Last week I finished reading Severance, Ling Ma’s first novel from 2018 that I had bought my girlfriend as a birthday gift last month and which, having sped through it, she promptly returned to me to read in order that we could discuss it. It’s an excellent read, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s also an exceptionally difficult one to interpret. That Ma is clearly such an intelligent writer yet has written a story that in many ways makes little sense to me has made me question whether the book itself is flawed or if I am having trouble accepting its message. The below is not a review but an attempt to order my thoughts in the hope that I might figure out which it is. Spoilers for everything from this point on, although I’ll likely not provide enough details for those that haven’t read the book to follow, so worst of both worlds I guess.
The basics first. Our main character is Candace Chen, twenty-something daughter of recently deceased Chinese immigrant parents, who moves to New York after graduating and after a few years lives through the end of the world. This particular end of the world is a fungal pandemic that slowly reduces people to (harmless) zombies, living out the motions of their former routines with diminishing consciousness until they die of malnutrition or simply rot away. There are obviously some superficial elements of premonition for readers coming to the book post-Covid but to claim that the story is really about pandemics in any deep sense is to do it a disservice. Instead I’d suggest that the elements of the past 18 months of reality that we can recognise in Ma’s fiction are merely a byproduct of her lucid understanding of capitalism. After all, what is obvious is that the book is really about capitalism and the immigrant experience.
Perhaps there would be some readers who would not grasp that Ma is trying to convey a message about capitalism but there’s no prize awarded to those who do understand this link. Indeed the book is in no way subtle about this and neither are the publishers – you’d have had to open the book’s covers very quickly to have not seen the review quotes chosen to emphasise that it’s a ‘dystopian takedown of capitalism’ and an ‘anti-capitalist zombie novel’. Candace is such an engaging character to be inside the head of partly because she so keenly observes the true nature of the economic system she occupies and its through these observations that Ma builds a pervasive sense that capitalism and the apocalypse are really one and the same. Hard to argue with that, for sure.
There’s clearly however something deeper to what Severance has to say about capitalism than simply that it’s super not good. The novel is fascinatingly obsessed with the notions of routine and nostalgia and it’s these things that are supposed to link capitalism and Shen Fever, as the plague is called. It’s at this level that I fear the book’s message is either tragically confused or crushingly bleak.
The fevered act out the routines of their old life, whether that be domestic labour like setting the dinner table or wage labour like folding clothes in a shop.
“..the fevered were creatures of habit, mimicking old routines and gestures they must have inhabited for years, decades.”
“They could operate the mouse of a dead PC, they could drive stick in a jacked sedan, they could run an empty dishwasher, they could water dead houseplants.”
These routines are to be read, presumably, as an extension of capitalism, as evidence of the extent to which capitalism’s compulsions have permeated the lowest levels of our psyche that even when reduced to barely alive zombies we continue to perform them. Or, alternatively, it is these very compulsions that reduce us to barely alive zombies. The routines repeated by the fevered are though at least partly informed by nostalgia, by what brings us comfort and familiarity, rather than simply that which we have done most, as Ma explicitly tells us:
“They were more nostalgic than we expected, their stuttering brains set to favor the heirloom china, set to arrange their aunts’ and grandmothers’ jars of pickles and preserves in endless patterns of peach, green bean, and cherry, to play records and CDs and cassette tapes they once must have enjoyed.”
So does Ma understand nostalgia and routine as the same things, at their root, or as different things? As the pandemic progresses Candace watches New York empty out and shut down as people leave or become fevered. Many leave the city to return to their family, back to their roots, the location of their nostalgia, but Candace has no roots to return to. Her parents have now passed and she has no other relatives in the US but the flashbacks to her childhood and her parents’ past prior to her birth establishes that this rootlessness has been part of her experience of the world all along. She tries to contact the few relatives she has details for back in China but with no luck. Her parents’ house has been sold and all their possessions are in storage far from her. Apart from perhaps Jonathan (who we’ll come onto later) she has no sense of home and is defined by the fact that she is deprived of nostalgia.
