#49: Give, give, give, me more, more, more

23rd August, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that pretends it has friends.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that the game you choose to play is more important than how you play it.

This week, a guest post. Jack, your temporary author, writes: ‘Paul’s been a friend of mine since school, but he lives in a fantasy world. Banging on about how great it’d be if we constructed a new world with our conscious choices overlooks that despite many having dreamed of doing such a thing, as far as I – and I suspect you – can tell, no bugger’s actually done so. Dreaming doesn’t pay the rent. Paul’s writing an entire book about seeing reality more clearly, while bafflingly talking of a worldview that matches the reality of precisely zero people’s practical, lived existence. So I offered to treat you to a dose of something far more sensible.’

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man may be king, but he’s also a pariah. It’s wiser to belong to popular idiocy than to live in line with unpopular wisdom.

The benefits of blindness

Let’s start with the title of the book. Money Blind.

Think being blinded by money, and blind to how it greases our grooves is a bad thing? Nonsense. It’s humanity’s greatest achievement.

The story of human history isn’t some few noble souls keeping alive a ‘wisdom tradition’ in the face of the mindlessness of the mob. It’s the mob’s mindless – and natural – recognition that all the wisdom stuff is bunkum.

We are all ‘wasting’ our lives. The wisest reaction to that isn’t to pretend you can do something about it if only you could see the patterns of waste more clearly. It’s to shut your damn eyes. If all is a waste, nothing is wasted.

The single best thing about money is that it allows us to remain constantly blind. The idea that money contributes to a lack of meaning is bullshit. Money is synthetised meaning… a neat blue pill of purpose. It’s imperfect, sure, but what isn’t? Know how many people actually have a perfect purpose? Ever tried getting out of bed in the morning without a purpose? We’re not toga-wearing aristocrats with nothing to do but philosophise our way through the day.

You could quote any psychoanalyst you like to point out that the blindness is a feature, not a bug. Humans can't cope with their "true" nature, whatever that is, so we make shit up to run away from it. Money makes making shit up easier.

Money makes the world go around. ‘Money makes the world go around’ is usually heard in the context of its function as a facilitator of trade: money moves goods. But there’s a more important interpretation: money moves humans.

Money is both a universal medium of exchange, and, like God used to be, a universal motivator of human actions. And, like Nietzsche’s warning about God, if you remove the motivation too recklessly, you risk a nuclear explosion of nihilism.

Kill God in a God-worshipping culture, and you kill many people’s reason for doing, and ability to derive meaning from, anything. Kill the deification of ‘having loadsa money’ in a money-worshipping culture, and much the same would happen. There’s no point freeing yourself from the shackles of Mammonism if the first thing you do with your freedom is lurch into the nearest abyss.

If you remove the motivating destination, however much life it may be wasting, you may remove the motivation to move at all, and with it all the life it was imperfectly creating.

The motivation to ‘arrive’ at ‘having loadsa money’ (or one of its myriad manifestations) may be flawed, but it has some handy side-effects.

Not only do buildings get built and products get produced, but even if you’re into a ‘more real’ exploration of reality, I doubt there’s a more effective means of persuading somebody to actually start examining the meaningfulness of their lives than making a ton of money and realising it was a better distraction than a reward.

There’s a reason Kipling’s poem is called ‘If–’ not ‘When’. It would be wonderful if global society’s incentive structure prioritised the sort of virtuous stuff you’d hope outranked your CV when people talked about you behind your back or at your funeral, but thinking doesn’t get much more wishful than that.

Wishing your life away is even more wasteful than spending it doing something you don’t like to try impress people you don’t care about.

The future is now

All of life is distraction. Life, for everyone, all the time, is a process of inventing ever new and exciting ways to distract us from the fact it will end. Everything is inherently pointless when you think about it. It’s all well and good to talk about acknowledging that, to listen to your soul or whatever, but then what? Folk have been doing that for millennia, and they’ve left rather more evidence of envy than enlightenment.

