A Surprising Start…
When I first graduated from school and going to work, I did not think too much about money or how much I should earn. All I was concerned with was getting a job and honing my craft as a software engineer and I believed that as long as I got good at my craft, I would be sought after and in so doing, the money will naturally come in. It has been a year since I started working and I must say a lot has happened in this one year that has changed how I view the world and money.
I have met a number of millionaires and I am surprised by how hard they are continually working. Initially, the reasons seem to be plain obvious. A few million dollars is not enough to live life. However as I dug more into it, I discovered that we are in a generation where the wealthy are ever more hardworking (https://hbr.org/2018/07/how-ceos-manage-time#what-do-ceos-actually-do). Its interesting as most if not all of them could definitely stop working all together and probably have enough money to live the rest of their life with no financial worries or could simply take up a simpler job with less working hour. However they continue to work and find ways to earn even more money. It would appear that the goal is simply accumulating more money or at least more than the other guy. What is worrying is probably how society’s view of such accumulation seems to be seen in a positive light.
There is another scary trend that has happened in society in recent years. In Singapore, there is suddenly a massive number of students who want to study Computer Science. I know for a fact that before I graduated, many of the professors were absurdly stretched out having to handle the large number of students that were coming in. I still remember when I first chose Computer Science about 6 years back, many people warned me saying that there will be many scholars from overseas along with students from Polytechnics who have had background on the course already and I would be going in with a disadvantage. Today however, many want to go into Computer Science because it has one of the highest average starting pay and is suppose to be a secure route to get a job. How did pay become such a big motivation in deciding a course of study in university? As a matter of fact, isn’t the university suppose to be a place of learning, of intellectual curiosity and possibly even of self discovery? When did it become a place you go to to get a job? How did the story of “go to a university and you will get a job” even come about?
Talking to a few of my friends, it is also scary how the first question that people ask when we first meet is “what do you do?” and I subconsciously weigh the other person’s worth base on his job. While it is not wrong to do so, but it is scary how I weigh the job instinctively base on the expected salary that such a job will have instead of other metrics such as the skills required for the job or a greater good that the job serves for society. To make things worse, the next question is often how much do you earn. Probably the most disgusting thing of all is what happens after. If I was the biggest earner within the circle of friends, a pride of being superior swells up within me and if I was not, I would feel like I did something wrong or even think that the other person is lying. Either way, both thoughts are a sign that a perversion in my soul has occurred and I need help.
To sum it up, I discovered the big role that money plays in this society and society’s obsession with it along with my obsession with it. I did not think much into it until I read something interesting by one of my favorite author.
“There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest; and lending money at interest—what we call investment—is the basis of our whole system. Now it may not absolutely follow that we are wrong.
Some people say that when Moses and Aristotle and the Christians agreed in forbidding interest (or ‘usury’ as they called it), they could not foresee the joint stock company, and were only thinking of the private money-lender, and that, therefore, we need not bother about what they said. That is a question I cannot decide on. I am not an economist and I simply do not know whether the investment system is responsible for the state we are in or not.
This is where we want the Christian economist. But I should not have been honest if I had not told you that the three great civilizations agreed (or so it seems at first sight) in condemning the very thing on which we have based our whole life. One more point and I am done. In the passage where the New Testament says that everyone must work, it gives as a reason ‘in order that he may have something to give to those in need’ [Ephesians 4:28]. Charity—giving to the poor—is an essential part of Christian morality: in the frightening parable of the sheep and the goats it seems to be the point on which everything turns. Some people nowadays say that charity ought to be unnecessary and that instead of giving to the poor we ought to be producing a society in which there were no poor to give to.
For one I was surprised that this was in the bible. Secondly, this bothered me because it seems to have been wise to invest your money and have it “work for you”. As a matter of fact, such was the doctrine that I have been taught since young reading books like The Richest Man in Babylon and Rich Dad, Poor Dad. To have discovered that the bible or early societies for that matter actually frown upon such a system is interesting. As a note, the question here is not one of morality but one of whether such an act is sustainable for society in the long run. Like CS Lewis I myself am not sure but I think it is probably worthwhile to dig more into this.
Coming back to the present, I recently got COVID and was stuck at home isolating myself and feeling sick. I decided to read some books as a way to pass time and chanced upon How Much is Enough? Money and the Good Life (https://www.amazon.com/How-Much-Enough-Money-Good/dp/1590516346). The author is a philosopher and talks about how society’s relationship with money has progressed throughout history. He starts with John Maynard Keynes prediction on how we would have to work no more than 15 hours a week to satisfy our needs with the increase in productivity and tries to explain why even though the rise in productivity has happened, the decrease in work has not happened to the extent predicted. The book even goes so far as to break down the purpose and goal of capitalism and its relation to the good life — sadly, it is a concept that has been pretty much thrown into the ditch in today’s world.
With all of this, I decided to use this place as a ground to share and to organize my thoughts on this issue (sorry to whoever is reading this and finds things everywhere). I am definitely not smart enough to come out with anything original but I think it worthwhile to add my thoughts on what others have already written to help myself and whosoever is reading this to digest the information that is already out there. The purpose to simply to figure out what is the right relationship with money. It could be a bar for each individual or there could be a standard that is meant to be attained. In each situation, the case has to be argued for and not just taken for granted.
The need for this is one of utmost importance to life for the ancient philosophers and the Bible and even other religious texts all seem to warn us against making money our life’s obsession. As a matter of fact, they all seem to suggest something alluring about money that one should be wary of. On the other hand, society today seems to be celebrating greed and I quote “Greed is Good” from the movie Wall Street or simply holds that each person should just earn however much money they want as long as they don’t hurt others. So why did the ancients think this way and what has changed along the way to make us think the way we do today? And of course, who do I think is right?
So begins this journey to figure out something about life.