Friday, May 6, 2011

Of Clocks and Cash

Something that just recently occurred to me is the idea that money is to commerce as clocks are to time. Both were designed to serve as a unit of measure that all people everywhere could generally agree upon, they just measure two different concepts. Clocks measure the concept we call time; money measures the concept we call value. Clocks and money were originally important not because they possessed value in and of themselves (intrinsic worth) but because they empowered us to communicate with each other around abstract concepts using a common language, so we could reach a shared understanding (extrinsic worth).

Time is not a thing; it's an understanding about rate of change that is relative to humans, our sensory capacities and the planet on which we happen to reside. As things stand, we earthlings live on a planet that rotates on its own axis at a fairly steady and observable rate of change. Because we're a remarkably clever species, we've been able to devise a way to monitor that rate of change (based on our planet's relationship with the sun) and have divided the pace into bite-sized, standardized pieces we all call hours. We've also designed time pieces called clocks to enable us to swiftly compare and agree upon the time without each of us having to perform the tedious mathematical calculations that would be necessary if clocks did not exist. That makes life easier for everyone concerned.

Nowadays, if I say I'd like to meet you at four o'clock in the afternoon, we can both check an entirely different clock and still be relatively confident our meeting will go off as planned. If, however, I can't seem to find a clock as our meeting time grows near, I may have to scramble to discover the correct time or guess what time it is before I show up. If I guess wrong or lose track of the time altogether, our meeting may not happen and you'll go away disappointed. That doesn't mean I ran out of time, don't have any time left or didn't have enough time to begin with; it simply means I was careless about tracking our agreed upon unit of measure so I could be where I needed to be when I needed to be there.

Modern society has grasped the importance of everyone knowing exactly what time it is, so we've made it easy for people to access that information. Imagine though, if as part of our arrangement for the distribution of our personal time you demanded I hand over a clock to you to reward you for agreeing to meet me as I'd asked. What if you had to reward me with a working clock every time you asked me to meet you? Pretty soon people would be stressing mightily about whether or not a particular meeting was important enough to be worth the surrender of a valuable clock, and we'd all be running around bemoaning the fact that we didn't have enough "time" to go around! People would start to worry they wouldn't have enough "time" in the future to ensure they could set up all the important meetings they might need to have someday, so they'd start hiding spare clocks under their beds or storing them in vaults to keep them safe.

As more people hoarded more and more clocks, even as more and more people were born on this planet who would need to set meetings to accomplish their objectives, we'd start to realize that we couldn't possibly create and distribute enough clocks to make everyone happy. In fact, most of our efforts and attention would shift from taking care of ourselves and our planet to creating, distributing and hoarding more and more clocks. Eventually we'd have to begin to make "hard choices" about who was really worth meeting and who wasn't so important as to deserve a valuable clock. Businesses and communities would surely suffer, because it would be difficult for us to come together around new ideas when we couldn't be sure the idea would amount to anything important. Why run the risk of surrendering a perfectly good clock on something that might not prove to be worth our time? Only those things that contributed to the production of clocks would get done, and all the rest of our needs would begin to suffer. Personal communications would lapse and relationships would lose their closeness and trust. In fact, the world would likely become a very difficult place for us to effectively navigate. Life would seem fraught with problems and obstacles, and we'd all become very suspicious and stingy around anything relating to someone trying to convince us we needed their time in exchange for a clock.

Luckily, we don't require each other to give away clocks in exchange for the gift of our time. I know that if I freely agree to meet with you because you have something important you need me to do - or simply because you want to relax and pal around for a while - that when the time comes and I need you (or somebody else) to meet with me because it's important to me, I can count on you (or somebody else) to be there - in time - for me. This understanding doesn't only relate to close family members or friends. Perfect strangers often agree to give us some of their time, because that's the way we've all agreed to socially manage time. I don't bother to keep a time card around how many hours I gave you versus how many you gave me, nor do we ever "settle up" with each other, because tomorrow we'll both have more time to pass around. So far as we're concerned it really doesn't matter who gave how much time to whom or who asked for the time and who agreed to give it, so long as all of us get all the time we truly need from one another. In fact, what I frequently find is that if I give my time to you I always benefit from that exchange, because I get to feel needed, appreciated and loved.

