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What’s worth owning?

My dad has a golden rule, he says: The man with the gold makes the rules.

When I was a little kid, he used to take me for walks along the perimeter of our yard.  We’d walk along all four sides and corners, as if we were inspecting the fence. And occasionally we would pause to put a fence post back in place or pick up a piece of trash, but that was never the point.

My dad wanted us to experience, viscerally, what the Montgomery County Land Records Department must’ve had documented in a dusty old book of deeds and plats somewhere — that everything within this boundary was our property and, for reasons I didn’t fully understand as a six-year old, that was important.

Historically, land ownership was a prerequisite for being able to vote in the United States. In old England, owning land made one “Lord of the Manor” and part of the landed gentry

It may not determine our rights as citizens any more, but owning real estate is still considered a major milestone in life and it remains a significant source of wealth for people all over the world.

Bemoaning the economic situation back home, a friend who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran once told me, “Real estate prices in Tehran are crazy. The best business you can have is to own two houses. Live in one and rent out the other.”

I saw a similar dynamic at play when I visited Dubrovnik in 2013. Even before Game of Thrones launched the pretty Croatian city on the Adriatic to its current level of popularity, it seemed like there wasn’t a single local person left living in the walled old town.

Those who were fortunate enough to own houses within those walls were quite happy to rent them out to tourists. They earned more doing this than they would working a normal job, and they could live quite comfortably on the profits, in newer homes, just outside the old city. 

Good for them, but what about the people who don’t already own prime real estate in desirable locations? Are we priced out forever?

Marc Lore, founder of the “startup city” Telosa contends that, “There’s a finite amount of land and that land was claimed generations ago – communities were created, tax dollars were used to invest in the land, and therefore the land increased in value over time with landowners not having to produce anything or take any risk.”

I hesitate to complain. 

Among millennials, I’m one of the lucky (i.e. older) ones. I started my career before the 2008 Global Financial Crisis hit. I even managed to buy a home in the aftermath of the crash, when prices were lower and banks were urged to start lending again.

Still, like most of my generation, I found myself facing an impossible choice between buying a place where I wanted to live (in the city, somewhere walkable, close to my usual hang out spots) versus buying a place I could actually afford.

After a few failed attempts to buy in the city, I ended up settling on a fixer-upper townhouse out in the suburbs, an hour’s drive from downtown with typical traffic. I lasted just three years before putting it on the market for rent.

Life’s too short to waste it stuck in the suburbs.

By that time I’d become a disciple of Tim Ferriss and his gospel, The Four-Hour Work Week. I’d learned to apply the Pareto Principle (aka “the 80/20 rule”) to life, extracting most of the benefits with the minimum of inputs (time, money, commitment, etc). 

Eager to practice what Ferriss preached, I spent the next eight years, from 2012 right up until the pandemic hit, living in short-term rentals and hopping Airbnbs around the world.

I even became something of a poster boy for the sharing economy:

In the last six years, Mehra has visited or lived in more than 120 cities, from Barcelona to Buenos Aires to Bangkok. He moves regularly, staying at each place anywhere from a couple of days to a few months. “The sharing economy has been transformative for me,” he says, “because it has enabled me to live my digital nomad lifestyle.”

What’s Mine Is Yours — Profiles From the Sharing Economy (The New York Times)

As a jetless jet setter with no fixed address, I couldn’t afford to buy or carry around much stuff (where would I put it — I lived out of a suitcase and backpack). But for some people, not owning stuff is more than a simple financial or practical decision. 

Elon Musk hovers near the top of the list of richest people in the world. He can afford to buy anything he can dream of, plus a spaceship to carry it all around. And yet, last year he announced that, “I am selling almost all physical possessions. Will own no house.” He has since made good on the promise.

After all, owning stuff is a big pain in the ass. George Carlin said it best:

Assets or Liabilities?

There’s an old joke that “the two happiest days in a boat owner’s life are the day he buys the boat, and the day he gets rid of it.” Another one says that the word boat is really an acronym for “Bring Out Another Thousand”. 

I’ve never owned a boat, but I can sympathize.

My first car was a been-around-the-block-more-than-a-few-times BMW that had over 100,000 miles when I got it and more than 200,000 when I let it go. The first time I rolled up to my friend’s house in my “new” car, his dad took one look and said, “throw it away.”

