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#31: The ABC of money, part 4: financial nobility, step 2
19th April, 2021
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that slows down and suffers to avoid slowing down and suffering.
This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that the problems of craving are not problems of compulsion.
This is part four of our series on using Axiomatic Buddhist Concepts as a practical means to help us live better with money. See also Parts 1, 2, and 3. This part is an introduction to the Second Noble Truth. Next time will cover specific examples of how ignorance of this truth lead us (and those that advice us) to screw stuff up.
On our path to seeing money more clearly, even if we make it over the first hurdle – if we understand that all of life is threatened by self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour, and realise that this is an inherent problem of humanity because the same mental machinery that guides us through life can also, when under the influence of certain inescapable environments, lead us astray – we may, and commonly do, fall at the second.
Attachments to possessions are unhelpful. Attachments to patterns of thinking are dangerous. The most dangerous are the patterns we don’t see because we’re busy congratulating ourselves for not being attached to possessions.
Of all the ‘noble truths’ (or ‘ennobling provocations’, for the reasons explained in Idiot Money #27), the second is the one most prone to backfiring, with grave implications for your financial success.
The Second Noble Truth is that ‘suffering’ (by which we mean self-deceptive, self-destructive behaviour) arises from ‘attachment’, be that craving for ‘good’ things or aversion to ‘bad’ ones. If you do not see your attachments, or see them in a misleading way, you will remain self-deceived and at risk of nodding off onto your potential’s self-destruct button.
However, we read that ‘suffering’ is caused by ‘attachment’, confidently decide that we aren’t seriously attached to anything, and wonder what all the centuries-long fuss was about. Yet the point is do something about the danger of failing to see the reality that we live in an impermanent world. And financial planning – even in its more well-meaning, and less snake-oil forms – is built on denying this reality.
The Second Noble Truth warns us against a craving for simplicity and certainty. We want to make order out of chaos, but in our desperation to do so, we grasp at illusory means of making the chaos go away (which it can’t) rather than learning to dance with it, and obtaining order through enlightened participation in an ongoing process.
This ironic attachment to surface-level simplicity is great for gaining followers in the fortune-cookie corner of Twitter, but it sacrifices effectiveness of thinking and meaningfulness of living to do so.
Nobody believes they’re rich. For very similar reasons, nobody believes they have a problem with ‘attachment’. Not really. Not beyond joking about addictions in a way that translates to ‘my worst problem is <something socially accepted as trivial>, which must mean I’m a completely brilliant human being!’ Like using a ‘sweet tooth’ as an excuse for anything, or wearing ‘expensive tastes’ as a slightly bonkers badge of honour.
I’m writing Money Blind because the most costly mistakes we make are the ones we don’t see, and because a decade in financial advice showed me on the whole, when it comes to money, despite its importance, we don’t see shit, and waste our resources because of it. The cruel fatal twist is that making millions makes this more likely, not less. With potential comes the potential to waste it… and it creeps up awfully subtly.
The typical interpretation of ‘attachment’ in the context of what we do with our money takes the form of ‘Don’t crave stuff, or you’ll be annoyed when you don’t get it, or lose it!’ or ‘Don’t waste your time and energy hating stuff, or arguing with people on the Internet!’ It’s often accompanied by a pithy soundbite; #possessedbypossessions.
This is a problem. For it meets the provocation to examine one’s life with deceptive reasoning not to.
Nobody believes they’re rich and nobody believes they have a problem with attachment, because nobody believes they’re extravagant: it’s not being in the top 10%, or even the top 1% of global richness that makes you rich, it’s whether you’ve got fewer yachts than the next guy.
Even those that admit to ‘having expensive tastes’ do so as a tangled means of saying they are not extravagant people, for that would obviously be silly. They’re ‘just built that way’. There’s nothing they can do about it, and therefore have no responsibility for their actions. Don’t judge their life choices so harshly! But do of course judge their self worth more highly because of how much it cost to decorate their wrist. (I’ll credit you with not having to spell out the inconsistent idiocy of this.)
The ‘trappings of wealth’ are nothing new, of course. Part of their longevity is because, as the Second Truth indicates, we’re looking at them from the wrong angle – we see numbers when we want to see neurons.
From the East, and the Hindu Upanishads, which talk of ‘that chain of possessions wherewith men bind themselves, and beneath which they sink’, or Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, who notes that ‘The desire to possess is considered by Buddhism to be one of the worst passions mortals are apt to be obsessed with.’
To the West, and Seneca: ‘We think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught […] These individuals have riches just as we say that we “have a fever” when really the fever has us.’
And later the hippies, e.g. Herman Hesse: ‘Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.’
And in case the hippies are a bit soppy, how about some Nietzsche? ‘Truly, he who possesses little is so much the less possessed.’ And, elsewhere:
It is only up to a certain point that possessions make men more independent and free; one step further – and the possessions become master, the possessor becomes a slave […] nailed to a place and incorporated into a state none of which perhaps meets his inner and essential needs.
Focusing on the surface-level ‘possession by possessions’ isn’t wrong, it’s just limited, and limiting. The roots of our acquisitive tendencies run too deep to be tackled with a motivational poster and a five-minute meditation. Believing otherwise makes it harder to both admit to, and remove them. When both expression of a problem and the way we address it are this uniform, it suggests we haven’t formulated the problem very well.
Bertie Russell ranked acquisitiveness as one of four insatiate human desires. It is, he wrote, a motive which ‘has its origin in a combination of fear with the desire for necessaries.’
In the living of a life, a desire for necessaries has some crucial differences to a desire for superfluous crap, but unless it’s consciously challenged to make its case, a brain wired for acquisitiveness acknowledges no such differences.
It is not the wealth that traps us, nor the possessions that enslave us, but the inability to see clearly the connection between obviously silly mistakes and their subtler forms… such that those subtler forms can even feel like they are countering the silliness, when in fact they strengthen it.
The most common misreading of ‘attachment’ is to believe it’s about compulsive desires. It’s not. It’s about a narrowing of your vision.
We’ll look next time at how this myopia messes up our money management, the catastrophe inherent in cash-flow modelling, and a spot of dangerous idiocy from Nassim Taleb.