocks.

Therefore, I suggest that wealth distribution and lack of corruption are critically important elements of a healthy society, and that these elements are totally and completely ignored in the discussions in the media (controlled by the elite who live in the lake). There are lots of countries where this happens, like in South America where there are some obscenely wealthy people who don't want to pay taxes or decent wages to invest in improving the quality of life for others. There is lots of money, but it doesn't flow through their society (due to corruption and greed of the few).

So, MMM's theory seems completely and totally sound to me, provided the money in society flows throughout it (via high employment, but reduced work hours) and doesn't pool in the hands of the few.  This would not happen if the quality companies that remain take advantage of the competition in the labour pool to only hire a few workers for paltry wages and work them 120 hours a week; that society would suck. Hard.

I also like the way this person explained it: http://jaredhillaryruark.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/costco-and-henry-ford-prove-that-living-wages-are-perfectly-feasible/

So, please let me know what you think!

Kazimieras

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Re: Mustachian Society
« Reply #1 on: March 21, 2013, 08:53:15 AM »
Neat post :)

In the spirit of debate, here's my perspective on things. Also analogies are dangerous, since each layer adds another bit of confusion into the mix.

Economies traditionally didn't fail because of lack of consumerism - modern economies are structured differently. Back in the 1900s (and earlier) the bulk of the wealth created in a nation came from work output through a factory, typically by making something. Now we got really good at this and found ways to make more with less people, as can be seen by the increased productivity per person through the use of machines. Since then, things have changed slightly. Most people do not actually make a physical product, instead they sell a service. The economy in the developed world has shifted to become service based, which doesn't make things (although there are no shortage of things), and most workers today fall into that category. Think of any "knowledge worker" (aka someone who has to use their head for a living) such as a programmer at Google. They don't make a thing, they sell a service.

Now why is this important? Because services, at least how they work now, need to be consumed in order to make money (it also gives jobs since machines can do a lot of the work). As a consequence to this shift in the underlying production in the developed worlds, consumerism (or what economists call consumption) has increased significantly on the amount of money it generates, or flows for the economy. So this is a very important "stream", at least in so far as how all western economies are structured.

To go to your water analogy what happened in 2008 was that there was a ton of toxic debt out there that should have never existed (and gave a false sense of prosperity before it all blew up). And don't only blame the banks on this one, everyone had a hand in it. The insurance companies were dumb for taking on too much similar risk; the banks were dumb for not realizing that their balance sheet was entirely dependent on an undiversified investment (mortgages); the rating agencies were dumb for not wanting to truly rate the credit default swaps with the appropriate level of risk that they deserved; the brokers were dumb for continually pushing for more loans in an effort to get more commission; and lastly the end consumers (everyone else) were dumb for signing up for a loan that they couldn't afford or over-buying the size of house they needed. Everyone's greed got in the way. I still remember a news story where this hairdresser in Florida was living in a tent. He was devastated that he lost his shirt because he had to declare bankruptcy after the THREE houses he owned became underwater - he should have only had 1... maybe not even.

So back to the economy, specifically in the US in 2008, the Federal Reserve knew that money had to keep flowing, otherwise there would be some nasty implications, so they started Quantitative Easing (QE). Each time they have done this they have in effect given the banks a HUGE amount of capital to loan out to people, in a hope that it will stimulate spending (think of it as someone basically increasing the water in a lake with a massive tap). Don't blame corruption, blame fear for what happened next. Instead of loaning out the money like before the banks held onto it and effectively dammed it up. They did this since they realized that they screwed up and had loaned out money where people likely had little to no hope of fully repaying it. So the amount of money flowing in the system just dried up, at least to most people (if you were like me with a good credit history and a good job, it was kinda sweet). It is important to remember that while the banks were stupid in taking on all that.

The rest of the world was dragged into this mess since they saw all these "safe" (AAA rated) investments with stupidly high returns. They were greedy and bought them. Greece is an interesting case since they thought they were being clever. They used all these "sophisticated" financial tools to help them reduce their debt. They ultimately took a bet that things were going to keep going up (and it would help reduce their debt), and they lost. Toss in a corrupt system were most people in the country do not pay their taxes and you have problems. Europe itself is in this mess since it is all using one currency. Governments spend as if they are all independent, but they are locked together at the currency. Iceland was able to fully recover since they controlled both aspects (spending and currency), but Europe isn't quite there yet.

