Money, part 2
This is a continuation of my previous post, describing my mission to actively move away from using money. This involved being homeless and discovering the opportunities of life without money.
Going back to money
I always knew I would be reintegrating with the “normal” world eventually. After a whole year of being homeless and surviving without money, I was ready to go back.
In discovering rationalism, I had come across some cool techniques for life. Using probabilities and a cost vs benefit analysis I decided to move to London and become a developer. This was calculated as a low-cost high reward strategy for maximum money in minimum time that had a good chance of success.
The ultimate goal was to make time for more philosophical activity in my life. The no-money route is an option to regain some time, but perhaps not enough. The costs are also high: poor physical health, lack of stability (high anxiety). In short, to reach my goals, I had to use money.
Even though my feminist days gave me this advice: “we all are doing what we can to survive under unfair conditions, so it is wrong to criticise others who are performing along the expected lines of society”, I still suffered feelings of horrible guilt and of being a sell out.
I rationally knew that I had come up with a decent plan that might ultimately help me to do more of what I love, an activity which might help people and even contribute to changing the society I find myself in. However the feelings of being a sell-out, of “getting more right-wing as I got older” were strong. It took some years to be more at peace with my choices and even longer to find a framework that might help to describe them.
I also felt uncomfortable earning (what felt like) an obscene amount of money in comparison to others. Coming from the local government sector gave me a strong sense that the people who do the hardest jobs get paid the least money. I also felt working class guilt, that I was being a traitor for accepting and using middle class salaries, buying myself middle class privileges.
Of course, it was harder for me to remember that my new salary was still below average, well below median and certainly not “obscene” by any measure.
I had to remind myself that it is ok to have money. Life is indeed much easier with money. I think the study about IQ drop when feeling anxiety over money has failed to replicate, like so many others, however the anxiety levels at the low-end of the money scale seem anecdotally extremely large, and are relieved entirely by a modest income. Having modest amounts of money allows for optimism for the future, enables regular excursions outside of the house, enables much easier social relations, allows freedom of travel and greatly improves physical health.
Another aspect of money relates to sharing your money. I can now be honest about my motivations for generosity, is it signalling, is it genuine concern? I now feel ok about exploring those ethics.
One thing is certain, being without money is an excellent way to understand and use it effectively.
It’s expensive to be poor.
This perverse rule was visible everywhere once I recognised it.
The ATMs in poor neighbourhoods always charge for withdrawals, because poor neighbourhoods don’t attract chain banks or other enterprises that provide free cash machines. It’s not worth it, because everyone there is poor.
The converse is also often true: it’s cheap to be rich. Rich people are often invited to free events in the random hope that someone will spend their money eventually on the host’s business. Art galleries have free private views. Overdrafts on wealthy client’s accounts are free, while poor people are penalised for even a £1 overdraft withdrawal. The richer you are, the more free things get offered to you. Of course, money makes more money if you just leave it alone, so the act of simply having some gives you an income on it as well.
Cheating on benefits is much harder than getting a job
Almost nobody does it, so get over it. Of the ones that do, it is our fault as a society for not providing more useful deception games that their skills could be applied to. Either way it is an acceptable loss.
It doesn’t take very long to earn enough money such that survival is covered and all the questions about the meaning of life, and how to spend one’s time, return. For my freelance friends who really do earn obscene money, the problem of what to do every day becomes a real concern. Material benefits lose their charm alarmingly quickly. Boredom is the ultimate problem.
It leads me to wonder if there are groups of people with rich depression, whom we could leverage to do interesting things. It also makes me a proponent of universal benefit, which might be an interim step that will lead us to the idea that we should spend some time shunting around our shared, limited resources and the rest of the time getting together to do interesting things.
Money doesn’t need to be money
For some people (many?) their salary is much more to do with “numbers going up” – the dopamine reward system that video games harness so well, than it is to do with material goods or comfort. For those who are not too interested in the status that material goods bring, the motivation is more to do with the esteem a society holds them in (itself another kind of status).
This had led me to speculate about the possibility of divorcing “currency” – a phrase for the part of money that is a functional system of exchange rather than drag 2,000 eggs to market to swap for a cow – from the insane, imaginary mathematical games people play in financial markets that none the less cause ordinary people to lose their homes.
I recently spoke to a software developer in the finance industry who openly admitted that he engages in creating software that is deliberately difficult to use, so that financial investors feel as though they are actually doing something during their 90 hour work week, rather than admit that they do no better than random chance. His team actively re-writes old software with more complex navigation menus and deliberately obfuscatory usage procedures to supply the illusion that these people do something Very Hard that only Magic Skilled People can do.