He had a point.

In the time that I owned that car, I replaced God knows how many (expensive, German) parts, from the suspension to the electrical system. 

No matter how simple the problem sounded, the repair bill was never less than $500. And that was from the cheap mechanic on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, the dealership would have charged double or more.

Not owning a car is one of the best decisions I’ve made since then.

There are times, however, when having a car is handy. Companies like Uber and Lyft along with car sharing services like ZipCar and Car2Go have emerged in recent years to meet that need. 

But you can’t take your family camping in an Uber, and ZipCars aren’t always around when you need one. That’s where newer “car subscription services” like Hertz MyCar, Sixt Plus, and Revel come in.

For a flat monthly fee, often with no long term commitment, you get a car with maintenance, insurance, and the various taxes and registration fees all included. Some even let you swap cars as often as you want. Netflix for wheels. 

The car companies themselves are getting in on the action too. Porsche launched their “Passport” subscription service a few years ago. And newcomer Lynk and Co makes a pretty compelling offer:

Get a mint condition car to call your own for as long as you want. The Month-to-Month Membership gives you flexibility, convenience, and a hassle-free experience. No strings attached.

For 500 Euros per month, you get a brand new, slick-looking, hybrid car built on the same platform as the Volvo XC40. It includes all the modern amenities you never knew you needed — like a laptop-sized touchscreen display, a built-in WiFi hotspot with 5 GB of high speed data each month, and a wireless charging pad. 

The reviews are mostly positive too:

And because it’s built to share, the 01 has a number of useful remote monitoring features. For example, I could see the status of the climate control system, if the windows were up, or if a door was left open or unlocked from the comfort of my home. I could even lock or unlock the doors. The Lynk & Co app also informed me of the fuel remaining and charge on the battery, any service warnings, and current location of the vehicle.

Hell, there’s even an integrated dashcam with 64GB of storage and a second in-car selfie camera for god knows what reason.

The Verge

But that driver-facing camera, remote monitoring system, and “telematics systems that are always connected to the internet” — combined with the fact that Lynk and Co is part of the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a massive Chinese company (they also own Volvo) — gives some reviewers pause. 

Could all that technology be used to monitor what drivers and passengers are doing or saying in the car?

And since the car’s sharing features include the ability for owners to lend their vehicles to strangers, it seems likely that vehicles could be remotely disabled too.

It’s not a huge stretch to see how those features could be abused, especially in countries with authoritarian governments. What if the driver or passengers say something against the regime? Will it be reported? What if they’re driving to a protest? Will the car simply refuse?

To be clear, there’s no evidence that any of this is happening, it’s just a thought exercise about what could happen. And the thought that’s being exercised happens to intersect with a particular theory that’s been gaining ground since the start of the pandemic.

The Great Reset

The theory goes that a sinister group of “elites” are planning to initiate a “Great Reset” by buying up (or outright seizing) all of the valuable assets and turning the rest of us into rent-paying serfs.

What’s a pleb to do?

Invest in hard assets like land and gold now before it’s too late, we are warned. Some say that even gold is not safe. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102 outlawed private “hoarding” of gold and required citizens to sell their gold to the government. “If they did it once…”

Now, depending on your political persuasion, you’re probably either nodding along, or more likely, hovering over the “close tab” button. Admittedly, this all sounds a bit extreme, if not totally ridiculous.

But proponents claim that there’s ample evidence to support their beliefs. For example, over the past ten years, Bill Gates has become the largest private owner of farmland in the U.S. Meanwhile Bloomberg recently ran an op-ed suggesting, “America Should Become a Nation of Renters.”

Not exactly “fingerprints on the murder weapon” evidence, but the Davos crowd haven’t made themselves look any less Bond villain-esque or done themselves any favors by putting out tweets, essays, and videos proclaiming that: By 2030, you’ll own nothing, and you’ll be happy.

The essay (apparently since removed from the World Economic Forum site, but still available from Forbes) is written from the perspective of an average person living in the “new normal” of 2030. 

Here are a few excerpts: 

In our city we don’t pay any rent, because someone else is using our free space whenever we do not need it. My living room is used for business meetings when I am not there.