I do want to point I would say that your belief that real pay is going down is misplaced... And I say this carefully. In North America, real pay has remained relatively stagnant over the past 30 years or so, however take into account not the $ amount, but what you could do with it. A computer in 1984 cost $2000 in those dollars. Today I can get a decent machine for $400 (and our dollars now are worth less than the 1980s dollars). What people can buy with their dollar has improved, so you can look it as if rather than their wages going up, prices dropped... which is fairly neutral (huge generality I know, but except for housing and some energy, everything has proportionately gone down). Now, look at wages not in the developed world, but globally. Those cheap prices have been achieved since the developed world was used to make those cheaper products. What has this done? Well China and India now have a middle class. A middle class that is so big it is larger than the US population itself. That is freaking amazing! Think on how much wealthier those people are now compared to how they were. So the wealth is spreading, but it is just going to other parts of the world and we are all becoming more equal.

Suffice it to say, analogies are dangerous. Trying to keep tie wealth distribution to water levels and make us all living parts around a lake just obscures what is really going on. Had the US mortgages never been packaged in such analogy-layered "products" such as "credit default swaps" and AAA rated bonds. We all caused this mess. If you want to see a prime example of how people can be affected by analogies, there is a great TED talk on this, see Dan Ariely's, "Our Buggy Moral Code".
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html

the fixer

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Re: Mustachian Society
« Reply #2 on: March 21, 2013, 10:31:39 AM »
The importance of flow of capital is part of basic macroeconomics, and factors in to how GDP is computed, so what you're saying makes sense. In the US, consumer spending is a bigger component, so it gets more emphasis among economists and policymakers. If everyone were Mustachian that spending would go away and be replaced by high amounts of investment.

Investment dollars by themselves are only valuable if there is a way to make a return on that investment, otherwise it just sits in the lake like your analogy. In today's economy, return is generated by identifying and filling markets for products that people want to buy, and because we're consumer-driven this is relatively easy to do because consumers are basing their purchasing decisions on marketing and advertising.

If everyone were Mustachian, companies would still have to convince their customers to buy things, but marketing/advertising would be less effective. That leaves two options for using all that easy money they're getting from selling stock/issuing bonds: cutting costs, and selling people things that actually give them a return on their investment. There's only so much truly internal cost-cutting one can do, and other types of cuts require outside vendors to sell better products (a form of the second option). To build and sell those high-ROI products consistently requires high amounts of R&D. The money for this will be at least partially made up by cutting the marketing budget.

But R&D progress cannot be driven just by massive amounts of investment. It takes time and talent (both scarce resources) to design and build complex engineering systems no matter how much money you throw at them. Marketing, on the other hand, is not so limited by these constraints, and can also be more responsive to market changes. So that constraint might limit overall output of a Mustachian economy compared to the one we have today.

I'm more confident that a Mustachian economy would be more stable. Most recessions seem to involve a significant amount of debt leveraging, and Mustachians seem to take a more conservative approach to debt than the general population. So maybe the Mustachian economy can't keep up with today's economy's peak growth rates, but it would also crash less hard/less often. That might even things out.

In the end I think you could make a convincing case for MMM making economic growth better, worse, or the same. We wouldn't really know unless we tried it.

marty998

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Re: Mustachian Society
« Reply #3 on: March 21, 2013, 04:31:21 PM »
Consider Japan. The savings rate over there has probably been the highest in the developed world over a significant (multi-decade) period of time, and nothing their government does has been able to change that.

It's arguable their economy still hasn't adjusted to it. So if everyone became Mustachian overnight would society look Japanese?

Ishmael

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Re: Mustachian Society
« Reply #4 on: March 25, 2013, 08:17:16 AM »
Great response, thanks. I know my analogy is somewhat simplistic, but without a background in something you always have to try and relate it to something you can understand.

Neat post :)

In the spirit of debate, here's my perspective on things. Also analogies are dangerous, since each layer adds another bit of confusion into the mix.

Economies traditionally didn't fail because of lack of consumerism - modern economies are structured differently. Back in the 1900s (and earlier) the bulk of the wealth created in a nation came from work output through a factory, typically by making something. Now we got really good at this and found ways to make more with less people, as can be seen by the increased productivity per person through the use of machines. Since then, things have changed slightly. Most people do not actually make a physical product, instead they sell a service. The economy in the developed world has shifted to become service based, which doesn't make things (although there are no shortage of things), and most workers today fall into that category. Think of any "knowledge worker" (aka someone who has to use their head for a living) such as a programmer at Google. They don't make a thing, they sell a service.

Now why is this important? Because services, at least how they work now, need to be consumed in order to make money (it also gives jobs since machines can do a lot of the work). As a consequence to this shift in the underlying production in the developed worlds, consumerism (or what economists call consumption) has increased significantly on the amount of money it generates, or flows for the economy. So this is a very important "stream", at least in so far as how all western economies are structured.

I know the balance of material items vs services is shifting over time, but the thing I wonder is that services don't appear create lasting wealth/efficiency themselves, unless they are employed in creating a "material" item. The programmer creates applications that make work more efficient, but a masseuse's labour efforts (although certainly worthy!) effectively dissolve and are gone after the service is complete.

So my argument against consumerism is that companies, in order to chase maximum profit margins, have to build things that are designed to fail over time. In essence, modern capitalism is all about charging the highest possible price for the worst product that the market will stand. This seems to be far below the theoretical ideal of creating products that provide the highest possible value over time. Take a refrigerator, for example. Old ones used to last 25-30 years or more. I had to buy one recently, and the salesperson said the expected life of a modern fridge is 10 years. I know they've gotten more energy efficient, but the technology hasn't changed dramatically and this seems like a step backwards. Cars, OTOH, seem to have improved in nearly every way (except in repairability).

It seems as though Mustachianism would move society closer to the ideal of maximizing value (and therefore standard of living, measured holistically), to me, as people spend their dollars more carefully and carefully examine the value of every purchase. That seems to be the most powerful idea that MMM has put forward in his thoughts.

To go to your water analogy what happened in 2008 was that there was a ton of toxic debt out there that should have never existed (and gave a false sense of prosperity before it all blew up). And don't only blame the banks on this one, everyone had a hand in it. The insurance companies were dumb for taking on too much similar risk; the banks were dumb for not realizing that their balance sheet was entirely dependent on an undiversified investment (mortgages); the rating agencies were dumb for not wanting to truly rate the credit default swaps with the appropriate level of risk that they deserved; the brokers were dumb for continually pushing for more loans in an effort to get more commission; and lastly the end consumers (everyone else) were dumb for signing up for a loan that they couldn't afford or over-buying the size of house they needed. Everyone's greed got in the way. I still remember a news story where this hairdresser in Florida was living in a tent. He was devastated that he lost his shirt because he had to declare bankruptcy after the THREE houses he owned became underwater - he should have only had 1... maybe not even.
That's why it seems to be ridiculous to me to not have government regulate industry. Companies, left to their own devices, invariably go off the rails, and clearly act without neither conscience, nor interests of society at large. They simply respond to incentives, and in the way way you describe it, all of the incentives must have been aligned to encourage the situation that happened.

In Canada, I seem to recall all of the banks complaining about how they weren't able to keep up with the results of the US banking sector, but the government resisted letting them merge and engage in the same behaviour. Assuming I've interpreted that correctly, it seems that's been a hugely important decision that hasn't resulted in the proper people receiving credit for it.

So back to the economy, specifically in the US in 2008, the Federal Reserve knew that money had to keep flowing, otherwise there would be some nasty implications, so they started Quantitative Easing (QE). Each time they have done this they have in effect given the banks a HUGE amount of capital to loan out to people, in a hope that it will stimulate spending (think of it as someone basically increasing the water in a lake with a massive tap). Don't blame corruption, blame fear for what happened next. Instead of loaning out the money like before the banks held onto it and effectively dammed it up. They did this since they realized that they screwed up and had loaned out money where people likely had little to no hope of fully repaying it. So the amount of money flowing in the system just dried up, at least to most people (if you were like me with a good credit history and a good job, it was kinda sweet). It is important to remember that while the banks were stupid in taking on all that.
Yes, that "flowing" is what sparked the analogy I used. Ultimately, that seemed to be the essence of the problem, but I'm probably over-simplifying. It's hard to know where that line is!

"Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein

As an aside, I never understood why it was OK with citizens overall the way this whole debt crisis was handled. I'd love someone to explain how my reasoning is incorrect so I could feel better about the whole thing:
  • Money was distributed to the banks, not people. Wouldn't it have made more sense to offer more generous unemployment benefits, or something similar? Money would have kept flowing, people would have kept their homes, etc.
  • The money was put in the hands of the people who created the problem in the first place. This clip seems to illustrate it all to me: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=85c_1363743687
  • None of those people ever received any type of punishment (like being excused from their jobs for incompetence). The government simply said, "OK, here's a pile of more (citizens) money for you!!!"
  • Wasn't this the largest transfer of wealth from public to private hands in history?