So much for how we measure and distribute the concept we call time. When we consider the way we measure and distribute the concept of value however, we notice an entirely different picture begins to form. Like time, value is not a thing; it's a conceptual understanding. Money, just like clocks, was originally conceived as a method to standardize how we measure the value of different objects or types of labor we wished to exchange. Its purpose was to enable us to communicate effectively when we traded our labor and the fruits thereof with each other. Money thus has become the universal language of value, the same way our clocks establish the language of time. Long before we invented cars and planes, before we discovered electricity and oil, before we realized we could harness the power of the sun - back indeed, to when human labor was the primary form of energy being used to produce goods and services - we imagined that measuring the amount of value moving around our system would enable us to make certain everyone was contributing to the economy by putting in as much as they were consuming.

A host of problems have arisen out of our attempts to measure value as compared with time, and even more arise when we insist on inputting into the economic system a tangible form of measure (money) whenever anyone extracts anything of value from that system (goods or services.) The main difficulty with applying this exchange concept to value is that it presumes the net value of everything we're collectively creating and consuming equates to a zero sum game. Money goes into the system from us when we consume value; money comes out of the system to us when we create value. Put another way, people collectively inject their labor, creativity and knowledge into the economic system; people then extract all the goods and services being provided.

Theoretically at least, if those items and values were well matched, our economy would work just fine. Unfortunately though, the zero-sum equation presumes that collectively we have a finite amount of available resources, a finite amount of human creativity and a matching pool of available human labor. It further assumes we can calculate how much money all of it is collectively worth and place precisely that amount - and not one penny more - into circulation to move things around and satisfy everyone's needs. But because it's untrue (and we know it's untrue!) we wind up with either inflation or deflation. Since what we create, produce, have learned and can do has expanded exponentially over time, we're always needing to inject more and more cash into the economic system to "monetize" the growing amount of energy, productivity and creative capacity that is coming online every year. When we do that, businesses automatically raise their prices to capture more profits for themselves. Because the cost to us of extracting things of value from the system typically rises much faster than do payments for value injected (in a post-industrial world we collectively have more labor hours to sell than businesses need, so the competition for jobs drives wages lower) people cease taking goods and services out of the system, which means money stops flowing into the system and production grinds to a halt. That leads to recession, which in turn forces businesses to lower their prices to induce people to extract goods and services from the production side again, until the system resets itself once more.

If we could "fix" prices and at least stabilize the equation that way, perhaps we could get a handle on the variable labor problem. Unfortunately, that notion presumes we've come up with a universally objective and agreed-upon way to measure and fix the value of goods and services, but we haven't. That's because the value of things isn't at all objective, it's highly subjective. Unlike time, where anyone can check another clock if they don't believe theirs is telling them the truth, we have no objective means of confirming prices or the cost of specialized services. If I tell you the new house I'm selling will cost you three hundred thousand dollars, it doesn't really matter how much genuine value I've invested in its construction. All that matters is whether or not I can convince you to buy the house, based on how badly you need it. Likewise, if I tell you the surgery you need will cost you twenty-five thousand dollars, you're really in no position to challenge the price. You can complain, but you can't demand I do it more cheaply because you don't really know how much value it offers.

The trouble with attributing value to goods and services is that - unlike time, which we can agree upon - value is always a highly subjective experience. Despite that, the system of measure we're using presumes we can objectively compare the value of say, an orange versus a hammer. The thing is, if I'm starving, that orange may well be priceless to me while the hammer is relatively useless. Alternatively, if I need to build a shed, the hammer becomes invaluable while the orange is but a distraction. Ditto our attempts to compare a surgeon with a plumber, and to declare one generally "worth" more than the other. Taken even further - in a society that assigns positive value to contributions and negative value to extractions from the system - children, the infirm and the elderly become financial liabilities, while hearty adults are viewed as financial assets. Unfortunately for humanity, these mechanical measures of value fail to take into account the organic ebbs and flows of life we all experience at one time or another. They also fail to account for the fact that although in a given moment a child may be extracting food, water, shelter and education from the system, that child is, at the same time, adding all that to improve herself, thus improving her capacity to contribute more in the future. The education being "consumed" and thus being charged as a negative value is not lost; it's creating value-added for the whole! Nor is the food being consumed (and thus charged for) lost forever; those calories are supporting the physical growth and nutritional strength of a living human being who will, in turn, provide major value-added to the whole, if given the chance.

