January 28, 2013 § 6 Comments
First, thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and candid comments relating to “Relax.” Keep ‘em coming. There are many issues to navigate when thinking about money, and it often seems to me as if there are few clear solutions. I just spent a full 18 months thinking and writing about the subject, and my ideas are still evolving.
However, there are a couple of things I’m fairly certain of (as of today, anyhow):
1) There is nothing inherently wrong with money. However, the nature of contemporary money, which is really just credit (if that makes no sense to you, well, you’ll just have to buy my book), is that it conveniently externalizes the majority of the true costs associated with the production/consumption of just about everything we purchase. It does this by facilitating globalized trade in the context of a economic system that rewards cost-cutting and profit-making (I think it’s called “capitalism”). Money is extremely powerful in its capacity to do either good or bad in this world, and I believe that we should assume the responsibility of acknowledging its impact and doing what we can to make choices that emphasize the good. Of course, pretty much every piece of consumer marketing ever produced is designed to ensure that we don’t think twice about how we spend. Or, as is increasingly common, is spun in a way to make us feel good about our consumption; witness the “greening” of some of the most inherently destructive industries ever invented.
2) This is hardly original thinking, but I also believe that the most pure form of wealth is measured not in how much you have, but in how little you need. SAVED is based largely on the life of a dear friend who lives on about $6k/year, and one of my goals for the book – beyond simply making the point that one can be happy in the absence of much money – was to examine how, precisely, his life works. How his personal economy works (an interesting aside: The Greek root words for “economics” have nothing to do with money), how he manages to survive and even thrive in the context of such deep monetary poverty. I tried very hard to avoid romanticizing his life, or to let him off the hook from his inevitable dependence on others. Because the fact is, I’m pretty sure you can’t get by on six grand a year in 21st century America without, as Joe Cocker would put it, “a little help from [your] friends.” Still, it is fascinating for me to consider how most of us have exchanged our dependence upon one another for dependence on a commoditized economic system, an arrangement that gives rise to cute little phrases like “too big to fail.” In many ways, this is an enormous convenience: Being dependent upon one another is messy and humbling work, and there are times when it’s a real blessing to simply hand over a pile of dough and be absolved of all those complications. But make no mistake, it’s still a form of dependence that in many ways ultimately leaves us more vulnerable and even less connected to others.
I’ll leave you with another short excerpt from SAVED.
When we settle our debts via monetary exchanges, we extinguish any lingering obligation. True, it may at times feel inconvenient or even uncomfortable to feel indebted to someone, to “owe them a favor.” But this discomfort arises only from the illusory wealth of money, which has largely absolved us of the need to rely on others and likewise, to have them rely on us.
It was through this accounting that I fully and finally began to understand how it was that Erik viewed himself as being not frugal but rather downright rich. Because he views assessments of his prosperity in much the same way he views his economy: as being about more than money. He doesn’t have many of the things money can buy, that much is irrefutably true: no car, no iPad, no television or cell phone. His life is bereft of anonymous goods, purchased with anonymous dollars, created by hands made anonymous by distance and cultural divides. In this regard, he is poor and, to the extent that one views these goods as desirable and even essential, perhaps even pitiable.
But the more time I spent with Erik, the better I understood that any measure of prosperity based on the compiling of generic goods, no matter how technologically alluring or promising of convenience and comfort, was at best an example of half-done math. The world is awash in these homogenized items; the prosperity that comes of owning them is a homogenized prosperity, no amount of which can fill that void that comes of the disquieting realization that perhaps we are becoming homogenous, too.
The allure of these manufactured goods is built on story after story: First, and almost always, the once-upon-a-time story that they will somehow free us to live the life we truly want to live, a life that always seems just beyond our reach, like the rainbow’s end, or the proverbial carrot on a stick. Often, this story is rooted in the premise that contemporary technological marvels – faster computers, talking cell phones, wireless freakin’ everything – will not only simplify our lives, leaving us with more free time to spend with loved ones or engage in the leisure time activity of our choosing, but will usher in a new era of abundance for all. Increasingly, however, the leisure time activity of our choosing seems to be engaging with the very technological marvels that promise more leisure time. In 2010, Americans set a record for television watching, at thirty-four hours per week; that same year, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that teenagers spent fifty-three hours each week immersed in digital media. A new generation is already on the hook.