Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Value of Money

The concept of money is one of the most important inventions in humanity. It is hard to overstate what money enables by virtue of its near-universal acceptability.

Money is a valid claim only insofar its acceptability is mandated by law. It is an institution.

Money extends a trade in time. You hand over something of real value, and in return, you are given money, a claim on humanity for the future.

To hand over money to someone and expect something of value in return is an implicit celebration of this institution.

Money is the true "sanchit karma": the accumulated value, in hard numbers, of your past deeds or pedigree.

Money enables, in future. And its enable-ability is guaranteed. And therein lies the key to its charm. It is a lasso to overwhelm time. To have a million in the bank is as good as walking with an army of bodyguards, slaves, doctors, lawyers, and so on.

To have money in one's pocket is to have a command over one's environment.

Someone who shuns money, or regards its pursuit as mistaken, usually does not produce something of value for the others. Such a person has an unjustified sense of entitlement over others. Beware of the man who seeks to pick your pocket by calling its contents worthless.

Since it is a bulwark against the vagaries of time, there is no limit to how much more money one wants. As long as immortality cannot be bought, no amount of money is ever going to be enough.

The difference between greed and ambition is simple: Greed involves seeking unjust rewards. To want to steal, rob, manipulate, hoodwink, is to be greedy. To work hard, plan carefully, to want to grow, to produce something of value to others, is ambition.

Money is a form of power over others which others cannot wriggle out of. Influence, reputation, beauty are also forms of power, in that they lead to (mostly) a willing subservience. But non-monetary forms of power are neither easy to possess, nor easy to maintain.

There is the valid criticism that the pursuit of money can become self-serving, an end in itself. I find that criticism naive. Money is obviously an end in itself till it is spent. Castigating someone for only collecting money and not spending it all within the month, is to berate him for thinking further ahead than most people. Maybe he is more afraid of mortality than others, maybe he wishes to do something great for society or enable a grand sense of security for his family.

To shun money (ref Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa) because greed is a base instinct, is to throw out the baby with the bath water. But this is a general trait, more pronounced in the East. To forget ambition, love and belonging, to see the negatives of lust, greed, attachment, and to thereby condemn women, money, relationships, and to then exhort celibacy, poverty and detachment. Humanity continues and flourishes not because of the renunciates, but because of those who struggle with, and try to balance, the rewards and sorrows of their instincts.

Of course the institution of money is corrupt, like any other institution. Of course inflation is a bit of a fraud, of course there is manipulation in commodities and in the stock markets, but the battle between greed and law will continue as long as we are human. What is the alternative? Money is here to stay. Only a progressive evolution of our institutions is our choice.

Since it is such an important institution, there is a class of industry which deals solely with the management of money and associated paper. The Financial Services Industry. It is a complex question whether they add real value to society. Certainly there are a lot of very rich people in this sector, with nary an accomplishment against their name except having made good bets due to privileged access to information, more efficient processing of money-related information, having found arbitrage opportunities, and having found interesting loopholes in the system.

Are the money-experts the baron-robbers of modern times who go away laughing from plundered cities? There is a general agreement that many of them need to be firmly reined in. But one of the strangest conundrums is: anyone who knows or understands enough about money to rein them in, joins hands with them. To thwart this very real nexus of regulators, state, financiers, requires a person of Jesus' moral strength who has memorized and understood the scriptures of Mammon and who has the warfare skills of Clausewitz. The best and the brightest join the gang, and one can easily pacify the rest with some soap opera or sport on TV.

Money, like any dopamine trigger, has diminishing psychological returns as one grows richer and richer. But even its tangible returns diminish in comparative value. In the struggle against disease and death, to have a dollar to buy an antibiotic is a far bigger leap from a position of absolute vulnerability, than for a rich man to afford another high-priced specialist in Japan.

Who doesn't struggle with the stress introduced by the pursuit of money versus the need to convince oneself that it is worth it? That convincing can, these days, take the form of media madness, "shopping" for useless junkets or fancy clothes, and outsourced pampering. To at least numb the mind somehow.