So as more and more people succumb to the fever it is implied that Candace’s continued health is either a result of or symbolises her lack of nostalgia. The book shows very little concern for establishing rules for the fever, who catches it or why or how it progresses, which I appreciate as an encouragement to not interpret the story too literally. There’s a hint that those in a similar position to Candace, immigrants deprived of a sense of roots, either likewise avoid becoming fevered or avoid it for longer than others. Eddie, the Hispanic taxi driver that picks up Candace when the city is almost empty, jokes that all the white people have finally left and notes that New York belongs to the immigrants now as it has in fact always done. Eddie is then later the last person Candace sees before leaving the city, fevered (probably, there’s some ambiguity I didn’t understand the purpose of) but potentially the last person other than Candace to have fallen victim to it.
Whilst Candace may be defined on the one hand by her lack of nostalgia then, on the other she is defined by her obsession with routine. As everyone else leaves New York in pursuit of nostalgia, Candace accepts a contract to continue to staff the office alongside a small group of others. As management retreat to remote working they leave behind cameras and card scanners to surveil those in the office but Candace appears to be the last one to imagine that there might actually be no one left on the other side of that technology watching her. As the in-office staff diminish, she diligently performs the routines of her work until she encounters two of her remaining coworkers drinking in an off limits area who not only break the news to Candace that they’re the only ones left but are horrified by the idea that she will continue to stay in the city, continue to keep coming to work.
The book seems unsure whether Candace take and remains committed to this contract to staff the office because it gives her purpose or because of the scale of the financial award that she fails to anticipate will be worthless by the time she receives it. A big point is made that the pay, deposited only upon completion of the contract, would be life changing:
“It was a delirious offer … it meant I could take cabs all the time, without cramming into dirty train cars. It meant an air conditioner, a window unit in every room. It meant a larger apartment. It meant that I could afford more for the baby. It meant that I could eventually take some time off to do other things. Take an extended maternity leave. Read more fiction. Take up photography again.”
Yet toward the beginning of the book, when we follow her first few weeks in New York in which she pursues a routine of walking all day and makes no effort to get a job, we’re told that she’s freed of financial concerns in at least the medium term:
“I live off my parents, I said … I didn’t elaborate that they were both deceased … the family coffers or whatever would last me just long enough – maybe, say, for the next ten, fifteen years – for me to be comfortable with not working…”
Perhaps Candace is being insincere to herself when she thinks of the contract’s pay as reason for her to do anything then. This at least aligns with the fact that when her the contract’s payment finally does arrive (presumably automated), it is a surprise to Candace who has lost track of the date in the face of the end of the world. If she was not really concerned with the money though we are presumably left to believe that she accepted the contract as an excuse to continue to perform the routines of capitalism. Certainly in keeping with her dedication to routines but confusingly at odds with her keen awareness of capitalism’s unpleasantness.
So she continues uselessly going into the office everyday to check for emails which never arrive as the world collapses around her. When it finally becomes clear to her that there is no work to be done, she takes up photography assignments from visitors to her blog as a deliberate attempt to find a substitute for her work, still doing so from the office and eventually moving into the office as commuting becomes impossible.
Why is Candace so desperate to maintain routine when it is clear that these routines bring her no joy? Both she and the book repeat on several occasions an understanding of all the wonderful things one could do with their leisure time if they did not have to follow capitalism’s routines. For instance when the pandemic is in its early stages and a severe storm hits the city, offering the possibility that there could be a day’s reprieve:
“I was like everyone else. We all hoped the storm would knock things over, fuck things up enough but not too much. We hoped the damage was bad enough to cancel work the next morning but not so bad that we couldn’t go to brunch instead.”
“A day off meant we could do things we’d always meant to do. Like go to the Botanical Garden, the Frick Collection, or something. Read some fiction. Leisure, the problem with the modern condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines.”
Yet when the end of the world comes, a force of nature so strong that it interrupts everyone else’s routines, Candace is the only one standing still acting out the routines she claims to want release from. So whilst she is deprived of nostalgia, which renders her immune to the fever, she is obsessed with routine. And here is the core of my confusion: the fevered are creatures emptied of everything but routine – so why is it nostalgia, rather than routine, that dooms people to become fevered? Candace is consumed by routines she hates and yet refuses to jettison but it is not her who succumbs to the plague that would make her act out these routines for ever more, it is those who through extra-capitalist nostalgia are driven to abandon these routines.
