Sunday, January 19, 2014

What's So Great About Money?

 There is a new craze: Bitcoin. It’s a new online “currency.” You use it to pay for goods and services. You can buy bitcoins online, with real money, or you can create bitcoins through “mining.” Recently, one bitcoin was worth about $850 (Sacramento Bee, Jan. 17, 2014), but it is very volatile and insecure. While bitcoins are used for some regular transactions, this market is dominated by speculators and it is associated with criminal activity ( Early users have reaped great rewards, reminiscent of Ponzi. In sum, Bitcoin is a new form of gambling, and it is therefore bad and immoral, as all gambling is. Why is gambling bad and immoral?

In the first place, when you gamble, you generally LOSE. After you are done gambling, you have less money than when you started. Secondly, you have nothing to show for your losses - no new clothes, no new car, no fine vacation.

Thirdly, gambling is a redistribution of money from the poor to the rich. The vast majority of lottery ticket buyers, slot machine players and other casino players are low-income people. Their money is transferred to the upper class through state governments and casinos. Wall Street is no different: small individual players do poorly, institutional investors do better, and investment banks, stock brokers and the rest of Wall Street get rich.

Fourthly, gambling produces nothing of value. In the brilliant recent movie “The Wolf of WallStreet,”  Leonardo DiCaprio is introduced to the Wall Street subculture by Matthew McConaughey as follows (paraphrased): “We produce absolutely nothing of value, but the beauty of it is that we get filthy rich.”

Even though people usually lose, they continue to gamble. The reason for this is that they are obsessed with money. They pray at the altar of Mammon, the God of greed.

Don’t misunderstand me: I do not advocate poverty or asceticism. I want people to enjoy a fun and comfortable life, which requires a good income.

But when money becomes an END rather than a MEAN, its pursuit becomes pathological. Money assumes value in and of itself, rather than as a means to a better life.

This is the sort of materialism which is all too characteristic of American society, and which seems to have gotten worse in recent years.

The greedy Leonardo DiCaprio-like Wall Street stock broker reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge, for whom the real pleasure of money was not what it could FETCH, but admiring and counting its quantity stashed in vaults or recorded on ledgers. To such people, the money IS the pleasure.  A healthy contrary attitude was Freud’s, who used feces as a symbol for money, as in his “constipated and diarrhetic personalities” (it’s okay to laugh now).

People’s obsession with money overlooks the fact that the correlation between it, and happiness, is very weak. There is some conflicting information about this:

According to some studies, most people feel that if they could only make about 50% more than they currently make, their lives would be just perfect.

On the other hand, here is what Malcolm Gladwell reports in his recent book David and Goliath (2013): “The scholars who research happiness suggest that more money stops making people happier at a family income of around seventy-five thousand dollars a year. If your family makes seventy-five thousand and your neighbor makes a hundred thousand, that extra twenty-five thousand a year...doesn’t make your neighbor happier than you.” (47-48). Gladwell’s description fits me perfectly: I now enjoy life fully on my existing income. I have no desire to earn more than I do. And if I gripe about the obscene accumulation of wealth at the top, it has nothing to do with “envy,” as people like me are accused of by moronic columnists like Kathleen Parker.

President Calvin Coolidge famously said that “the business of America is business.” The glorification of business is two-edged: If you are in business because you have an ideal of providing a great product or service to the public, that’s laudable. However, if your sole motive is to maximize your profits regardless of what, that is contemptible. Viewing profits as your be-all and end-all is a disease. It is the guiding principle of too many businessmen.

Americans are often stereotyped overseas as being excessively materialistic. I remember how widespread this image was in Europe, before I came to this country. I am afraid that there is a lot of truth to it, with two caveats: (1) the same can be said about the Dutch, the Germans, and many others. (2) This fluctuates. During the Civil Rights era, and before that during the 1930s, there was a lot more idealism and less selfishness in America. Maybe the pendulum will swing back.

The point is: There are GOOD values, and there are BAD values: Materialism and the glorification of money are bad. Good values include friendship, love, creativity, beauty, helping the poor, protecting your family, the world of ideas. It is good to excel at something - be it athletics, art, music, poetry, science, technology, games, cuisine, you name it. Making as much money as possible just for the sake of making more money is not a good value. leave comment here