It’s theoretically possible that the happiest people are the ones that aren’t making headlines with their hustle or their hedonism, and who aren’t spewing their every pithy thought into the Twittosphere, but is that a gamble you want to take?

Being motivated by money makes everything so much easier. And what is the tale of human existence if not a striving to make everything easier? What is more human than ‘confusing’ access to comfort with standard of living? Everybody may feel better about life when they’re self-propelled, but give a human a motorised scooter or a sedan chair and what do you think they’re gonna do?

Very little of the philosophical stuff is incompatible with choosing to make money your God. Care for what you care about is a fine message. Given that what you care about is a choice (because everything is) it must be most sensible to choose to care about money, because then what you care for is automatically aligned with what you care about. Who has a why can endure any how. Make money the why.

Denialism tells its own story. Humanity has spent countless centuries worshipping some deity or other. Why not switch our unthinking allegiance to money? Worship of money has a bad rep only because the masses are projecting their jealousy. If money weren’t so worthy of worship, people wouldn’t decry and denounce those who worshipped it the most; they’d just ignore them like any other crackpot. In a world without any means of measuring objective Good, democracy has to win. And democracy says read Dan Brown. Or better yet, watch cat videos.

Money = options. In a world where no one knows what they want, options = good. No one knows what they want, and what we want changes over time. That must mean exploring options is good. Some will say that after a period of exploration, some ‘exploitation’ is the way to live. But is it? Those that witter on about life being the journey not the destination mistake the subtle truth behind the ‘arrival fallacy’ mode of existence. Chasing a destination, be it a mansion or simply more money, isn’t about arriving. It’s about dreaming.

Most importantly, it’s about participating in the same shared dream as everybody else.

Living in the future doesn’t create disappointment, it avoids it by being, quite literally, ‘living the dream’. Living in a dreamworld is the apotheosis of how to live in a fundamentally meaningless world wired for waste and distraction.

Some could counter that constant exploration works better when you explore the cheapest-but-not-so-cheap-it’s-actually-bad options, because that allows you to explore even more. This is naïve. The point is to explore expensive things because they are expensive.

The best way to keep the popular game going is for everyone to keep pushing its boundaries. Your screen flashes up ‘Game over’ either when you die or when you win. Either way, it’s not something you want to do.

More expensive isn’t a perfect proxy for better, but it’s still the best we’ve got. I’ve flown first class, had a meal in Mayfair, and a drink in Dubai. I know the relationship between more expensive and better is often not only not perfect, but completely crackers. But overall it is at least vaguely positive, and saves a shitload of research and thinking energy, which very probably means it’s still worth it in absolute terms.

Besides, how do you know you’ve properly explored something unless you’ve tried the best version of it?

The fact that life is uncertain isn’t an argument for becoming adaptable (whatever that means), it's an argument to build the biggest damn safety net you can. To point out that millionaires are often as miserable as everybody else above the poverty line is to focus on the wrong thing. Being loaded isn’t about unlocking some secret level of happiness. Only the truly stupid still believe in that myth. It’s about avoiding the very real misery of having nothing. It's far easier to fall into the gutter from the pavement than the penthouse.

Reducing risk without reducing expected return is the holy grail of investing, and of life; a blind belief in money as a measure of worth is the only way to do this. Smart people think in probabilities. We all face a million risks every day, from crossing the road to popping pills. We happily ignore these risks not because they're not real, but because their probabilities are tiny.

Chasing more money is a means of reducing the probabilities related to financial risks to a level you can forget about them. At some point, of course, those financial risks all become vanishingly small, but given perceived risks always outweigh real ones by many orders of magnitude, everyone’s got a fair amount of runway left here.

Chasing rainbows

If you can pretend to be happy, you’re not really miserable. I read somewhere [here – Ed] a Bertrand Russell quote along the lines of ‘what’s the point in making everybody rich, if the rich are miserable?’ If there’s one thing you can guarantee about someone who’s insecure enough to preach about how damn happy or blessed they are, it’s that they’re at best bipolar. People who preach about being happy are just people too stupid to send the same message on the sly, say by living in a mansion, or driving a car that cost enough to lift a small village out of poverty.