I suggest here that nostalgia as presented by Ma is extra-capitalist, although this a point on which the book is again troublesome to interpret. The book jumps around several points in Candace’s timeline, largely showing us her experience of the run up to the collapse of society in New York concurrently with her experience trekking across the country with a small group of survivors toward ‘the facility’ where the group’s leader Bob intends for them to settle. There’s much in this post-NY element of the timeline that seemed to setup themes that were then forgotten but two key events during Candace’s time with the survivors seem designed to further establish the link between nostalgia and the fever. In the first third of the book the survivors spend a night camping close to the childhood home of one of the group, Ashley. Knowing that Bob would not allow it, some of the group sneak out in the middle of the night to visit the house and upon entering her old bedroom, filled with her old belongings, she becomes almost immediately fevered. She goes through the motions of trying on dress after dress, posing in front of the mirror, unresponsive to the others as they scream and shout at her. Ma perhaps hints that she wants us to read this fevered behaviour as a performance of consumerism or the sexual dynamics of capitalist society, describing how Candace watched Ashley “rehearse her sexuality, informed by the most obvious movies and women’s magazines”. Looking past this line though, fundamentally Ashley becomes fevered when she is able to engage in her nostalgia rooted in presumably happy, safe memories of being a teenager in her family home.
The second key event in the post-NY section of the story takes place at the very end of the book (and so major spoilers here). With the group of survivors having arrived at ‘the facility’ that turns out to be a shopping mall which Bob spent much of his childhood wandering around and, somewhat unbelievably, owned half of prior to the apocalypse, Bob effectively imprisons Candace. Considering her joining the group on the unsanctioned and ill-fated visit to Ashley’s family’s house to be a betrayal but fixated on the significance of Candace’s now revealed pregnancy, Bob has her locked in one of the mall’s stores behind its shutters. Recognising that once her baby is born her safety is likely to be of little concern to Bob, she plots to steal a set of car keys in the night and make an escape. At the crucial moment however, as she has managed to sneak her way across the mall in the middle of the night, she is confronted by a now suddenly fevered Bob.
In one of the last conversations with Bob before this happens, we learn the extent to which the mall is a source of nostalgia for him:
“This place … holds a great deal of sentimental value for me. I used to go to this mall when I was younger … My parents would drop me off here, and I’d spend hours just walking around. I’ve probably spent more time here as a kid than anywhere else.”
“I’d just walk around. When I was hungry, I’d eat free samples in the food court. When I was bored of walking, I’d play games in the arcade. The employees knew me. They’d give me extra tokens.”
So again, as with Ashley, the subject of Bob’s nostalgia is on the very surface perhaps a phenomenon of consumerism in that its location is a shopping mall – assuming this wasn’t entirely just a nod to the zombie genre’s tropes. Beyond this though, just as Ashley’s nostalgia wasn’t really about the dresses as commodities as much as it was about the comfort and safety of posing in them in her childhood bedroom, Bob’s nostalgia isn’t really about the mall as a site of consumerism but instead his fond memories of being able to entertain himself there as a child in spite of his limited capacity to engage in the consumerism around him. The one hint that Bob might be falling to the fever before Candace’s escape is when he claims to not know what Candace means when she asks him why he walks around the mall every night – another suggestion that it is this walking around he is nostalgic about rather than anything to do with the consumer transactions the mall exists to facilitate.
For both Ashley and Candace then, the nostalgia which makes them fall victim to the fever is, rather than a clear extension of capitalism, in fact extra-capitalist at least to the extent that fond memories of their childhoods are. The fleeing of Candace’s fellow New Yorkers back to the perceived safety of family homes, a nostalgia Candace lacks due to her rootlessness, aligns with this so closely that it cannot be accidental.
