88 Why do we love money?

Posted on April 7, 2012 by


It’s Easter time – it rains, drip drip drip, and the Easter bunny has knocked at the door begging for a place to stay out of the rain

We are debating whether to grant asylum to such a crowd of little tails. Will they integrate? Crowd us out?

Meanwhile, seasonal moralism flourishes, condemning “love of money”. So, as the rain falls, I mulled over the question: why do we love money? – and many other material things…

I’ve been drawn to musing about this also in response to the local second-hand Ferrari salesman. He is making a pitch to unload on me one of the many sports cars in his lot. Perusing his list I noticed an inverse relation between price and use. The more expensive the initial price, the lower the distance driven: these monsters are practically new after 4-6 years. Once bought, these high-end vehicles have gathered dust in the garage, only to be taken out occasionally, polished, lovingly tuned for maximum rumble of the exhaust pipes, and driven around the block – were one is assured of not hitting potholes deep enough to damage the car’s underside. Why buy such a toy, if one does not use it?

Fabulating from available evidence I’ll maintain that money is the ultimate enabler.

Economists, who firmly (i.e. religiously) believe in the “law of diminishing utility” squirm at the concept. It destroys their neatly circular model. Enablers destroy economists’ dream of a stable, steady state.

An enabler is “something that allows me to do something else”. A car enables me to be elsewhere – it has thus become essential. The Ferrari enables the driver to get the girl – or so the buyer thinks upon signing on the dotted line. Facebook enables participants to be there and elsewhere at the same time. Internet enables instantly to communicate half-way across the world. The gun is an enabler – so say Western movies. At the time of the Silk Roads silk enabled wearers to project power, or show their religious feelings. Most goods have some “enabling” component. The HERMES bag is handy, beautiful, and it conveys a satisfying image – it enables us to impress. The relative proportions vary according to context and moment.

Make a thought experiment: think of some objects and services you like and consciously try to untangle what it “enabling” and what is “utility”. You’ll be surprised how pervasive and important enabling is.

An enabler is “something that allows me to do something else”. One enabler has many uses, and as we apply it, we discover new uses. Sir Ken ROBINSON has established over 200 potential uses for a paper clip[1] – it’s his way of “measuring divergent thinking” – the ability to find unconventional solutions. That’s why we love “enablers” and can never have enough of them.

Money nowadays[2] is the ultimate enabler, or what James BUCHAN calls “frozen desire”[3]. Money is “generic” or if you wish, the “enabler of enablers”, a meta-enabler. Contrary to the screw-driver, which I keep because I know how to use it for, I hoard money even if I don’t know how I’ll use it. We hoard it “just in case”; so we save it “for a rainy day” – it will enable us to get out of a tight situation. I may add, tongue in cheek, that money is the “lazy man’s enabler”. She does not need to see the ultimate use in order to stockpile it – hence the ultimately wasteful uses money is put to, when the frenzy to transform enabling into act overcomes us.

Of course, there are also intangible and immaterial enablers – education, social relations, and, yes, religion. It enables people to “make sense” of life and death – no wonder people are absorbed by it. Akin to money, religion is “generic”: it allows people to make sense of their life, no matter what their station or situation.

Unsurprisingly, in many religions material and spiritual enablers were intimately intertwined in the past: giving money enabled the believer to accumulate religious merit (I’ll leave the reader to judge whether this is still so).

Enablers do not ensure outcome. Money does not ensure happiness – as any curmudgeon worth her salt will mutter. In economic parlance it is a “supply-side worldview”. “Supply side worldview” reigns, these days. One should not be surprised that we adore the ultimate enablers.

[2]           Economic historians and anthropologists quarrel over how money emerged. See: David GRAEBER (2012): Debt. The first 5000 years. Melville house Publishing, New York.

[3]              James BUCHAN (1997): Frozen desire. The meaning of money. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York.