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.)
Technologically speaking, we live in an abundant society. We absolutely have more than enough resources to provide for every person’s needs in a sustainable manner, and we are developing new methods of increasing abundance. To name a few:
We have more than enough space for everyone, and more than enough food. By almost any measure of any basic need, we have more than enough.
Why, then, does our global society show such deprivation and fear, to the point where everyone is terrified of losing what they have? To put it in New Age terms, why are we manifesting such lack?
Alternatively, why are we pissing in the well from which we drink, and sawing off the branch on which we perch?
What is the underlying disorder that is causing our society to behave so irrationally?
“For whoever has will be given more, but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away.”
It doesn’t need to be this way. We can have:
- Food and shelter for every man, woman, and child on earth;
- Clean air and water;
- A total cessation of warfare;
- Technological innovation;
- Mutual respect of all nations and cultures;
- Individual autonomy and dignity;
- Universal basic health care for all people;
- Excellent public schools;
- Thriving communities and safe neighborhoods;
- Participatory democracy;
- Cooperative economies;
- A free (as in speech) and unfettered internet;
- Clean and sustainable industry;
- Vibrant and evolving arts and culture;
and more, tomorrow!
What is stopping us?
It is not sufficient to blame the government: millions of people across the country empowered (and continue to empower) the current administration and allowed for its destructive policies to be put in place, perhaps out of fear, or perhaps out of a lack of a better vision.
This is a better vision. We can do better. We must.
The opposite of Sustainability is Death.
Collectively, we must embrace a positive new vision of what we actually want as a people and a society, as opposed to reacting with a doomed “Anybody But _______” approach.
An ugly, radical new vision is being presented by those in power today, and it is likely to get worse if they continue to get their way. It is up to us to put forth a beautiful new vision to counter that ugliness, to work together to achieve this vision, to insist on it, to fight for it, and to manifest it proudly and fearlessly, with love, so that there is no room for the sickening status quo, whose tired Thanatonian philosophy has long overstayed its welcome.
Recently, particularly since the shocking results of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, and the scourge of fake news and other lies that supported those results, there has been much speculation as to whether we are in some sort of “Post-Truth” era.
This is sheer nonsense. “The truth” consists of mental, psychological, and presentational fidelity to reality, or what Jacques Lacan refers to as “the Real”. We have some influence on reality through our speech and actions, but otherwise reality is non-negotiable (including the reality of our own speech and actions). The idea that we are in a “Post-Truth” era, therefore, is equivalent to believing that we are in a “Post-Reality” one. Ultimately, as Lacan, along with so many others, point out, this reality will always trump whatever mental gymnastics we humans employ in the process of divorcing ourselves from it.
It is true, as Sigmund Freud and others have pointed out, that we are incapable of fully grasping reality, and therefore our truth, that is, our best and most accurate model of reality, is always an approximation. It is simply impossible to separate our ego, preferences, perspective, and senses in any sort of objective way from our perception of it, so in that sense, truth is subjective. However, it is possible to identify when truth, or fidelity to reality, is being distorted, either deliberately or not, through that egocentric medium.
In other words, people can lie, and those lies have the quality of being lies: fabrications, or constructions, that exist solely in the mental plane, with no other connection to reality. The truth is what is left when those artificial mental constructions are eliminated.
“The truth has not to be achieved. It cannot be achieved: it is already the case. Only the lie has to be dropped.”
Freud’s genius was to see that many, if not most, psychological problems, including a variety of neuroses, were the result of a disconnect between one’s situation and one’s perception of the situation. In other words, one deviates from the truth at the risk of their own mental health. From this perspective, at the core of “Post Truth” is nothing other than schizophrenia.
“Truth shall sprout out of the earth, and righteousness looks down from Heaven.”
I recently watched an instructional video on home improvement, and I was struck by how deeply into the presentation the language of business was embedded. For example, when deciding what kind of cabinets to buy for a kitchen, the host recommends that for luxury homes, one purchase the finest fixtures available, since lower quality fixtures could reduce the value of the home. On the other hand, for “normal” homes, one should purchase cheaper cabinets, since having the finest quality available would not necessarily increase the value of the home. The question of which fixtures the people living in the house would actually enjoy is never addressed. Even safety is discussed primarily in terms of financial liability: if someone is injured due to construction work on a home, is the contractor liable, or the homeowner?
In other words, the top priority of the instructor appears to be maximizing the financial value of the house while minimizing costs and liability. One of the disturbing assumptions underlying this perspective is that the home is seen as an inherently temporary product, intended more to be sold than lived in. In this view, the home is reduced from being the intergenerational nexus of a family’s life to being a commodified “vehicle” expected to provide a good “return on investment” (ROI).
Why would anyone plant a tree on such a property, given that the tree could take decades to mature (and only then serve its intended purpose, ROI), long after the house is expected to be sold, and even resold? In his “Last Lecture“, Randy Pausch implores parents to allow their children to color on the walls, as his did. What role could a child play in such a house, other than staying out of the way, for fear of doing something that would (heaven forbid) reduce the value of the property?
Thus what should be the primary focus of home improvement, building a beautiful, loving, warm, and safe long-term environment for family and friends is mutated into a heartless business venture that is crippled by the binary logic of the balance sheet. It is, of course, wise to keep a place for cost-consciousness in any large project, but let us not allow cost-consciousness to supersede the higher consciousness of building a true home.