In the last chapter, with Candace having made her escape from the facility and headed into Chicago, she contemplates how she can begin to cultivate a sense of second hand nostalgia built upon the stories that Jonathan, her boyfriend in New York prior to the pandemic, told her of his own years spent there. As she drives further into the city she realises that she in fact very briefly visited Chicago herself once as a child, tagging along with her mother on one of her father’s business trips that she had until this point forgotten. She remembers a discussion with her mother on the trip about what it would be like if they lived in Chicago and, it is implied, she begins to build her own nostalgia for the first time around the scaffolding of Jonathan’s. This nostalgia is in some ways a future-facing one and she considers how her unborn child, to which Jonathan is the father, might in spite of the end of the world and her mother’s rootlessness be able to feel tethered to the city, to feel that it is their home.
It’s pertinent here to point out that Jonathan had huge potential to play a pivotal clarifying role for the book’s themes and message but is denied the chance to ever complete this role. Unlike Candace, who – full of contradictions – remains committed to her job despite her distaste of capitalism, her recognition of the pointlessness of that job and indeed not particularly wanting to have acquired the job in the first place, Jonathan refuses to partake in regular employment and instead ekes out a frugal living from odd part-time jobs that he regularly quits. Candace shares his cynical assessments of New York – of its gentrification, its consumerism, etc – but considers him idealistic. For her, the sacrifices he has to make to opt out of capitalism in the limited ways in which he does are not worth the price and this difference between them is why they eventually part company:
“You think this is freedom but I still see the bare, painstakingly cheap way you live, the scrimping and saving, and that is not freedom either. You move in circumscribed circles. You move peripherally, on the margins of everything..”
Though she doesn’t admit this to him, she concludes that:
“In this world, money is freedom. Opting out is not a real choice.”
So whilst Jonathan opts out of the capitalist routines of work from the beginning of the story, making severe sacrifices to do so, Candace remains seemingly the last person in the world opting in to capitalist routines of work even when there is nothing left to gain from them. Surely this must have been intended as a dynamic to help clarify where capitalism sat in the relationship between routine, nostalgia and the fever. Yet we don’t learn Jonathan’s fate. We don’t know if he becomes fevered, or more importantly if he does, we don’t know under what conditions he becomes fevered or how these connect to his own complex nostalgias. If the fates of the other characters are any indication he will presumably have become fevered if he found himself able to indulge in any extra-capitalist nostalgia. If Jonathan was intended to push us to read the book differently, I’d argue some pages must be missing from my copy.
In the final pages then, as Candace is reaching the centre of Chicago, what might in another book have been a hopeful ending can only be read as cruel. Whether deliberately or through its confusion the only version of the book’s message that makes sense is that the fever, an extension of or stand in for capitalism, which turns people into mindless zombies destined to repeat the motions of capitalist routine until they rot away, will infect those who are motivated to break these routines by extra-capitalist nostalgias. Meanwhile those who decline to stop performing capitalism’s routines, even when all compulsion is removed, are seemingly rewarded by being spared from the fever. It follows then that as Candace begins to build her own nostalgia for the first time with the help of her anti-capitalist former-companion’s own nostalgia she is now destined to become fevered herself.
Is Severance really a ‘takedown of capitalism’ then, or a warning that trying to escape capitalism will only make it worse? Did Ma intend the book to tell us that capitalism will reduce us to zombies and it got mixed up somewhere along the way, or did she intend it to tell us that even trying to escape capitalism will reduce us to zombies and that’s just not what I wanted to hear?
I’ve recently been reading Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work, a short but ambitious book that begins with a recap of the history of the Luddite movement and then uses this as a base from which to launch into a genealogy of luddite tendencies, tensions and tactics that can be found weaved into the history of labour struggle. Mueller is explicit about wanting to provide an antidote to the often poorly thought out Fully Automated Luxury Communism genre of thought that has been fashionable in recent years. I’m not convinced that it entirely achieves this, perhaps instead reaching the slightly lower bar of a refreshing palette cleanser after endless courses of FALC, but I found plenty of value in it nonetheless.
I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Taylorism in which Mueller includes a 1913 quote from a New Jersey silk mill worker which made me cackle:
“I never heard of this thing called sabotage before MR. Boyd spoke about it on the platform. I know once in a while when I want a half-day off and they won’t give it to me I slip the belt off the machine so it won’t run and I get my half day. I don’t know whether you call that sabotage, but that’s what I do.”