I wonder how hard it would really be to round up the entire top several levels of the world financial system and quietly slide them all into an MMO or virtual world, where we tell them they are trading and have won and lost millions of “dollars” when actually we have disconnected them from the currency we use for basic goods, shelter and transport a long time ago.
I used to think capitalism was evil. Now I think it’s just a system.
I think it’s quite amenable to being hacked and changed, which is good. It might be the least bad system so far. It also doesn’t function in a vacuum. Capitalism so far has always operated with, alongside and within several other systems: nation states, governmental organisation systems, political systems, charity systems and particularly “welfare” systems. The welfare side is where we put lots of our human morals, and I now find it strange when people demand moral behaviour from capitalist systems.
There are some who believe that current systems would be improved if allowed to operate with the same rules as a “market”. I think they are correct in some cases, but it would be disastrous in others.
I do think there are aspects to markets/capitalism that mean it has never been a complete or functioning system. For example, natural resources are exploited at no cost, giving the illusion of eternal resources and thus eternal growth. I will be very interested to see how capitalism changes when this loop is closed, such as when governments give natural resource systems legal rights, or with carbon taxes.
I feel optimistic that since capitalism is subject to theories as engines, not as cameras, it will continuously evolve and will no doubt be a useful system in the system tool box for a long time.
Pretty wild journey, congrats on making it through. How did you find the physical and emotional suffering of poverty as compared to the “existential burden” of finding meaning once the basics of life are satisfied?
Also, as someone that runs (ran?) an algo trading firm, I’d add that your views on how the system works and what role it plays are not especially accurate; more nuance here would be helpful. Although I am heavily in favor of your underlying desire to mitigate the ability of people to create negative externalities on their pursuit for social status through creating wealth (sometimes found in the financial sector!)
The physical suffering is in many ways preferable! Ones problems are more understandable, accessible and concrete. But those problems also potentially severely limit life span. I’m one of those people that wants to be alive at all costs, so existential pain for me!
I take it you mean the financial system? As you say there is a vague section on that matter. I am referring to grey haired men in suits outside of Bank, in London. I am basing my assumptions on the (I thought?) common knowledge that human investors do no better than chance over a timeframe of a few months or more (ref: Nate Silver, The Signal And The Noise). I have more confidence that machines making trades in a brute force sort of way might do better than chance, but people involved with that system do not need to have the menus redesigned to be harder to use to massage their ego.
Do you think that more comments about the financial system as it really works would be helpful to a general reader than my subjective view of it presented here?
woops I replied off the thread…
That’s interesting. Do you have a sense of whether most people would choose existential over physical pain?
I’m not sure how much an average reader would benefit from a more sophisticated understanding of the system, but I bet you would given that you are thinking about the role of currency/money in society as well as trying to take a “stage 5 perspective” of the financial system. You are right that the vast majority of active investors/traders, whether human or machine (machines are built by humans), are going to underperform the market portfolio. I’d have to know more about who exactly your friend is making software for to be able to comment on how it impacts investment advisors (although most of those grey-haired men in suits are probably not that, although they serve a similar role for corporations — they are probably investment bankers). Regarding the financial games causing people to lose their homes, well… as you may not be surprised to hear, it’s not that simple. The system exists because both sides of the market want it to be there. For example, in housing, we have a culture which pushes people to take on a massive debt obligation on an asset which has little to appreciate other than the inertia of this process. And you are encouraged to take on as much as you can possibly afford. This is stupid. But, of course, the financial system bends over backwards to make it possible, so it is an enabler. Regarding the investment/trading stuff, you see a similar dynamic. People have a desire to have a sense of control and competence over their savings. Many have an explicit desire for the thrill of chance (gambling). Furthermore, our society glorifies the gains of speculators and entrepreneurs who “get rich quick and easy” so other people are enticed to think they can also play this game successfully (in their spare time!). The financial system accommodates this so it is not faultless, but you need to look at both sides to understand the complexity of the problem.
I love your writing, by the way. Looking forward to the next post
Found you over at David Chapman’s site. I relate to the idea of trying to find something that can pay the bills and reach a point of stasis beyond which all further earning is but the ‘thrill of advancing to level 18!’ as you aptly put it. The point of it all to have time for philosophy and spirtual/emotional/psychological development while optimizing the yield curve of modern capitalism and working no more. This can be difficult as the assumption is not shared by many at all. Looking forward to more posts.