Once in a while I get annoyed about the fact that I have no real privacy. Nowhere I can go and not be registered. I know that, somewhere, everything I do, think and dream of is recorded. I just hope that nobody will use it against me.

Shopping? I can’t really remember what that is. For most of us, it has been turned into choosing things to use. Sometimes I find this fun, and sometimes I just want the algorithm to do it for me. It knows my taste better than I do by now

I’m conflicted over the whole thing. 

Being able to enjoy things without having to own them has unlocked a higher quality of life for many, especially me. Why buy a beach house, when I can just rent one on-demand? Or maybe I want to going skiing instead.

And if you asked me what the future will look like, I would say that vision of 2030 is a bit exaggerated, but not too far off. 

But having world leaders, titans of industry, and shadowy billionaires tell you, “You’ll own nothing and be happy” is a bit like your friend insulting your sister. Sure, you might say something like that yourself, but you don’t want to hear it from them.

Ultimately, I think most of the controversy stems from the essay being interpreted as a policy goal rather than one person’s prediction about the future, but regardless of how you interpret the message, it does raise some important questions about where we’re heading.

What Happens When Someone Else Owns All the Stuff?

We can debate the risks and benefits of renting versus owning our homes and cars, but is there anyone who really wants to go back to the “ownership days” of music, movies, and other media?

Anyone who would seriously argue that we were better off having the walls of our living rooms obscured by floor to ceiling “media shelving”? Shelving that we spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars stuffing with audio cassettes, VHS tapes, CDs, and DVDs (most never to be played again), instead of the immense-but-invisible, $8 per month libraries of Netflix, Spotify, and the like?

Books are a bit more contentious.

Some applauded while others were outraged earlier this year at an announcement that six Dr. Seuss books “will stop being published because of racist and insensitive imagery”.

Of course there are already millions of print copies of Seuss’ books out in the physical world. The AP reported that “within hours of Tuesday’s announcement, Dr. Seuss books filled more than half of the top 20 slots on’s bestseller list.”

But what if those books had been digital? 

In 2009, without any prior warning, Amazon removed George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from customer’s Kindle e-reader devices (of all the books in the world, it had to be those two 😆).

The problem, apparently, was that an unauthorized seller had listed the books on Amazon, but the response set a scary precedent. Digital books you’ve bought and paid for can simply disappear.

Perhaps there are some people who want certain books to disappear.

Last year, teachers in Burbank, California were banned from including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and several other books in their curriculum, due to concerns about racist language.

These days, it’s not hard to imagine a world where publishers are coerced into “updating” offensive language in digital versions of old books.

Springer Nature, publisher of some of the most prestigious science journals and magazines, recently announced a new policy that, “will allow writers to retroactively change their name on their versions of record – the published versions of their work – and associated metadata in all Springer Nature journals, books and conference proceedings.”

Now one could say that going back and addressing historical racism or allowing an author to consolidate all of their work under their preferred name and gender is the least that these publishers can do in the name of social justice.

But where’s the line between social justice and rewriting history? Should anyone be allowed to erase the record? Or pretend certain things never happened? What will future generations be allowed to know about the past?

If this sounds extreme, keep in mind that, less than a century later, there are people who deny the Holocaust ever happened. And the CCP has long since erased any mention of the Tiananmen Square Massacre from the portion of the internet that’s available in China.

That censorship spilled over briefly this year when users in other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., were prevented from seeing image results for the search query, “tank man” (Microsoft since corrected the issue and claimed it was “human error”).

Blockchain to the Rescue?

Incidents like the one described above, as well as the consolidation of so much power into the hands of just a handful of big tech companies, are the reasons why technologist and investor Balaji Srinivasin advocates creating an uncensorable Ledger of Record.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, especially in a world where we can’t seem to agree on basic facts anymore (all the more reason, Balaji would argue).

But it is at least possible, thanks to blockchain technology. Blockchains, like the ones that power cryptocurrencies bitcoin and ethereum, cannot be controlled or corrupted by any one central authority, be it a government or big tech company (at least in theory).

And now blockchains are starting to gain more widespread consumer adoption for uses other than cryptocurrencies. Over the past few months, interest in and prices of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have skyrocketed.