This is from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency, published in 1917 when sabotage was being discussed as a new tactic of labour militancy, in which she argues that in reality workers already regularly practiced sabotage but without referring to it as such. Sabotage for Flynn is any withdrawal of efficiency by the worker and this is definition helped me see the value of experimenting with a Luddite lens when thinking about the terrain of labour struggle. Flynn also offers the below quote from another worker:
“I was in the strike of the dyers eleven years ago and we lost. We went back to work and we had these scabs that had broken our strike working side by side with us. We were pretty sore. So whenever they were supposed to be mixing green we saw to it that they put in red, or when they were supposed to be mixing blue we saw to it that they put in green. And soon they realized that scabbing was a very unprofitable business. And the next strike we had, they lined up with us. I don’t know whether you call that sabotage, but it works.”
A key theme of the history Mueller lays out is the conflict between the astute analysis of rank and file workers who often rightly recognised that automation is not simply a means to achieve greater productivity but a process by which control over the production process can be snatched from them, and union leaderships who ignored this understanding and embraced automation as a utopian vision. These leaderships then often limited their agitation and demands to matters of wages etc even as new technologies made work itself an increasingly miserable affair.
Reading about this trend aligned nicely with thoughts left in my head from my (incomplete) reading of Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream last year in which Davis provides a painstakingly detailed account of the US labour movement whilst attempting to answer the question of, essentially, ‘why didn’t it follow Europe’s path?’. One of his central observations for me was that American workers in the in the 19th and 20th centuries experienced a particularly intense kind of humiliating tyranny at the hands of supervisors in their places of work that their European counterparts largely didn’t share. It was for this reason that whilst European militancy was more likely to focus on the ‘hard’, quantifiable demands about the outcome of work – wages, sick pay, holiday pay etc – first in the sights of American militancy was often ‘soft’ demands, about the nature of work – protection from abuse (verbal or physical) at the hands of the factory foreman, limits on work that was excessively miserable to perform and the right to be treated with minimum standards of respect.
I hadn’t previously given much thought to how control over one’s work (the pace, the methods used, the ways in which you cooperate with your fellow workers) is something to be valued in and of itself even within the confines of the wage relation’s generalised alienation. It now seems obvious to me however that American workers, historically having been the first to experience Taylorism and the ways in which it systematically stripped this control from them, would have been more inclined to make demands about the nature of their work rather than simply their remuneration for it. It occurs to me that if the relentless pace of life’s reassembly at the hands of technology in the present is to be greeted by any meaningful response from the left, it must be a response that reasserts the right of workers to have a measure of control over their work.
Elsewhere, as the book approached the present, there was an obligatory mention of supermarket self-service checkouts as a familiar and transparent example of automation. I found it slightly distasteful that this was exclusively approached from the angle of customers who objected to the work of scanning items having been outsourced to them, rather than any exploration of what it meant to work in a supermarket alongside these machines. This perspective was stitched into a theme that presented automating technologies as forcing you to perform someone else’s job – citing an interviewed software developer who asked “Why am I doing HR’s job?” in response to having to log his own absence on a digital HR system. This struck me as on the wrong side of the debate that plays out regularly wherever David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is cited – do you object to having to do the work because you think it shouldn’t have to be done, or because you think it just shouldn’t have to be done by you?
To return to the self-service checkout for a second, every time I see them lazily deployed as an example of technological progress within whatever view I’m amused by the implication that they emerged as a sudden and isolated change in the nature of retail work that popped into existence out of nowhere in the late noughties. Anyone with any familiarity with the history of retail knows that technology has long been persistently restructuring the nature of work within it, albeit often out of view of the customer. That the advent of electronic point of sale systems features so rarely in popular writing on automation says a lot in my view about the backgrounds of those doing this writing.
