#73: I, Robot? Money and the misleading mechanisation of life choices
7th February, 2022
Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that solutions to human puzzles are rarely for sale, including:
- The importance, having broken a decision down for analysis, of putting it back together again in context.
- The accumulated effect of seemingly innocent indulgences.
- And a couple of stories of rich idiots and their well-intentioned but ill-advised choice of toys.
Solutions are rarely for sale. Shortcuts rarely take you where you want to go. Money conjures artificially narrow contexts, which make for narrow-minded decisions. To treat money mechanistically is to treat yourself as a machine.
I’m in a hipster coffee shop, in hipster East London, talking to a hipster friend-of-a-friend. We shall call him The Idiot Cyclist.
If you’ve spent much time around hipster coffee shops in hipster East London, you’ve probably met The Idiot Cyclist, or one of his identikit hipster bicycling brethren.
The Idiot Cyclist is proudly describing his ride. I’m particularly taken by the ‘Fizik carbon-fibre saddle’ that’s saved The Idiot Cyclist an apparently impressive 250 grams over the clearly inferior (albeit slightly more comfortable, and an awful lot less expensive) piece of crap that used to protect his package from his pole.
I’ve no idea what that 250 grams translates to in saved time-trial milliseconds, but given The Idiot Cyclist doesn’t actually compete in time trials, I’m not sure it matters.
In fact, I’m sure it does matter, just not in the way Idiot Cyclist believes it does.
It was my fault, really. I may have mentioned the importance, in terms of living well with money, of spending on stuff that really matters – aligning what you care for with what you care about – and ignoring everything else.
Which triggered The Idiot Cyclist to jump a little injudiciously to the conclusion that he did precisely that – yes, the bike, the saddle, and other assorted accessorising ‘didn’t come cheap’, but he was a cyclist, he cared about cycling, and therefore it was more than justified.
Emanating from the Idiot Cyclists expatiations was more than a whiff of the Idiot Parents we met back in Idiot Money #4, who managed to align a full £450,000 a year of their earnings with the most important thing in their lives – their children – before realising one of the consequences of this was to be worse parents.
The Idiot Cyclist took up cycling more to get fit than to go fast. Lighter bikes go faster. Heavier bikes help you get fitter. In the context of its value as exercise equipment, buying an expensive saddle to save a few grams is like hiring a personal trainer to lift things for you.
There are other issues too, of course. This is London. Expensive bikes advertise more than the likely immorality of your job, or the fact you thought squeezing into lycra ill-equipped to deal with an executive paunch while wobbling through Bank on a five or six grand’s worth of Pinarello Dogma was a way to enhance your status.
They also attract thieves. And consequently simmering mental anguish.
Moreover, while The Idiot Cyclist was obviously not troubled by making money, he was troubled by making something of it. He hated his job. Yet he felt trapped in it. Partially because the mindset that pisses money away on unnecessary saddles pisses it away on other things too, until one day you end up fooled into believing that a Good Life that costs 10 grand a month is somehow smarter than one that costs a tenth of that.
Not to mention there were other things to buy that could have contributed more to his life, even if he wouldn’t think of some of them for a few decades.
There’s little point in getting somewhere faster if you don’t like where you end up.
I pootle around London on a bike with only one gear. As I approach the crest of the hill by the squash club, I’m peddling through a mixture of treacle and quicksand. In that moment, the parts of my brain in control of my quads and my cowardice think maybe more gears would’ve been a good idea. But that bit of my brain, in that moment, is an idiot; it shouldn’t be left in charge of life choices.
I’m hanging out in the club shop at my local tennis and squash club. I’m maybe eleven or twelve years old. In walks a sadly not-atypical member. We shall call him The Tennis Idiot.
The Tennis Idiot: ‘I need a new tennis racquet. What’s the most expensive one you’ve got?’
The shop owner (also one of the club pros): ‘Well, the most expensive one is this crazy double-strung thing – see, it’s got two separate sets of strings – but, honestly, it’s a terrible racquet. I’d highly recommend—’
The Tennis Idiot: ‘Looks great. I’ll take three.’
Carbon-fibre bicycle saddles and weird tennis racquets? So what?
I don’t expect anybody reading this is as much of an idiot as The Tennis Idiot.
Though I do expect everybody reading this has made at least one idiotic decision driven by the exact same neuronal patterns expressing themselves in less-extreme circumstances. I know I have.
The Parable of the Perfectly Ordinary Not-All-That-Idiotic Person That’s Occasionally Misled by Money in Subtle But Accumulatively Pernicious and Costly Ways isn’t nearly as catchy, nor entertaining.
By narrowing everything down to a series of isolated transactions, money promises simplicity, and ease. But this works only in a mechanical, not a human world. And as we saw in Idiot Money #52:
These mistakes are rooted in a belief that it’s external circumstances that determine the quality of a life, rather than how well one is set up to dance with those circumstances. This belief leads people to dedicate their resources to changing the quality of their lives by changing their worlds, rather than their worldviews.
Isolated incidents of spaffing a bit of cash on sporting equipment that act against what matters most to you are trivial concerns.
But when it comes to life choices, nothing is ever an isolated incident. How you do anything is how you do everything. And these trivial concerns lead to some troublesome conclusions. The shortcut to simple promises leads only to a catwalk of conspicuous consumption.