Blind ambition is better than short-sighted settling. Were the antidote to blindly chasing ‘more’ an enlightened examination of enough, you could make a better argument against the typical hustler’s tunnel vision. But it’s not. No one lives in that world. Nobody’s on the road to enlightenment, because everybody’s stuck faffing about watching the shadow-puppet theatre in Plato’s cave.

In this blind world, everybody’s game is dumb, but the game of settling is dumber than the one of ambition, no matter how cleverly the settlers defensively explain why where they happened to settle was perfect.

Humans want to grow. Money may be an imperfect measure of growth, but it’s a damn sight harder to hide behind than all that hippie crap. A focus on money as the ultimate measure of worth may flirt a little too hard with living in the future rather than the present, but is that so bad? Isn’t it a sign of ambition to grow? Aren't humans supposed to want to grow?

Who said chasing more had to be about the destination? Can’t it be about the journey, but a more exciting, high-powered, effective one? You can criticise the model of straight-line success all you like, but when it’s the model everyone is voting for, democracy rules, and to denounce it doesn’t sound revolutionary, it sounds bitter.

Humans want to make order out of chaos. What gets measured gets managed. Money gives us a measure for life, and therefore a way of managing the infinitely discomforting angst of being finite beings in an infinite world.

More than they want to grow, or make order, humans want to fit in. It’s better to be wrong with others than right alone.

Mimetic desire isn’t a bad thing. For eons, man has sought belonging. Money translates belonging into something even bankers can understand. Does it really matter that it’s a bit inefficient? What isn’t? Thanks to its universality, worship of money is the great unifying force. It’s the ultimate form of belonging.

Balance is a myth. Being really good at something makes people happy. To be really good at anything requires an obsession of sorts. Balance is a myth. Something's got to give. You can't be great at your job and your health and your relationships, etc. And if you think you’re being clever by saying ‘you can be really good at balance’, you’re not.

Money = meaning

To sum up:

The history of human life is a history of trying to deal with being meaning-seeking beings in an inherently meaningless world. This, of course, is why Nietzsche warned us of the dire consequences of killing God... because for millennia religion gave most people unchallenged meaning. But bugger me! what happens when you take that away?

Enter money.

Money doesn't really provide meaning, but then neither does anything else. The great thing about money being everywhere and always being able to chase more of it, is that it's the best possible source of distraction from existential crises. We’ve spent so long fixated on ways of fleeing from these fears. Finally, we’ve landed on a damn good one.

It’s all very well pointing to Socrates and his ‘examined life’ and saying something terribly worthy sounding about how it’s better to die wisely than to exist blindly, but that overlooks the fact that he did, in fact, die. And he died because he didn’t belong. He was murdered as a defensive reaction to his appearing to be so damn happy to play a different game, to live in a different world.

When people would rather become murderers than play a different game, inviting them to play – however much better that alternative game may be – can hardly be called wise.

It’s a mad, mad, world

As I said, I went to school with Paul.

I remember one maths lesson where the teacher asked everybody what the answer to some problem was.

The most popular kid in class – and no mean mathematician, as far as these things go when you can still count your age on your fingers – promptly stuck his hand up and said a number.

I forget what it was. Let’s call it 20.

Cue numerous nods and ‘yeahs’ and whatever the seven-year-old equivalent of ‘hear, hear’ is.

The teacher asked if anybody had an alternative.

Some clown yelled out ‘305’ or something else obviously wrong. He got his laugh, and we moved on.

Then Paul piped up.

He explained how he thought 20 had been arrived at, via a tempting-but-incorrect method, and the actual answer was 19 (or whatever).

The teacher asked for a vote. Was it 20, or 19? Despite young Paul’s explanation, every hand bar his went for 20.

The dumbest thing was, he thought the teacher confirming it was 19 meant he was right.

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