Back to Breaking Things at Work – though it’s difficult throughout the core of the book to keep track of what argument exactly Mueller is making about Luddism’s value to the reader in the present, in the conclusion he asserts that the left should put forth a decelerationist politics – one committed to slowing the pace of change and undermining capitalist technological progress – based on an understanding that technology is at all times political rather than neutral. This politics would value the Luddism and its tactics as an emergency brake, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, a sorely needed obstacle to the reconfiguration of our lives by the bulldozer of capitalist technological progress.
I’ve a lot of time for this argument, although so far remain a way short of convinced by it, and so I was disappointed that the book didn’t offer much on the topic of what an energised Luddite movement in the most common workplaces of the global north in the 21st century might look like. Discussion of the present was confined to only the second half of the ‘High-Tech Luddism’ chapter and apart from the few pages concerned with the idea of doing someone else’s job was largely focussed on examples of resistance in Silicon Valley or the most obvious examples of resistance to Silicon Valley technologies in our own lives, e.g. boycotts of social media platforms.
As someone who often experiences their day-to-day work as a loop in which I develop my own technological solutions to automate the work required to maintain previous automation (or fauxtomation), I was desperate for something to help me structure my thoughts about being an active participant in, nay contributor to, capitalist technology’s dominating effect on my life. I suspect this sense of being both the automated and the automater is one shared by many workers in the 21st century’s economy, unlike the workers of the 20th century’s economy who were more likely to simply be on the receiving end of an automation done to them, and so it was a shame that the book did little to explore this dynamic.
Nonetheless Mueller manages to fit a whirlwind tour of Luddism’s history, its position within core Marxist debates and its continued relevance in the here and now in a little under 150 pages, without doubt a serious accomplishment.
I’ve maintained a budget spreadsheet since the age of 16. I created my first shortly after starting a part-time job during my A Levels and since then have been tracking my personal finances with greater and greater intensity. This spreadsheet has taken a number of forms over the years as both the things to be managed in my finances and the way in which I’ve conceptualised my finances have changed. Throughout my time as a teenager, a student, a full-time worker, a student again and a full-time worker again I referred to and updated the spreadsheet typically several times a week, rarely less than once a week and as far as I can recall never less than once a fortnight.
It’s certainly not unique to closely budget and in my circle I’d say it’s become more common in recent years, although perhaps this is just a reflection of my circle ageing with me. For those who previously saw the benefit but lacked the motivation or time to budget there’s been a proliferation of apps and digital services designed to make the exercise as effortless as possible, either as a standalone tool or built as part of day-to-day financial services such as Monzo, Revolut etc. For those meanwhile who didn’t previously see the benefit of budgeting there’s been an explosion in online communities relating to personal finance (the ukpersonalfinance subreddit being where I tend to lurk) that often in odd ways occupies the same space as fitness social media influencers – that is, offering the idea of intense effort in one area of your life as a solution to whatever particular powerlessness you feel elsewhere in your life, couched in meaningless motivational bullshit and billionaire idolisation. That this latter trend is increasingly coopted by hustlers trying to sell worthless forex courses or ‘signals’, using uncontroversial personal finance education as a gateway, has also undeniably contributed to making the practice of intense budgeting more common.
Let’s also acknowledge that for many, more so than ever after decades of austerity, falling wages and housing crises, tight budgeting is a necessity to survive. It’s a cliché at this point to talk through some example of boomers buying a house at the age of 20 for a few years’ salary and filling it with a family that could be supported on the husband’s wage alone but it is true that older segments of the population, speaking in terms of generational identity rather any specific one of the millions of constituent varying experiences, have never experienced the need to track one’s finances closely to even be able to dream of a future in which you are more comfortable than you are in the present.
My particular form of obsession with personal finance goes beyond what most people would consider ‘budgeting’ to refer to however and I think I can claim that I spend more time thinking and working on my personal finances than anyone else I know irl. Seeing the journey of my girlfriend who when I met her did fairly limited budgeting and after spending lockdown with me had become more invested in the practice but stabilised far short of my obsession (at what is without doubt a more healthy level of interest), I’ve started to think more about why this has become such a oversized component of my personality.
It’s still not a question that I have a satisfying answer to. There’s an element of class for sure – something about how I’ve processed my own journey from growing up cripplingly poor in a council flat to earning a good salary in a culturally middle class profession and owning the flat I live in. I’m determined to not lose the security that I’ve secured in recent years and I doubt I’ll ever lose the particular anxiety that sits at the back of my head known only to those who have experienced poverty. There are however countless people who have experienced equivalent or more dramatic changes in class status that track their finances no more closely than the average person and I’m not even convinced that those with less money in their past or present are those more likely to be intensely into personal finance – often it is those with so much money that it’s hard to imagine any realistic risk to their standard of living that fill personal finance message boards. The precarity in my own life has subsided after all and yet the hours I dedicate to my finances have not. Whilst class is definitely part of why I have this obsession it cannot then be the only part and it is so far from a common feature of particular class identities that I wouldn’t even flirt with the idea that class is a reliable indicator of personal finance interest.
Looking elsewhere, there’s clearly something in the fact that I’m a data analyst by profession. I spend all day working with data or, these days, doing the peculiar intangible meta-work of middle management with people that work with data. On balance though I’d guess that data analysts are not much more likely to apply data-heavy approaches to their personal lives than anyone else and I know more than a few data analysts who refuse to even look at their bank balance, so this explanation similarly feels unsatisfying by itself.
Relatedly, as we’ll go onto, I’ve often used personal finance as a pet project in which I can develop new skills. Rarely a weekend goes by that I won’t dedicate a few hours to sitting in an armchair coding and personal finance is a naturally data-rich playground that offers all sorts of opportunities for experimenting with building things. Perhaps this too is a component of the explanation, although I know plenty of hobby-coders that spend their time on far more interesting projects so there’s little here that destined me to invest my leisure time in calculating my exact net worth.
The explanation must be some combination of all of the above and – to add a final element – a belief in a particular principle that I’ve acquired somewhere along the way that the key to securing long-term material improvements in your standard of living is careful, persistent and detail-focused attention on making incremental progress rather than pursuing big bang solutions. This isn’t a belief I’m necessarily comfortable with, nor one that I wouldn’t jettison given interrogation on the matter, for whilst it is in some senses a sensible semi-truism it is in others deeply ideological and not something that sits easily with my politics. It nonetheless structures my thoughts at a level only partially perceivable to me and likely predisposes me toward obsessive personal finance tracking.
So what does my obsession actually look like? For a long time it was the aforementioned spreadsheet, its complexity ever escalating. That was until 2019 when, finding that I could no longer contort an unwieldy mess of over-engineered Excel tabs into achieving what I now wanted, I began work on developing my own web application to manage my finances. A few months later I had a prototype system with some limited functionality and had learned enough from the development process to know where I had messed everything up, so started again from the ground up. When the first lockdown landed in 2020 I suddenly had a lot more time to dedicate to personal projects and after a surge in development completed a first adequate version of what I now call Smlkjns Finance. Hours of incremental further development (and a frontend redesign) followed in Lockdowns 2 and 3 until we arrived at the present, where I’ve recently realised that I now never look at the previously adored spreadsheet, it having been made entirely redundant by the new app.
Smlkjns Finance is hosted on a remote server I rent for this and a number of other purposes so that it’s available to me from my phone wherever I have signal. Its frontend is built largely in PHP and runs on a MariaDB database, with some overnight backend jobs performed by some Python scripts. The frontend uses the Google Charts API where plots or other visualisations are needed. I maintain a production environment and a development environment so that I don’t risk knocking the app out of action when I want to work on some new functionality and it’s currently around 7,000 lines of code in total.
I input every transaction of any kind into the app and through a mixture of statement export features from some banks and painstaking data entry from others it contains a record of every transaction across every account I’ve had since 2014, with monthly account balances extracted from old budget spreadsheets providing further data back to 2010. There’s currently approx. 8,500 transactions in the database all together and each has a variety of metadata attached to it.
Every transaction is assigned to a budget and every budget is a weekly instance of a specific ‘budget group’, e.g. Groceries.
The years of data available for each budget group provides a means for the app to project likely final totals for a budget at the end of its week – using an algorithm I first wrote in hundreds of lines of PHP and that I’ve since refined into far fewer lines and is now executed entirely in SQL.
