Money: A Leaky AbstractionPosted: December 25, 2017
Money is an abstraction which has taken on a life of its own:
It seems almost unnecessary to elaborate on the lengths people
will go to try and acquire some, and the effects it seems to have
on people’s behavior.
Nevertheless, it is important to remind ourselves that money is,
fundamentally, a useful fiction: a way to keep track of obligations,
and of energy expended, and to help implement the “Tit for Tat” social program
that optimizes the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.
The problem is when the abstraction (“making money”)
becomes an end in and of itself.
It doesn’t really matter how it’s made, as long as the numbers go up.
And up, and up, and up.
We celebrate higher numbers and mourn lower ones.
We celebrate even as people suffer, and mourn even as people thrive.
In Computer Science terms, this is a “Leaky Abstraction”:
the abstraction of money does not fully align with
the underlying realities of wealth and abundance
that it is supposed to represent.
Any further derivatives of the abstraction become even “leakier”,
so that the abstractions eventually become completely divorced from reality.
This is why interest is forbidden by both the Bible and the Koran:
Interest is an attempt to create wealth from the abstraction itself,
instead of creating wealth by creating something of value.
“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor,
you shall not be to him as a creditor, and you shall not exact interest from him.”
“You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money,
interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest.”
Interest ostensibly commodifies time, but this too must be an illusion,
as time is the ultimate intangible, and may not even exist as such.
In other words, if money is, as an abstraction of goods and services, a useful fiction,
interest, a derivative of an abstraction, is a harmful one.
In an economy where debt is crippling both people and nations,
it is well past time to reconsider our primary mechanism for credit.
Another fiction that emerges from the abstraction that is money is
the fiction of economic growth, and more specifically,
the fiction of the necessity of economic growth.
That the number associated with the total economy ought to increase is a
strange idea indeed. Why should it?
The hypothesis seems to be that if the abstract number grows,
then perhaps “progress” is being made: “a rising tide lifts all boats”.
This is patently untrue, empirically.
Income inequality is increasing, the environment is being ravaged,
the climate is being disrupted, natural (that is, ecological) wealth is being depleted, and
institutional trust, particularly in the United States, is at a nadir.
What growth, in real, practical terms, have we as a society and a planet been seeing,
as the number goes up?
What we are actually seeing is a commodification of every aspect of human existence,
from food, water, shelter, healthcare, and education, and more recently,
to new forms of social interaction.
Religion and spirituality have not been immune to commodification, certainly.
All this in the name of economic growth.
Being that money is a convenient but “leaky” fiction, the problem is then that
it is also a consensual reality, as well as a “game”, so it is difficult to survive
in modern society without playing along.
This requires a certain cognitive dissonance, as we work aimlessly to “create value”,
even as we witness a deterioration of our ecosystems, a general reduction of quality of goods
(with “Planned Obsolescence” being the logical conclusion of prioritizing the abstraction),
heartless social policies (so-called “Austerity”), a degradation, through commercialization, of culture,
and widespread nihilism and malaise.
The solution, fortunately, is relatively simple, if not easy:
to look away from the glamour of the numbers themselves,
and to look at the reality.
Perhaps we must have income to survive, but must we charge and pay interest?
Must we speculate on “futures”?
Must we worship at the altar of “economic growth”?
Must everything in our world have an exchange rate?
These have all created at least as many problems as they’ve solved, useless abstractions that they are.
Money is useful, and I believe that ultimately we still need it
in a society where money does roughly approximate energy expended.
We need it as part of our system of give and take: it gives us a reasonable basis for trade.
But we need to focus on economic stability, and security,
so that people don’t go to bed (if they have one) at night
wondering where their next dollar will come from.
We need to focus on creating real wealth, and real abundance,
starting with protecting our greatest treasure, the planet and its ecosystems,
making sure the money part is abstracted from that,
and not pretending like it’s the other way around.
(Originally written June 7, 2017. Edited and updated.)