27 December 2007

The myth of "passive income"

A friend of mine, JD, who used to work as a developer in New England, tells me that there's a new board game which is "sweeping the country." The game: Cashflow 101. The object of the game: become wealthy by mastering the art of investing. The game's designer (or perhaps just endorser): Robert Kiyosaki of Rich Dad, Poor Dad fame.

After reading his Yahoo! Finance column a few times, I've come to conclusion that Kiyosaki is a financial charlatan (which means that I refuse to drive traffic his way by linking to his stuff directly). In a nutshell, Kiyosaki's financial advice boils down to "Choose to be wealthy." I'm not kidding. His is the worst kind of quasi-libertarian snowjob, since if you pay for any of his motivational products or services, but don't get rich, why, it must be that you just haven't "really committed yourself" to being wealthy. If you're poor, it's your fault. You just haven't really, in your heart of hearts, chosen to be rich.
"As you can see, my heart of hearts loves poverty more than I do."

While it's true that the acquisition of wealth can be a very subtle art, it's an open secret that (in the US, at least) the most simple, most direct, and by far most common strategy for getting rich is to have wealthy parents. But this is all really an aside. What I really want to discuss is the folly underlying Kiyosaki's game and the worldview it reflects.

In Cashflow 101, each player begins with a randomly selected income-expense profile--a job and a bunch of expenses. After that,

There are two stages to the game. In the first, "the rat race", the player aims to raise his or her character's passive income level to where it exceeds the character's expenses. The winner is determined in the second stage, "the fast track". To win, a player must get his or her character to buy their "dream" or accumulate an additional $50,000 in monthly cash flow.
The whole thing revolves around this mysterious concept of passive income.
Little Pig Came to Me
He just followed me home. Seriously. So... can I keep him?

Aaron Maxwell has written a pretty good beginner's guide to Cashflow 101, which explains that
[p]assive income is income that comes in with little or no additional effort on your part. If you have royalties from a book, income from a rental property you own, or stock that pays dividends each quarter, you have passive income.
Maxwell immediately goes on the qualify that definition:
Sometimes you'll have to do SOME work - if that rental house develops a leaky roof, you'd better have it fixed if you want to continue collecting rent! The difference is that for a "normal" job, you have to invest your time continually to keep receiving income, and if you work half as much, your income immediately goes down by half or more. With passive income, after you do some initial work up front, you have an income stream that continues with little or no time on your part to maintain it.
And there's the rub. Passive income isn't genuinely passive in the sense that it requires no effort. It's simply that compensation isn't immediately correlated to effort. Passive income doesn't require endless, futile labor to sustain it. Rather passive income represents one flow within a relationship of ownership--and in the opposite direction flows responsibility. We receive passive income from assets for whose condition and behavior we are liable.

Calling the income passive is misleading, because it implies that such income arrives not simply without--or with minimal--effort, but with minimal worry as well. But ask any landlord--you're essentially paid to worry about stuff. Whatever the gods of pop music claim to the contrary, tenants do not call Ghostbusters first. Especially when the heat goes out. First, they call the landlord. Then, they call their lawyers.
Ghostbusters Logo
I ain't afraid o' no tenant.

Responsibility implies liability. Although rental property income provides the most stark example, other kinds of passive income also admit of analogous forms of responsibility. In exchange for book royalties, the author remains responsible for what he's written. In exchange for stock dividends, the owner becomes responsible for the behavior of the company whose shares she owns. (Warren Buffett famously advocates treating the purchase of stock as equivalent to the purchase of the entire company.)

The point here is that wealth, because it depends upon ownership, entails responsibility and liability in direct proportion. There's no such thing as truly passive income, and anyone who thinks she wants to be rich should be warned that Easy Street is the main thoroughfare in Neverland. Wealth is a sacred social trust, not a ticket to heedless self-indulgence. It is most certainly possible to enjoys the fruits of responsibility, but only for so long as and to the degree that one proves willing and able to bear its weight.
Easy and Lazy
We have a word for those who take the lazy way to easy street, and it ain't flattering.