With a record of every transaction in the past and a projection for every budget in the future the app can then calculate a balance for any given account on any given date.
With this available for every account the app can therefore also calculate my total net worth for any given date and it’s this that is essentially the culmination of it all.
In the above, the green/blue line represents total net worth (green is the past, blue is a forecast of the future), whilst the dark grey line represents total liquid capital and the light grey line represents total liquid and semi-liquid investments.
On the topic of investments, I’ve been experimenting with investing in funds since around September 2020 and so have also built functionality to help me track and manage this.
I can’t definitively say that having all this available to me makes me any happier, although time spent developing it is a profound means of relaxation for me. I claim, when pushed, that it helps me make more informed decisions but it’s difficult to think of any decision I would need to make where a few hours with a spreadsheet wouldn’t be able to tell me what I needed to know. So I’m still not sure why I do this. I’m not planning to stop though.
Note: I’ve tried to cover up any actual numbers in the screenshots in this post but if I’ve missed some somewhere or you’re the clever sort who can deduce what some of the numbers might be from context then lucky you.
With not long left of the 20/21 tax year but seemingly plenty left of the ongoing global situation I’ve gotten round this weekend to an update to this and this post, putting undergraduate student loan repayments together with income tax and national insurance to demonstrate the impact of loans on final take home pay.
In previous years I used PHP and Google Charts but this year I rebuilt the work in Python using Matplotlib.
The code to recreate this chart, including for the 19/20 tax year, can be downloaded here.
The pay of vice chancellors at UK universities often makes it into the news and it’s fairly easy to lookup how much your local VC is earning, with it typically published in a university’s annual report. The same cannot be said of further education colleges who very rarely offer any transparency when it comes to the pay of their principals and senior managers, despite it often rivalling that of universities. Data on principal’s pay is however collected by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and published here, buried in CSVs with over 400 columns that frustratingly often change format between years.
I’ve pulled this data into a small tool that allows you to rank colleges by the pay of their principals. Explore the data here.
The latest data available concerns the 2018-2019 academic year. Ranked by total remuneration, the top 5 are:
Number 1: Cliff Hall at Birmingham Metropolitan College – £322,000
number 2: Paul Phillips at weston college – £318,000
number 3: Gary Headland at lincoln college – £277,000
number 4: Liz Bromley at NCG – £274,000
number 5: John thronhill at LTE Group – £257,000
Total remuneration is the sum of the below:
- Principal’s salary
- Principal’s performance related pay & bonus
- Principal’s Other emoluments including benefits in kind
- Principal’s pension contributions
New tax year, new numbers. This post provided a comparison of total tax rates (comprised of income tax, national insurance contributions and undergraduate student loan repayments) for tax years 2017/18 and 2018/19. The chart below is updated to show how things now stand for tax year 2019/20.
With the government currently mulling over various changes to student finance I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to map out how student loan repayments work in context. Repayments currently operate like a tax – graduates have 9% of everything they earn above their repayment threshold taken from their paycheck. Graduates’ repayment thresholds are determined by whether they began their studies pre-2012 (the ‘Plan 1’ regime) or post-2012 (the ‘Plan 2 regime’), whilst the thresholds themselves are raised to account for inflation annually for Plan 1 and when the government feels like it for Plan 2.
This makes it sensible to view student loan repayments alongside the other key taxes, i.e. national insurance and income tax, as you’d expect workers to be more concerned with their final takehome pay than what balance sheets their tax has been split between.
With that in mind I’ve put together a graph showing the different relationships between gross and takehome pay for workers depending on whether they have an outstanding student loan and if so under what regime.
The repayment thresholds for both Plan 1 and Plan 2 are changing this coming April:
The income tax and national insurance thresholds will also be changing in the new tax year, so with these all put together we can see how the graph will look in April.
Note: The maths for these graphs is done in PHP and I originally wrote the code that they use to form part of some money/budgeting tools I was building for myself. Being slightly obsessed with personal financial planning I wanted to know exactly how my takehome pay would change in the new tax year and thought others might too.
Further note: All of this ignores pension contributions. I don’t do pensions.