Value: What is Money, Anyway?

Money is an interesting abstraction because in and of itself it means nothing: it’s merely the representation of value based on faith. In fact, faith is the critical component of money, in that if everyone spontaneously lost faith in a specific currency, then the value of that currency drops to nothing, instantly. Where does this abstraction come from, and why can it persist in such a stable manner? What is the ethical utility of money, and how valuable is money anyway? What is the import of an economy? Do ethical laws apply to economic systems? What is the concept of money, after all?

Money is, simply put, liquid value. It is value that is not bound to a specific form, that may be freely assigned and distributed. Money is a carrot to motivate people to do productive work for others, knowing that they can in turn use the same money to motivate others to do the same for them. Money acts as a catalyst, enabling a self-organizing system of human effort to function where each person is trying to maximize their own value from a finite quantity of money. So, if a person who likes apples more than oranges is going to be charged $5 for either, they’ll take the apples. Also, the desire to acquire more money drives forward progress as the consumer backlog justifies increasing expense. What do I mean by that? A company selling a product for a small profit that millions of people buy has more money with which to provide more of that product. Overall, it’s an extremely elegant system, more or less an extension of the process of natural selection into terms useful for memes-with-hands. Or, intelligent entities capable of manipulating the world around them.

Now for the tough questions. What is the value of a human life, in monetary terms? Is it priceless, or completely without price? Or is there indeed a specific, perhaps flexible, though probably quite high, quantity of money which is “worth” one human life? To answer this question, I’m going to back up and start considering time. Let’s just say that there is a society that has invented a device, call it a radiation gun, that can subtract a very precise amount of time from someone’s lifespan. In this society, there are no diseases, etc. etc. that would end your life before your time is up, so people live for a pretty long time, let’s say 100 years. Now this radiation gun is completely painless, so they have concluded that its use is the only ethical form of punishment, compared to torture or imprisonment, for example. If someone would be jailed for five years they can just zap them for five instead. Therefore, a life sentence is equivalent to a death sentence (it just sounds so much nicer in real life). Presumably, with such a punishment everyone would be deterred from committing crimes considering that they would have value directly and unequivocally subtracted from their life. So a 100 year sentence is exactly the value of one human life. A murderer’s penalty, for example, is derived from the age of the person murdered. If you murder someone who is 50 years old, you’ve deprived them of 50 years, so the government deprives you of 50 years. The quantity of punishment relative to the 50 years of damage isn’t really relevant: the point is, there exists a “just” punishment for such a crime.

This is an interesting situation in and of itself, but I’m going to transform it into a money economy to keep on topic. So, an unfortunate side effect of this system is that people who are 99 years old can pretty much do whatever they want- the maximum punishment they can be dealt is 1 year. But now, lo and behold, they’ve invented an opposing radiation gun that extends the subject’s life a very precise amount of time.When you work, providing value to other people, they can extend your life based on the value you provided to them. Let’s say that you work as a politician, and you prevented a war, saving let’s say 1,000 lives of an average age of 50. In return for your efforts, you get 50,000 years of life in return. Basically, that gives you free license to kill 5,000 people and you’ll be back where you started, having a “net effect” of zero on the value present in the society. So the penalty is no longer truly just, because someone with 50,000 years of life has essentially nothing to lose. This is the analogue of having all punishments reduce to a simple fine, where there are millionaires in society.

Time and money are integrally related because time is the progenitor of value. Without time, there can be no value, good or bad. Without value, there can be no money. The problem with the current model behind value is that we’re dealing with money, time, and life like three separate and distinct substances. Those who say that theft of money is somehow more morally justifiable than theft of time are contradicting themselves. Let’s say that I bring my radiation gun back to the modern world and start zapping people with it, cutting their lifespans at my whim. Am I doing something fundamentally different than picking your pocket, if you were carrying everything of value to you? OK, what if I offer to increase your lifespan in return for money? How much do I charge, provided that I’m the only one with such a gun and it costs nothing to operate? Though these seem callous situations, the truth is that it’s a difficult issue to grapple with, so most people don’t try for fear of offending people’s sensibilities. I don’t care about your sensibilities, I care about humanity. So, despite the fact that you want to say “no, no, donate your magic radiation gun to charity and use it on everyone for free” you do have to face the thought experiment. How much is human time worth? And what is a life other than the sum total of someone’s human time? You’re willing to work for money, therefore your time has a monetary value. What is it?

A man walked up to a woman and asked her, “would you sleep with me for $1 billion?” The woman thought seriously about this for a second, figured he wasn’t that ugly, and said “Yes, I would sleep with you for $1 billion.” The man replied, “OK, would you sleep with me for $10?” The woman’s face turned red and she screamed “Of course not, what do you think I am, a whore?” The man said, “We’ve already established that, we’re just haggling over the price.”

