Sunday, 14 April 2013

Australia: Alternative Economics

I was born in Manchester England in 1950. My mother a housewife, my father a salesman in an engineering company but steadily rose to high management. He was quite conservative but could entertain any idea and judge its merits, and he liked to debate. He was quite willing to be devil's advocate and would make a spirited defense of ideas he didn't adhere to. That was when I began to question just about everything and started my career as a rebel.
I failed the 11+, a single test at age 11 which purported to determine if a child has academic potential. Somehow, in my last couple of years at school, I got sent to an age-old part-boarding grammar school. It was super conservative and the teachers still wore gowns and mortar boards. It reeked of tradition, privilege and snobbery. This was where I honed my and hardened my rebellious streak. I was in the headmaster's office at least once a week. At university (mech eng), I toyed with joining the Socialist Society which was the most radical group, but they said and did such silly things, so I joined the Peace Society and got to do demonstrations (peaceful of course) and started to pick up some flower-power, hippie ideals of sharing and caring, love and peace man! I began to see how unfairly money is distributed in a country and around the world. It still is, worse perhaps.
I managed to do enough work to graduate with honours, but did not want to get my nose to the grindstone of a career, so worked a couple of months in a warehouse stacking boxes and headed off on the overland hippie trail to the the antipodes. A couple of years and many adventures later I found myself in Australia. I was now an expert on living on a shoestring and out of a backpack. Suddenly, due to a genocidal maniac called Ida Amin in Uganda, the Commonwealth changed all the immigration rules. By immense good luck, I was entitled to be a permanent resident of Australia, just by being in the right place at the right time. It has been very difficult to come to Australia since that time.

I then put in the longest period of work by far in my life. Two whole years! Doing exploration work in central Western Australia. With one other guy, or sometimes on my own, I did 4-6 week projects in some of the most open and deserted landscape on the planet. The job paid labourer's wages, but food and swagroll was provided, and there was nowhere to spend money. Great way to save. I spend the money to buy an empty block of land at the other end of the country. From flat, desiccated, blistering desert to hilly lush rainforest in far north Queensland. 156 acres of cloud-forest on top of the great dividing range. Now to really become a self-sufficient hippie recluse, maybe even start a commune! No money left, no knowledge of how to build, grow anything, live etc, no road in, no tools ........ no problem. I invested my last few dollars in a machete so at least I could get to the place. I worked a couple of months out in the bush to buy a 1962, 3 geared Toyota landcruiser for $750. The exhaust valves were blown and many other things wrong but got it going again. I got stereoscopic aerial photos centered on my block and used skills I had acquired doing exploration to see the land around in 3D so I could spot a possible route in. 4kms long and totally unmade, it went mostly through a neighbouring farm.
I started building a house with very little money, no idea how, no plans, not even a sketch on the back of an envelope, no power and of course no council permission because it didn't even occur to me. I used a considerable amount of discarded scraps from local saw mills, bush poles for free, secondhand doors and windows, scrap fencing from the tip to reinforce the concrete stumps, discarded 1 inch thick boards from 3 inches wide to 20 inches. They were used in two layers for the outside cladding and cost $10 per ton on average. A local planing mill sold reject packs of planed wood such as floorboards at a fraction of the retail price. So I built myself a house of 90 sq m for $1400 complete with plumbing, wood stove etc etc. A third of the cost was the tin on the roof. 35 years later it is not only still standing but has not required any maintenance beyond a bit of paint. You can check it out if you like at . It is now called Blackbean Cottage.

I built a hydro-electric system utilising a 20m high waterfall and knowledge I acquired at university. I built a water system to provide water to the house utilising a smaller waterfall and a ram pump to deliver what most take for granted:- water coming out of taps. I built sewerage systems to deal with the stuff most don't even want to think about. I enjoyed all my successes at the most menial things. I love getting things to work.
I got married, have 2 daughters, started doing wood craft and carving to sell at local markets, and whenever I required money, dug spuds for the local farmers. Hard work I can tell you. Anytime the farmer looks round and sees anyone on the digger with any time to spare, he finds another gear until everybody is flat out. Tractors have a lot of gears. When I started digging, spud bags had a nominal weight of 70 kgs. They mostly weighed 75 kgs as they were packed by volume and hand sewn with twine and a 6 inch needle. It was quite a skill as they mustn't leak spuds in all the handling on the way to market. On average they were filled, compacted, sewn and stacked in 11 seconds. I liked it though. It was satisfying. There is no product more important than a potato. There are products of equal value like an avocado or a cup of rice, but the humble spud is my personal favourite.
So at last, I get round to the subject in the title. Alternative economics. At 63 years of age, I can now analyze my chosen path in life for its economic and social benefit. I have worked for wages perhaps a total of 4-5 years. I have paid tax in only two years when I did exploration. I have also worked as a builder's labourer, a carpenter building a school in Darwin (which got flattened 6 months later by cyclone Tracy), and perhaps the best was as a ski lift operator in New Zealand. Great.... the spell-check has never even heard of New Zealand. I still don't earn enough to pay tax. I now use two houses to earn a living at B&B. It is to my great personal satisfaction that people mostly have a wild and real experience at my rainforest retreat.
I have mostly worked directly for myself, building things I need without the overheads of tax on what you earn, other taxes, fees, insurance, travel, profit and other costs which multiply when you employ someone to build your house etc. And of course interest on the mortgage you require to get started. So my strategy has been not to go into debt. If you haven't got the money, don't do it. I have always valued my freedom and debt is the antithesis of freedom. I have maintained my financial freedom throughout my life by being debt free which enabled me to pursue many opportunities. Of course having children is a lifetime commitment with no remission, and which I undertake gladly. So I am not free of obligation or responsibility. Please, if you escape the rat-race don't think you will have freedom. It will just morph your responsibilities onto a different landscape. Perhaps a better landscape, where your concerns are family and friends rather than money and debt.
My income for the last twenty years has come from 2 fully self-contained cottages. I don't provide meals so the work is servicing, maintenance and washing linen and towels. I work perhaps a few hours in the day. It is a small non-taxable income but I have no debts and few non-business payments. I have few expenses, generate my own electricity, and the biggest bill every year is the rates. So I have a small income but nearly all of it is disposable at my whim.
It had been my idea decades ago, to opt out of the money paradigm altogether, but I soon found that is not practical. Most of my life I have had very little or no money, arriving in Australia with US $11 and knowing no one. It never bothered me. I have lived on rice alone for weeks. Now I live surrounded by a beautiful tropical rainforest with the nearest neighbour 5 kms away. I stay at home and other people come here, give me money and go away again with a large percentage returning. I have plenty of time to do just what I want. I have done many interesting things in about 70 countries around the world. My alternative economics has served me well.

Paul's Possum Valley blog and website are here.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy.

No comments: