Saturday, August 9, 2014

Portfolio Management

All too often life is a struggle just to get through the day, to dodge bullets or find food or gather fuel for the warmth to survive. But then, too, it can happen often that we find some options and opportunities for acting with an eye toward the future. What can we do now to make a brighter future?

For an action in the present to bear fruit in the future requires some sort of persistent change in the situation to carry that connection. The resources that we bring to a situation can be viewed as a portfolio. Our actions add and remove assets and liabilities from our portfolio, changing the position from which we will encounter future situations. How can we improve our future position?

Exchangeable Goods

The marketplace is home to many situations that help to brighten our day, providing food or clothing, etc. A marketplace is a place of exchange. Money provides a common medium for exchange; exchange can take place both to and from money. We might bring in a pile of books which we exchange for money at the book dealer, then take our money to the fruit seller to return home with a bag full of peaches. For happy outcomes in a marketplace situation, we need to bring something with exchange value. So, one core component of a portfolio will be a store of exchangeable goods.

Of course, exchangeable goods come in a very wide variety. Financial institutions continue to extend this variety at a bewildering pace. The exchange value of a good depends on market conditions which are always changing. Many financial instruments generate interest or dividends alongside their resale value.

The great virtue of exchangeable goods is their flexibility. It’s hard to know exactly what I might need in the future, but whatever exchangeable goods I might have, as long as they have sufficient total value, can readily be exchanged in the future for whatever it turns out I come to need. That very flexibility has a disadvantage too, as the exchange value of goods fluctuates unpredictably.

An exchangeable good has substance beyond its mere exchange value. Gold coins leave scarred earth and poisoned water in their wake. A deposit account at a bank is not merely a number in a file: the deposit account enables the bank to lend money, facilitating further economic activity whose ripples will radiate along untraceable paths. Stock purchases support the activity of corporations.

Accounting can be a useful tool but, like any tool, it has real limits. . There is a sense in which each of us must tend our own garden, but ultimately the actual situation we face is not limited by the boundaries of my garden versus your garden. Accounting can help broaden our view of a situation by keeping track of the many details. The challenge is to avoid getting lost in the details and thereby narrowing our view of the situation and becoming blind to crucial elements and connections.

Useful Goods

There are many goods that we can store for the future, not to take to exchange at the marketplace, but instead to use ourselves somehow. We can store food to eat in the future. We can store clothing to wear in the future. We can store fuel to burn in the future to stay warm. We can store tools to use in the future, for chopping wood or sewing clothes or growing food.

Useful goods have a stability of value that exchange value cannot provide. The nutritional content of a can of beans is not subject to monetary inflation. On the other hand, the can might rust and lose its integrity so the beans spoil. That’s a large part of what makes gold so useful as money: it doesn’t corrode.


Skills can be divided into two types: those whose value is principally in exchange, and those that are directly useful. If I know how to grow my own food, that is a skill that I can use directly to create happier experiences in the future. Knowing how to operate some large piece of industrial equipment is a skill that I might be able to use in exchange for money with which I can then buy food etc.

Skills can provide a sort of security that no store of goods can match. A farmer or engineer or artist might become a refugee and forced to leave behind all their gold coins and all their cans of beans. But their skills can be very valuable in their new location and enable them again to survive and thrive. The value of those skills does depend on the situation though. An expert coffee farmer’s knowledge won’t go so far in Canada, for example.


Physical health gives a person the capability of responding to situations effectively. A healthy person can apply the skills they have, can adapt them, and can learn new skills. A healthy person needs fewer resources to engage with situations comfortably and happily. This creates a self-amplifying feedback loop: a healthier person becomes more able to produce a surplus that can be dedicated to further good health; a less healthy person cannot so easily produce a surplus and may even find themselves trapped in a deficit situation when can then have a further negative impact on their health.


Friends and family, people who will help you when you can’t help yourself, are valuable beyond any price. It is our place in our community that gives our lives meaning. Community is the vehicle for giving as much as for receiving. Community is the stage on which our lives unfold. Community is the context in which our identity is situated.

In our modern world there is an institutional dimension to identity and community. For example, our credit record is an aspect of our identity. One can move to a new town on the other side of the country and use bank references etc. as a starting point.

An older sort of community connection is based on religion or ethnicity. A style of dress, knowledge of particular songs or myths, everyday ritual habits such as a prayer before meals, these can provide entry into community.


The world is a notoriously unreliable place. Whatever beautiful castles one manages to construct, at some point they are sure to tumble down. And yet, somehow, underlying the turbulent waves of experience, there is some kind of truth, some essence, something really beyond our capacity to grasp or beyond any possible grasping. If we can let go of the constant chase after the ephemeral and deepen our experience to live in a way more consonant with that underlying ungraspable reality, there can be an unshakable undertone of happiness that can continue despite the inevitable unending stream of alternating successes and failures. This consonance can grow with cultivation and become the most profound wealth.


  1. Very handy summary of the many aspects of our experience that we should consider when contemplating our preparations for the future. Thank you.

  2. Jim,
    Have you seen the piece "8 Forms of Capital" by Ethan Roland? It's been making the rounds in Permaculture circles lately, and seems to parallel some of your thinking here.

    1. Thanks for that, José, I hadn't seen it before. It sure does like very much like the perspective I am sketching here. I will have to study this and learn from it. Thanks again!

  3. Wow, it's amazing what a broad outlook you have!