Also, I think it was compounded by the fact that companies wouldn't invest in new initiatives, so they also kept stockpiling money. So there was staggering amounts of money in the system, but it wasn't "flowing", no?
The rest of the world was dragged into this mess since they saw all these "safe" (AAA rated) investments with stupidly high returns. They were greedy and bought them. Greece is an interesting case since they thought they were being clever. They used all these "sophisticated" financial tools to help them reduce their debt. They ultimately took a bet that things were going to keep going up (and it would help reduce their debt), and they lost. Toss in a corrupt system were most people in the country do not pay their taxes and you have problems. Europe itself is in this mess since it is all using one currency. Governments spend as if they are all independent, but they are locked together at the currency. Iceland was able to fully recover since they controlled both aspects (spending and currency), but Europe isn't quite there yet.

I do want to point I would say that your belief that real pay is going down is misplaced... And I say this carefully. In North America, real pay has remained relatively stagnant over the past 30 years or so, however take into account not the $ amount, but what you could do with it. A computer in 1984 cost $2000 in those dollars. Today I can get a decent machine for $400 (and our dollars now are worth less than the 1980s dollars). What people can buy with their dollar has improved, so you can look it as if rather than their wages going up, prices dropped... which is fairly neutral (huge generality I know, but except for housing and some energy, everything has proportionately gone down). Now, look at wages not in the developed world, but globally. Those cheap prices have been achieved since the developed world was used to make those cheaper products. What has this done? Well China and India now have a middle class. A middle class that is so big it is larger than the US population itself. That is freaking amazing! Think on how much wealthier those people are now compared to how they were. So the wealth is spreading, but it is just going to other parts of the world and we are all becoming more equal.
You have a couple of interesting points in this paragraph. The first is that you're arguing that our effective standard of living has increased due to the increase in efficiency, even if the real wages don't show the same increase. I'm not sure that's true, although it would require more research time than I have to check. So, efficiency increases happened, allowing some products to be purchased more efficiently. Meanwhile, a few other things were happening:
  • Governments have been piling on debt, effectively working against the standard of living of future generations.
  • Core staples (the bedrock of a standard of living) like food, housing, energy, etc have been getting more expensive faster than inflation.
  • Worker benefits (non-wages) have been whittled away; pensions, retirement benefits & dates, etc. So while the direct salaries may have kept up with inflation, overall things have gone down for the average worker.
  • Wealth balance in society has gotten totally out of whack, with the obscenely wealthy gaining ever more control and influence over the rest of society.
  • The environment has been significantly degraded, and this continues. Another reduction in the standard of living for subsequent generations.
Secondly, free trade increasing wealth around the world: it's a complicated one, but I haven't seen anyone argue in such a way as to convince me it's good from the POV of the average citizen. In the developed world, by and large we have standards for environmental protection, worker safety, benefits, minimum wages, etc. In the developing world, those are by and large much less. (I don't mean to say that the fact that millions of people has been brought out of abject poverty is not a tremendously good thing, but I think a much better job of that could be done by careful "fair trading".)
The real point of free trade has been to undermine the power and influence of democratically elected governments, and allow the wealthiest to gather and hoard more money. So the wealthiest get fantastically wealthier; the poor in developing countries get an important boost in wealth (but at other cost - the air quality in China sounds horrific); and the middle class in the developed world get more debt, more environmental destruction, less influence in society, longer work weeks and careers, etc.

This matters as longer work weeks and careers, are not a step towards Mustachianism! We should be focusing on directly

Suffice it to say, analogies are dangerous. Trying to keep tie wealth distribution to water levels and make us all living parts around a lake just obscures what is really going on. Had the US mortgages never been packaged in such analogy-layered "products" such as "credit default swaps" and AAA rated bonds. We all caused this mess. If you want to see a prime example of how people can be affected by analogies, there is a great TED talk on this, see Dan Ariely's, "Our Buggy Moral Code".
http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_ariely_on_our_buggy_moral_code.html
That's a really interesting video, thanks for sharing. That detailed analysis of the effects of incentives is what I was sort of trying to get at. I'd call that corruption, but there's probably a more accurate term.

