#98: Making more of your money isn’t a maths problem

1st August, 2022

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. This week, becoming wiser with money by understanding that when you see a number-shaped answer, you’re probably looking foolishly narrowly, including:

  • How being ‘rich’ can literally be an act of self harm.

  • The danger of turning ‘difficult to convey’ into ‘easy to ignore’.

  • And an alternative allegory for when you’re sick of the Mexican fisherman one.

This is part of a series mapping our relationships with money to the foundationally important work of Iain McGilchrist, as set out in the two best non-fiction books I've ever read. Because you know money with only half a brain, and it’s the stupid half. And this, more than anything else, prevents you making more (a lot more) of the money in your life.

It’s probably pointless to suggest that lives are screwed up by prioritising money simply because it can be measured and because it promises an easy answer to a complex, existentially terrifying conundrum. Because no one thinks that’s what they’re doing when they’re doing it. But with the help of a story about an olive harvest that’s got nothing to do with olive harvesting, I’m going to do it anyway.

During my time in face-to-face financial planning, there was one quote I found myself revisiting more than any other.

It’s from Bertrand Russell – no stranger to either personal wealth and power, or the contemplation of what it means to live a Good Life. In The Conquest of Happiness, he asked: ‘What is the use of making everybody rich if the rich themselves are miserable?’

To this I would add: ‘What is the use of “buying time” if you don’t use that time wisely?’

And: ‘What is the use of the common strategies to address these questions, if, much as they may make you feel momentarily clever, do damn all for the ultimate quality of your life? I.e. if the point of having money is to make your life better, why is everybody so crap at it?’

Whole-Brain Personal Finance, Lesson #8: Putting everything into numbers is a game with only losers

In The Matter with Things, McGilchrist relates the following story:

It is early November, the time of the olive harvest: the days are still warm and filled with sunlight. But over the valleys there comes the constant whining and braying of engines […] the olives are now shaken from the branches by the flailing arms of a sort of strimmer.

This means that the local farmer’s olives are now gathered in in one morning by a gang of eight men, each armed with a machine. In the past it would have taken the family, men, women and children, three days to do the same work. How wonderful is that?

I hope the fact that framing a way of life as a maths problem immediately strikes you as cause for concern. McGilchrist continues (my emphasis):

Well, it depends what you think life is about. Picking olives with friends and family was a companionable event. It involved singing and laughter. It brought together communities across the generations. It was work, but not in truth terribly hard work when the labour is shared. It would be punctuated with pauses to sit, chat, eat and drink.

It had a meaning which is difficult to convey, surrounding the relationship between the often ancient trees, a proper reverence for them, their harvest, and its place in Greek culture, the process of gathering in something in the nature of a gift, in the peace of the autumn landscape, that would be stored and enjoyed over the whole coming year.

To the modern Western mind, especially when it’s thinking about something in which money has a role (which, given it has a role in everything we do to make it and use it, is basically everything) ‘difficult to convey’ becomes ‘too easy to ignore’. And everything goes to shit because of it.

It is also true that the olives were more carefully harvested, and there was less detritus – branches, leaves, odd plastic attachments from the flails – that got into the mash.

‘Externalities’ the economists would call this. To which of course the ‘solution’ is some sort of tax. Turn what can’t be measured into what can and all is well, right?

But it’s more about what it does to us and our relationship with nature than to the oil. A generative experience has been turned into a sort of violation: this was in fact the word used by the woman whose trees were being harvested in the village yesterday. Something the children would have remembered and hoped to repeat in their lives is gone. And so as to ‘create time’ – for what, exactly?

I hope you can see that asking ‘to create time – for what?’ isn’t about Greek olives. It should ring in your ears every time you hear some productivity obsessive preaching about ‘using money to buy time’ or its 1,001 variations.

I also hope you can see that this isn’t about just finding the right way to tax externalities, or the right way to manipulate the numbers more broadly. When the game you’re playing is the problem, the answer isn’t changing the way you play, it’s changing the game.

If we want to ‘tackle climate change’ we most certainly do have to take whatever steps are necessary to stop destroying the rain forests. But if we go on thinking of the extraordinary richness and beauty of abundant life in them merely in terms of what it can do for us, what it is ‘worth’ to us in terms of utility, which ultimately translates as economic value, we might as well forget trying to save ourselves, and allow ourselves to sink.

If being rich is literally an act of self-harm, is it really such a great goal?

McGilchrist tells another story, this time on the Metalearn podcast (incidentally hosted by one of this newsletter’s wisest commenters), about Helena Norberg-Hodge, who went to Ladakh in the 70s, to a community where they largely lived in a way that was uninterrupted for thousands of years.

In McGilchrist’s words:

She saw all the beautiful buildings. She was shown where people lived and what they did. And she said: ‘Now, I want to see where the poor people live’. And they said, ‘but there are no poor people. This is how we all live.’

Some 20 years later, she went back. In that time, Ladakh had imported advertising, television, and other gleaming baubles of Western culture. With them had come ‘unhappiness, disquiet, a sense of falling behind, the need to compete, and greed.’

When Norberg-Hodge first visited, ‘self-harm was unknown.’


‘And when she spoke to the people,’ says McGilchrist, ‘they said: “we’re just so poor”. These people had had a true wealth, which they had lost. They had become truly poor.’

McGilchrist asks: ‘If we wanted to destroy the happiness of a people, what would you do?’

His answer maps to what happened in Ladakh – you’d build everything ‘efficiently’ with rulers and set-squares, you’d replace food with an economically scalable sugary synthetic alternative, and so on.

Which of course is what we continue to choose for ourselves because of the way in which we pay attention, and the forces to which we decide to delegate our life choices:

We would alienate them from nature, alienate them from the idea that there's any kind of spiritual or divine or sacred realm and divide them one from another and destroy their traditions and history and say, it's whatever you want. That doesn't achieve happiness. It achieves high levels of unhappiness.

Later on, McGilchrist references some studies on immigrants into the US:

Immigrants into the United States come with low levels of mental illness, but after they've been in the United States for 20 or 30 years, they, and their children, show higher rates of mental illness; they approximate more and more to that of the native culture.

And, echoing a finding you see every time the ‘French paradox’ comes up:

I also noted these fascinating studies of relatively cohesive communities. There's one particular Italian community Rosetta, which was closely studied, where people had high rates of smoking and drinking and didn't take enough exercise and all the rest and had low rates of heart disease and led happy lives and so forth. They were fulfilled psychologically, socially and physically.

Sitting around smoking obviously isn’t the wisest move. But it’s not the barrier to living well that being stuck pursuing synthetic success is.

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