You’ve probably already heard plenty about NFTs by now, unless you’ve been living under a rock — the old-fashioned kind, not the ether kind (one of which sold for 888 ETH or $2,841,600 a few weeks ago).

Mashable covered the launch of CryptoPunks, the first NFT project, back in 2017:

Are CryptoPunks worth anything? Well, yes. The first CryptoPunks were sold in recent days: a zombie for $1 and a particularly weird punk for $34, according to Hall. It’s not a vibrant market just yet, but the possibility is there. It’s not inconceivable to envision a future in which CryptoPunks or some other blockchain-tied series of art does become valuable. As more of life moves online, status symbols are bound to follow.

These days?

Christie’s sold a lot of nine CryptoPunk NFTs for nearly $17 million in May. And Sotheby’s auctioned a single “rare” CryptoPunk for $11.8 million this past June.

But why is a digital picture of a rock or a “punk” suddenly worth millions of dollars?

You could say it’s complete bullshit. 

People are spending absurd amounts of money on what essentially amounts to a row in a database saying, “you own this image file” when in fact anyone else in the world can view and download that same image file for free.

But the truth is, art is weird. It didn’t start with NFTs.

Here’s a super high resolution picture of the Mona Lisa. How much is it worth? Nothing. Because it’s digital? What if I get a high quality giclée print of it on canvas — still nothing? So why is the original hanging in the Louvre worth an estimated $850 million?

Maybe that’s a bad example.

How about this painting, “Orange, Red, Yellow” by Mark Rothko?

It sold for $86,882,500 in 2012 (far from the most expensive painting ever sold; it’s not even the most expensive Rothko).

If buying art was just about having something pretty to hang on our walls, then none of this would make any sense.

Buying a notable work of art also makes the buyer part of its story (or so they hope). The purchase becomes part of the performance. 

Remember the infamous banana on the wall at Art Basel a few years ago? It sold for $120,000.

In 2018, Sotheby’s auctioned a Banksy painting for $1,400,000. It partially self-destructed moments later.

The same work is heading back on the auction block next month, when it’s expected to fetch as much as $8,000,000. The allure of being able to “flip it for more” is certainly driving some of the current NFT mania too. 

One investor sold CryptoPunk #8857 for a handsome profit of $6,416,322, earned in less than three and a half years.

But you don’t even have to wait that long or have gotten in so early.

Just this month, someone bought CryptoPunk #6167, then sold it four days later for a profit of over $100,000.

So what are people actually buying when they buy art?

In marketing, it’s often said that, “we buy the things we buy because of what they say about us.”

Perhaps it was inevitable then that, after a year of being mostly locked up in their homes, unable to show off their Rolex watches and American Express black cards, that people would be hungry for some other way to signal their status. 

If what you’re really buying when you buy a piece of art is “the world knowing that you are the person with so much money and taste that you own this” then, putting all of that on a blockchain for the world to be able see and verify suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps that’s why Jay Z bought a CryptoPunk and made it his profile picture on Twitter. Of course, you could also download the same image and make it your profile picture too.

It reminds me of something else my dad told me.

Decades ago, a friend and fellow entrepreneur showed up with a shiny, new Rolex watch. Not one to be outdone, my dad went out and bought himself a gold Rolex too, an even more expensive model.

Next time they got together, my dad made sure to show it off, only to discover that his friend’s watch was a fake he purchased on the street for fun. 

His lesson? Not all that glitters is gold.

As for me, I’m still left wondering, what’s worth owning?

Funny thing how it is. If a man owns a little property, that property is him, it’s part of him, and it’s like him. If he owns property only so he can walk on it and handle it and be sad when it isn’t doing well, and feel fine when the rain falls on it, that property is him, and some way he’s bigger because he owns it. Even if he isn’t successful he’s big with his property. That is so.

But let a man get property he doesn’t see, or can’t take time to get his fingers in, or can’t be there to walk on it – why, then the property is the man. He can’t do what he wants, he can’t think what he wants. The property is the man, stronger than he is. And he is small, not big. Only his possessions are big – and he’s the servant of his property. That is so, too.”

—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

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I write occasional emails to share what I’m thinking, learning, and doing. It’s all related to the idea of breaking free from the “default plan” in life.

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