His main point at the end, that people's intuition is often wrong, I think is so important. It's the biggest thing that drives me nuts about the current Cdn government - they are systematically eliminating or reducing the amount of real data in the decision making process, and making decisions that match people's intuition (e.g. Be tough on criminals to reduce crime! ...but data shows that approach only increases crime over time.) *grr*

I guess this has gotten off topic and into other areas rather than how how full-scale societal Mustachianism would affect things, but is really interesting to me. Like you said, one can probably make arguments one way or the other about whether it would be good or bad, but I'm sure what ultimately matters (as for so, very many things) is the implementation details. Everybody seems to argue much about "right" vs "left" which seems completely beside the point to me - both sides have great points, and the incentives in each seem like they'd work in different situations, yet both have fundamental flaws that need to be carefully mitigated against. There are no simple, magic answers. What seems to matter is the details no one seems to discuss - in whose best interests are decisions and policies being crafted, and are these based on facts and evidence, or belief and intuition?

I appreciate feedback. I have opinions, but I'm always trying to refine them, and I have changed them (often dramatically) based on excellent reasoning from other people.

Ishmael

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Re: Mustachian Society
« Reply #5 on: March 25, 2013, 08:41:27 AM »
The importance of flow of capital is part of basic macroeconomics, and factors in to how GDP is computed, so what you're saying makes sense. In the US, consumer spending is a bigger component, so it gets more emphasis among economists and policymakers. If everyone were Mustachian that spending would go away and be replaced by high amounts of investment.

Investment dollars by themselves are only valuable if there is a way to make a return on that investment, otherwise it just sits in the lake like your analogy. In today's economy, return is generated by identifying and filling markets for products that people want to buy, and because we're consumer-driven this is relatively easy to do because consumers are basing their purchasing decisions on marketing and advertising.

If everyone were Mustachian, companies would still have to convince their customers to buy things, but marketing/advertising would be less effective. That leaves two options for using all that easy money they're getting from selling stock/issuing bonds: cutting costs, and selling people things that actually give them a return on their investment. There's only so much truly internal cost-cutting one can do, and other types of cuts require outside vendors to sell better products (a form of the second option). To build and sell those high-ROI products consistently requires high amounts of R&D. The money for this will be at least partially made up by cutting the marketing budget.

But R&D progress cannot be driven just by massive amounts of investment. It takes time and talent (both scarce resources) to design and build complex engineering systems no matter how much money you throw at them. Marketing, on the other hand, is not so limited by these constraints, and can also be more responsive to market changes. So that constraint might limit overall output of a Mustachian economy compared to the one we have today.

I'm more confident that a Mustachian economy would be more stable. Most recessions seem to involve a significant amount of debt leveraging, and Mustachians seem to take a more conservative approach to debt than the general population. So maybe the Mustachian economy can't keep up with today's economy's peak growth rates, but it would also crash less hard/less often. That might even things out.

In the end I think you could make a convincing case for MMM making economic growth better, worse, or the same. We wouldn't really know unless we tried it.
This seems to all make perfect sense to me.

As to advertising, Mustachians would look beyond the BS parts of advertising and focus on the actual value proposition. Indeed, I would think they'd get so annoyed by it that they would encourage lawmakers to change the very nature of advertising itself. This would be a good thing.

There are just so much effort in society that is not put towards any productive increase of the quality of life of people. BS advertising, tax preparation, the whole financial market (traders and such), phone sanitizers, etc. It seems that if there were more Mustachians, there would be less jobs all around (potentially a bad thing, unless the labour/wages are spread relatively evenly), but that those jobs would more efficiently increase the quality of life for everyone.

It might happen more slowly, as people/companies would likely be more conservative with their deployment of capital towards those R&D investments.

I wonder if the biggest risk then would be that other consumption based societies would advance faster in comparison (and therefore in power and influence), based purely on the sheer volume of production and work effort. Their lives individually might suck in comparison, but collectively a consumer society might move theirs past a Mustachian one based on that effect. Interesting.

Someone needs to do their PhD on all of this, I think. :)

grantmeaname

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Re: Mustachian Society
« Reply #6 on: March 31, 2013, 10:58:50 AM »
Do you know what the financial markets of the country do? Are you actually arguing that mortgages, insurance, checking accounts, mutual funds, retirement accounts, auditing of public sector companies, ACH transactions, the ability of companies to raise capital for projects, and the million other meaningful inventions of the financial markets together provide no value?