But I guess even the most distracted of money-makers would wonder at times whether it is "worth it" to do hard time in order to gain an easier time later. There is no one, or right, answer to this question.

If you are directly going bald and heart-sick in your indirect pursuit of joy and health via money, there is perhaps something wrong. It is facile to say: "live for the moment" rather than "save for the future". Both need attention. Too much of a focus on the future, and the present becomes a punishment. Too much of a focus on the present with nary a thought for the future, and may god bless you with good fortune.

The big question that seems to fox many is: "Can money buy happiness?" One is asked to observe the unhappy rich and the occasional happy poor, cleverly glossing over the luxuriating rich and the vast numbers of the unhappy poor. There are parables galore (ref the fisherman resting on the beach). It is a question which the poor are rhetorically asked, the middle classes torture themselves with, and the rich have to disregard.

The merely conceptual/tautological analysis would yield the unsatisfactory reply: Insofar as happiness can be arranged, it can be arranged better with the help of a generic enabler that money is.

Another equally unsatisfactory answer is: Having money can prevent hardship. And it can certainly lead to pleasures. Happiness, we don't know. That's your problem. Even the gurus haven't figured it out yet.

But to answer this question in earnest, one has to investigate what happiness is. In most cases, it will be found, happiness is harmony with one's surroundings, fulfilling associations with other human beings, and good mental and physical health. It is easy to see that (the pursuit of) money can be counter-productive in all three of the above aspects. Its pursuit can lead to pollution and devastation, suspicion and lack of trust, and neuroses and illnesses. And it would be ironical to then try to solve these problems which the pursuit of money introduced, with the rewards of that pursuit.

It is perhaps healthiest to consider the journey as well as the eventual pot of gold as important. To buy happiness at the mileposts as one journeys to get richer. And to continue to enjoy what doesn't cost anything. Urination and watching the stars, for example.


Anonymous said...

A tangible may be exchanged for another tangible. A tangible CANNOT be exchanged for an intangible.
Money is tangible, it cannot buy you love,happiness,peace,justice,grace,dignity,compassion,courage,equanimity .........and all these are basic human desires not wants.Money can satisfy wants not desires.
Even if one spends their life pursuing wants desires remain unfulfilled. Yet it is Desire that every human seeks to fulfill.You may want money but what is it you desire? .How can one desire one thing and seek something that is never going to fulfill that desire?When one has figured out the answer to that question one will realize the pursuit of money is in the same class as the pursuit of gratification of bodily pleasures.
In the same vein - Charity is often thought of as a flow of money from the rich to the poor. Charity again is an intangible. Money cannot define charity.
All the Gurus of today who preach about Bliss and enlightenement and Love for humanity expose themselves as the boguses they are when they seek money in exchange for their preaching of fulfilling the inatangible. Worse they claim "charity" as a valid reason for raising money. The result is Gurus owning helicopters,BMWs, living in air conditioned comfort, wearing expensive perfumes, hair colors ..... and the Poor remain as the poor are and the foolish followers remain as foolish as they were......

Harmanjit Singh said...

@anonymous: Money can certainly buy you justice and peace.

As for your distinction between wants and desires, I am unclear. Can you elaborate?

If you are saying that desires are for mental states, while wants are for material objects, then that is a peculiar terminology to begin with.

But assuming that terminology to be valid, to say that money cannot result in desirable mental states or, more pertinently, that money cannot prevent undesirable mental states, is, I think, merely wishful thinking.

Consider the desirable mental state of feeling safe (or unafraid), and the contrasting mental state of feeling unsafe (or afraid).

For another example, consider the desirable mental state of feeling beautiful and attractive, and the contrasting mental state of feeling ugly and repellent.

Both these examples can be addressed by money to a very large extent.

Anonymous said...