So, for your day job, would you press a button over and over again, all day, every day, for $10 an hour? Probably not. $100 an hour? Most would. $1000? In an 8-hour work day that’s $8k a day, or $40k a five-day workweek. Times 52 weeks that’s $2,080,000. Over $2 million a year. Of course, I’d be a bit smarter and pay some schmuck $20 an hour to hit the button instead, but that’s just me. There exists some point at which you will accept the most boring job ever, where is it? Does it change the situation to get paid by button press? $1 per button press at 1 press per second is $60 per hour, and the harder you work the more you get paid. While we’re on buttons, how about this. What if you’re faced with a button, and you get paid $1000 for every time you hit it. However, there is also a one in a million chance that someone will die each time you hit the button. You’ll never know if someone actually died or not, but your expected value says you could hit that button 1 million times with reasonable certainty that you just killed someone (and pocketed $1 billion). One mind-trick you’ll need to mind regards the insignificance of very small probabilities. There is an illusion to thinking that because it’s a 1 in a million shot, you could hit the button a few times the event has an insignificant, or illusory zero, probability. Now, would you hit the button at $1 per hit, but certainly kill someone? Hopefully not. If so, let’s hope like hell you never work in a nuclear silo or a hobo with a bone to pick could bribe your sociopathic ass.

Now for the tough one. What if you are presented with a button that will give you $1,000, and the button is not labeled for the exact probability, but it does say that the likelihood is “very small” that someone will die. I am reluctant to add some sort of standard as to what “very small” means because then it’s easy- you just figure it’s as bad as it gets, but just to share my scale for what I think “very small” means, it means very, very unlikely, but not astronomically unlikely. Would you press the button for $1 million a hit?

Alright, so I think I have established the fact that life has a monetary value, and even though we can’t know precisely what it is, we can agree that it is very high. To provide a more fundy-friendly proof, aren’t there things a person would willingly give their life for? What if you offered someone the chance to give up their own life, offering them the chance to cause, as a direct result of their sacrifice, all the hungry and homeless children of the world to be fed, clothed, taken care of medically, etc. etc. If even that’s not enough, let’s say that there’s a universe full of people, trillions and trillions of people who you can save from suffering. There probably exists some number of people in some degree of suffering that you would be comfortable giving your life to stop. Sounds good, right?

I tricked you. You just made a human-life-to-monetary-value exchange. You just sacrificed a human life to accomplish something that could have been done with money exclusively, even if it took a trillion dollars. If you’re still not convinced that there exists some finite value to human life (so long as the life is of finite length, but that’s a different issue) then consider the alternative- you’re saying that your life is of infinite value. And presumably that everyone else’s life is infinitely valuable as well, otherwise you need to leave right now for a being a narcissistic, contradictory, braindead psycho. You can grab a beer with your sociopath pal who works in the missile silo. If that is your premise, then do you include animals in your definition? If “human life” is of infinite value, you must then define what exactly human life is, and where the cutoff between infinite value and non-infinite value lies. If you go so far as to say that all life is infinitely valuable, that each individual microbe is of infinite value, then macroscopic life as a whole is morally depraved. Our immune systems kill countless infinitely valuable microbes, just to sustain one creature’s life, and we may never be forgiven for our depravity because it is fundamental to our nature- we are colossal, fiendish, unstoppable microbe-killing machines. If you can accept that as a conclusion, congratulations! You are beyond help! You have transcended reality, and are destined to spend the rest of your days eking out a naked, parched and blistered desert living on shrooms and mud, but fortunately you will be so delusional by that point you’ll think you’re in Paradise.

Now that we’ve established that money–>value in the same way that time–>value and life–>value, we can move on. This post is getting lengthy so I’ll try to be quick. Basically, we have established that when you start dealing with large quantities of value the conventional models distinguishing different flavors of value don’t hold. However, we have not concluded that the fundamental laws of ethics do not hold for large quantities of value. At no point in this post am I claiming that, say, large oil companies are off the hook because they’re dealing with such a large amount of money. An economy, such as one of a large industrial nation, is a perfect case where we see a very large amount of value moving around on a daily basis. Now, is the disruption of an economy an ethically reprehensible act? Consider: we’ve established that a human life is worth a specific, very large amount of money. So isn’t the converse also true? That an astronomically large amount of money is equivalent to a human life?

