Money: The Great Obscurer

Infrequently Asked Questions

This post describes the dominant forms of money in the world of existence today. The world of potential holds many other realms worth pioneering and manifesting.

What is money?

Money is a social agreement. Sometimes we forget this and treat it as we do the Laws of Physics. It often represents the collective unconscious. Once we begin to bring awareness to how we use money, we can begin asking the question, “what purpose does money serve?” We may realize the way we’re using money is out of alignment with our values and our aims. This is when it’s time to redesign money.

Can money be earned?

No. Money can be given or taken. Human ingenuity is of unquantifiable value. Money is finite and one-dimensional, and therefore, cannot adequately represent the value of work. The perspective of “earning” is the perspective of the isolated individual, independent from his or her context. Do our blood cells earn their oxygen, or is it given in cooperation with sunlight, photosynthesis, and respiration? Does the grass earn the rain, or does it come as a gift through the hydrological cycle?

The fact that the bottom half of the global population owns 1% of financial wealth and the top 1% owns almost half of financial wealth is a red herring. Can one person really be adding millions of times more value to our world than another? No.

Where does money come from?

Via the mainstream paradigm, money is created through the liquidation of social and ecological capital. This capital is liquidated by separating it from its context — in other words, violence. That’s why we have billionaires; they’re not creating “value,” they’re destroying it! It’s no coincidence that the US represents 36% of global defense spending in 2015 [and three times more than China, the runner up] and that the dollar is the primary global reserve currency. Violence is fundamental to the creation of money.

Where does money go?

100% of money goes to people. We don’t pay the atmosphere for our CO2 emissions. We don’t pay the salmon for destroying their habitat. We don’t pay the forests for harvesting their lumber. We don’t pay the mountains for mining their minerals. Although we often fool ourselves into thinking that we have accounted for the more-than-human world on our balance sheets [such as infrastructure, taxes, debt, or raw materials], at the end of the day, all money ends up going to people.

This creates a fundamental incongruity in the system. Control of the financial sphere is solely within the human realm. And yet the financial realm dictates human action that has impacts far beyond the human experience.

Does money have a mind of its own?

Yes. Money is a form of artificial intelligence and often has more control in the systems in which it is involved than the respective people. We have many science fiction tales about AI taking over the world of the future. But what if this has already happened? When we put money first, we let money make the decision.

Do transactions communicate stories?

No. Money is the great obscurer. By design, money allows us to see one step back in the process, and one step forward, but no more. We can know that we purchased our pizza from the restaurant, but we don’t know where the restaurant sources its ingredients. Everything is interconnected, and yet money creates the false image of separation by turning a web of relationships into a single figure: price. And once that oversimplification has been made, there’s no going back. It’s like compressing a file into a thumbnail; you can’t get the original image back again.

Can money be a north star?

When money serves the humble yet vital role of a tool or instrument necessary for accomplishing a task, our vision can remain lucid and our work unadulterated. But to succumb to placing money in the role of goal, direction, or aim, subordinates our vision to to the corrosive properties reviewed above. Money isn’t evil, but it’s also not neutral.

Is triple-bottom-line [planet/people/profit] achievable?

On a systems scale, this trinity never achieves mutual parity. Economy nests within society nests within planet. We have a three-fold system. These systems have opposite trends in urgency and importance. Money trumps urgency, planet trumps importance, and people are somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, as any entrepreneur will tell you, sometimes urgency trumps importance. Global warming and Bill McKibben’s $20 trillion question beautifully illustrates this example: even in the face of extinction, we still address economic concerns first.

Just as the proponents of affirmative action posit that we won’t end racism by treating all individuals “equally,” [due to inherited inequality], triple-bottom-line can only work on the net level when profit serves the people that serve the planet. In such systems, money must hold the most subordinate position if regeneration is to be possible.

Another reason for this is that, when people speak of positive social and environmental impact, they’re talking in terms of generating any yields, not net terms. As you might learn in business 101, revenues don’t necessarily result in profits. In other words, Tom’s Shoes never “balances the books” of their social impact. On a net scale, even though they are “giving back,” their social impact has a negative value [when we consider their webs of distribution, manufacture, marketing, and supply]. On a net scale, riding public transportation still has a negative impact on the environment, even though it’s constantly branded as “saving the planet.” So if we’re going to get serious about using this framework, we need to significantly raise the bar on what is “sustainable,” to encompass not just the system we’re working on, but the larger place and community that we’re nested within.

Is money a form of capital?

Not really. Although lean economist David Fleming doesn’t use exactly these words, he points out that money, unlike capital, is representational. In other words, to consider it capital would be double-counting. Money is layered on top of things of inherent value [land, culture, et cetera]; it’s basically an accounting system, not a store of value. Thinking of money as capital can be a convinient mental shortcut, but leads to the incorrect assumtion that money is value.

Is there such thing as idling money?

Not so much. The money sitting in your bank account determines how much lending it can do to businesses. If you bank locally, this means more financing for local projects [often a good thing]. If you bank with one of the big guys, your money is funding things like gold extraction on indigeneous-inhabited jungle in central America, or arctic drilling for oil. And it’s not a though there’s a one:one ratio; banks can massively leverage their deposits, often 30:1. So if you have $100,000 in a savings account, that could mean you’re enabling up to $3 million in new debt.

Stocks and bonds are the same way—money enables the operation of of the corresponding municipalities, governments, or corporations.

And even if you just have the money sitting in a vault in your basement, that’s still money that’s part of a global extractive system of exploitation and violence, proped up by a belief that that money has utility.

But isn’t my money different than other money?

Unlike material things, money doesn’t exist in time and place. All of this treating-money-literally is a bit of an illusion. Concepts like the Quantum Money [outlined in Charles Eisenstein’s “Sacred Economics”] have the nuance to point out that money is actually fluid and ephemeral. Although dollar bills give us the notion that two dollars are distinct, they aren’t, as they’re just an abstract concept. Money is the epitome of a commodity; so uniform, from dollar to dollar, as to be ubiquitous and indistinguishable.

Should we try to minimize our interactions with money?

That would be the vegan or Zen approach, which isn’t objectionable, but is only practical for hermits and martyrs with spiritual or political aims. To change the system, we must interact with, and therefore, in some ways, be part of it.

But is money really that powerful?

Absolutely! The casual attitude in Silicon Valley surrounding wealth belies its extreme power. Money is destroying the world, and yet, it can also help to sew the seeds for a new era.