Though the the English language is often open to words being used one way or the other you would notice the word "want" is usually used to mean seeking something tangible.However "desire" is mostly used to mean to seek something intangible., though the word itself could be used like "want" when the person does not undersatnd he is seking something intangible. For example "I want a book" not I desire a book." I desire to be knowledgeable" though if one does not understand the intangibility of knowledge they could say "I want to be knowledgeable".
So using your example of beauty you can desire to look beautiful, if you do not understand the intangibilty of beauty then you can say "I want to look beautiful". In which case you can apply all the makeup you want get all the botox you want yet you may land up having a nervous breakdown or commit suicide. One who desires to be beautiful would understand the intangibity of beauty and would therefore not waste their time pursuing those superficial feeling of looking good whic are going to last only a short time beacuse as I said only a tangible may be exchanged for a tangible.

Similarly one who desires justice or peace would know he cannot buy it with money. But one who mistakes it to be something tangible will say "I want justice" I want peace" and will spend his time bribing officials, buying guns,bombing countries yet he will only succeed in creating more ill will and hatred in the the other party who he thought he was wronged by. All that hatred may only result in more and more wrongs happening. Justice will not be served. He will not get justice.
Peace is a state of stability and harmony within oneself and ouside oneself. Justice is the process of restoring that natural state when it has been disturbed. If one thinks that process and that state can be bought with money then one must realize they mistook something intagible for something tangible and as said before an intangible may not be exchanged for something tangible. A tangible may only be exchanged for something tangible.

Harmanjit Singh said...


"the intangibity of beauty"

I guess we'll have to just agree to disagree. I find beauty to be very tangible. Maybe I am just shallow.

Sridhar said...

I might be going off on a tangent here, but it seems to me that the happiest people are those who make a lot of money as a by-product of pursuing their passion. It is a situation I've seen far too often, people who have huge bank balances, but are miserable because they hate (or are plain bored) with what they do 5 days a week, from 9 to 5.

So, I guess one way of looking at happiness is waking up everyday and actually looking forward to the day ahead with excitement. Very few in the corporate world have that feeling in the morning, The model is always, work hard during the week,and play hard over the weekend. Repeat.

Caveat: I'm sure people who have like millions of dollars in the bank can stop doing what they were doing (if they hated it, even if that's how they made the money in the first place).

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong in being shallow if you are honest enough to admit it and comfortable being at that level.
If by being shallow you find peace it is just fine.

Chennai Bourbaki said...

your post made me think about money again and here are the results:

* ugk (and sometimes osho) have said shocking things (for the spirtually inclined) about money...
not sure if it was meant or said only for producing a sensation :).

* ramakrishna paramahamsa's anecdote where he handles money with disgust and resultant attitude towards money has been very influential in my life (i should suppose it to be true for many other people as well); such a feeling seems to give one power over money itself, and serves situations where one does not have enough money or does not have enough motivation. i wonder if rich people have or can have similar attitudes.

* spiritual thinking equates money with greed.. doesn't see that money is simply a mechanism and storage of value. money is a tool.. when seen like this, seeking more money is simply to say that i would use this tool because it is more useful...

nothing that you have not touched upon... but it looks like a lot of such concepts and attitudes have been absorbed by us during our upbringing when critical thinking was not quite functional.. while those anecdotes and teachings might have had a certain meaning and purpose in *some* context, the immature mind can only grab them as universal truths (fine understanding , in my opinion, comes much later) and thus err very badly....

Anonymous said...

The writing of this blog is reminiscent of one who wants to swim in the deep side of a pool but would rather stay in the shallow side because of fear of drowning in the deep side.
To seek Truth one has to be able to dive into the depths, otherwise the exercise is just a juvenile attempt of learning the art of swimming on the surface.

Diogenes said...

The best discourse on money is still Fransisco D'√Ānconia's speech in "Atlas Shrugged".
I do not think "the best and brightest" join the financial services industry. I had spent a considerable time in that industry and most of the people in the industry are just human refuse. Not very different from our politicians. This holds true even for companies like "Goldman Sachs". Most of them are milking a system and brand that they did not create in the first place.
This is not to say that financial services industry is useless. IN fact, the advances in finance has been some of the most great abstract acheivements of the human mind. But that was done just a few people. The rest are just standing of the giants and abusing the system.