I’m sensing that readers will be getting edgy again about this concept. It’s similar to the following case: you have to choose between a quadrillion people getting a dust speck in their eye, let’s say one second of moderate irritation, and one person being horribly tortured for fifty years. It seems like a tough question, but you need to join the crowd already building at the pub if you pick the dust motes. 1 quadrillion seconds is equivalent to 31 ,688, 764.6 years. That’s, I will rephrase, 31.69 million years. Now, that’s 633,775 times longer than the one man would be tortured- so the question is, is the torture more than 633,775 times worse than getting a dust speck in your eye (for each and every moment in the 50 years- we already allowed for time)? Probably not. That degree of difference is the difference between having your arm broken, and having your arm broken 633,775 times. That’s a massive difference. So let’s say a dollar buys a candy bar, which is the small amount of benefit- the dust mote. Is it better to buy a quadrillion candy bars for as many children, or to give life to one person who would otherwise die?

You will not find a stronger advocate for the individual than myself, but the ethical judgment of the individual should reflect the greater good. What do I mean by this? If I, as an individual, am called upon to decide: the quadrillion children’s candy bars, or the single person, I exercise my own ethical judgment and pick the children. There are many, many people who would like to trick you into thinking that the “greater good” implies doing what they tell you to, and that you should sacrifice so that everyone else might benefit. The truth is, when everyone sacrifices- usually in economic terms- everyone is worse off than before because everyone has sacrificed. That seems pretty obvious to me. However, when each individual is presented with a choice they find advantageous, and they take it, that’s to the benefit of one individual and therefore to the greater good in a small but oh-so-significant degree. I am now speaking of the meta-ethical level on top of an individual making ethical choices. Each person deciding on their own to subsume their own desires in the interest of the common good is an entirely different situation to where each is called upon to “sacrifice.” By definition, the greater good is the greatest good to the greatest number. Therefore, the greatest number should expect to see the greatest good if that is in fact the goal.

The illusion I am highlighting is this perception that “all of us are sacrificing for the greater good, but each of us is not in it.” This is the Democrat dark side in the same way that neoconservative fascism is the Republican dark side. We’re operating with a fundamentally polarized, false dichotomy. We’re missing something. That something is the simple fact that value is universal and that the only way anybody is going to see more of it is by going after it. Be an individual: be valuable, use rational ethics, and have the strength to follow them. You, yes you, are a part of that greatest number. You can expect to see that greatest good coming your way, but the only one who will guarantee it to you is yourself.


9 Responses to “Value: What is Money, Anyway?”

  1. Teste » Value: What is Money, Anyway? Says:

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  7. Assissotom Says:

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  8. Jim Says:

    Most people do not wonder what money really is.
    But while you’re right that money is precisely an abstraction and nothing else, it does not measure value; it measures power. One does not have to pay for valued things unless someone else (who owns them or provides them) prevents you, either directly or through inaction. Most people value sex and make an effort not to have to pay for it. One has difficulty deciding what the monetary value of a human life is because it is not clear what the context is; is one spending money to end a life or save it, and through whose efforts? Equal things have different monetary value to different people in different places, and it is because the monetary value is not intrinsic, it depends on the context in which one is willing to trade money (or something else) for it. Because money is an abstraction it permits us to believe, especially in successful economies, and often incorrectly, that it can measure intrinsic value.
    But while your purchasing power measures how much of the efforts the economy can be commanded to your will, and nothing else, almost all of the contradictions and unfairness in an economy can be attributed to the fact that money earned is not in proportion that it is actually deserved. The occupation of modern man is to seek more and more ways of accumulating money (read, power over those who foolishly work for their money!) without having to actually work for it. Indeed, money is such a successful abstraction that today, there exist robust industries in which neither the producers nor the consumers are willing participants, but the industry lives on: in many ways, auto manufacturers really are trying to reduce the impact of cars’ CO2 emissions, though they know as well as the drivers that the best thing to do is stop selling cars. But they need jobs so they can have money, and people need cars so they can have jobs so they can have money….
    Few realize that because money is an abstraction of power and not value, like political power it tends to accumulate in the hands of a few people. But unlike political power, economic power is soft. A few fat cats at the corporate board meeting are not the reason nothing changes about the biggest industries; instead it is our collective faith in currency and in the intrinsic worth of an interdependent global economy.

  9. Evan Jensen Says:

    Wow, thank you Jim. You are of course completely correct that money doesn’t truly reflect value directly, it is merely a reflection of value in the ability to overcome other peoples’ resistance. If something of value is in a state of nature you can just grab it.

    I had, however, never considered the fact that industry can actually exist independently of the will of the individuals that compose it by structuring incentives so that each person can justify it to themselves. I was aware of this process for governments, and also that a government is basically a company that can tell you what to do through the backing of armed force, so it’s not that big a leap. But it had just never occurred to me. So we have faith in currency and that causes our special breed of industrial inequality and woe… That’s very interesting. I will think on this for a while and perhaps write a post. Thank you very much.

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