In truth, the wiser we become as a species, the better we're getting at figuring out how to accomplish more using fewer manpower hours, as well as how to live and work more sustainably so we don't use up all of our natural resources. We also know that our human population has exploded exponentially, that people are living longer, are generally healthier than ever, and that new babies are being born on Earth every day, so it looks like there's going to be more manpower, creativity, intelligence, knowledge, wisdom, passion, talent and skill to go around tomorrow than was available to us collectively yesterday. We've also invented machines and developed technologies to increase our productivity even more. All this means less and less human energy needs to go into our system to produce all the goods and services that are coming out of it - even though more humans and hours are now available to inject into the system. These factors completely upend the balance of the zero-sum equation. Ironically, they create excessive abundance that most of us can't afford, because what we're aiming (and failing) to do is force the system into flat mechanical balance: a specific amount of human labor goes into the economy and receives in exchange a set amount of monetary wages; then products and services come out in sufficient quantity to absorb all those wages back into the economic system, so they can go back out as wages all over again. None of this, of course, concerns itself with how fairly those wages are being distributed across a living population with very real needs, nor does it take into account the amount of hoarding that occurs, which siphons money out of the equation all the time.

Unlike time, for which we have an agreed upon system of measure yet are willing to exchange it freely with each other, we refuse to freely exchange the things we create. Instead of accounting for the overall energy flow taking place in our economy so we can observe and track the net value we're collectively creating, we're demanding that each individual on the receiving end of every value transaction provide the giver with a physical representation of the value received to prove to the world the transaction has occurred. We've thus turned money, a conceptual unit of measure, into something to be valued all by itself, and out of that one simple choice we've created for ourselves all kinds of planetary hurt and human suffering.

The same problems that would besiege us if we were required to give away clocks in exchange for someone else's time now besiege us around the exchange of money for value. Because we never seem to have enough money in circulation to match all the human energy, ingenuity, creative capacity and wisdom out there - ready, willing and hungry to be exchanged - we now find ourselves wringing our hands over how many things we ought to be doing but simply "can't afford." We're being called upon by our politicians and corporations today to make "hard" choices, to sacrifice benefits and wages that would offer us better lives, to forgo better educational processes and schools for our children, to forget about building (and repairing) quality infrastructure for the benefit of our society, to forgo nicer parks, well maintained roads, social services, elder care, medical and nutritional support, quality housing for all people, healthy food, clean water and air, renewable energy systems and so forth. We've all been born into and have bought into this longstanding culture of lack, even though it only exists because we don't have enough money in circulation to ensure all the things that truly need doing get done.

It's not that we don't have enough value to achieve whatever we want, it's that the units we use to measure that value have been systematically hoarded by a few individuals. That gives those who hold the most hoarded units unbelievable personal power - they can wave those monetary units around and everyone else will jump through hoops to serve their every need, so as to accumulate more units for themselves. The wealthy can also direct the flow and consumption of limited resources in ways that suit their agendas, which usually revolve around earning them even more money. They can determine what goods will be produced, in what quantity they will be produced, and how much (or little) the rest of us will earn while doing that work at the behest of the wealthy. They can tell us what we can and can't own or have based on the number of monetary units we've managed to store for ourselves, and they can deny us life's necessities if we fail to accumulate enough of those units to satisfy them. The more time that passes under this system, the more everything that doesn't have to do with the production of ever more money slows down or stops. So many of us are myopically focused on making more money so we can buy the things we're producing that we don't have enough time to focus on producing the things we need to thrive as a species! Our modern lives, it seems, are so highly stressed and revolve around lack and struggle not because we don't have enough value in the world to go around or enough creative energy to exchange with one another, but because all our human labor and creative energy is jammed up in the bottleneck being created by this highly controlled exchange of money for "value."

Throw away clocks and we'll still have plenty of time to go around. We wouldn't suddenly all decide we'd rather sit at home forever, or grow unwilling to go anywhere or meet anyone else. We don't need to know what time it is to still desire companionship, connections, relationships and the chance to meet new and interesting people. Likewise, throw away money and we'll still have plenty of value to go around. We wouldn't suddenly stop taking care of our own basic needs or stop working to meet the pressing needs of other human bengs (or of this planet) simply because we no longer assigned an arbitrary monetary value to the work we were doing. In fact, throw away money and we'd stop doing things that weren't important to us, or that were causing serious harm to life and the planet. Much of that work is presently being done simply so someone can accumulate lots of dollars, not because it's helpful or good for us all. Eliminate the value distortion created by money and at last we'd be able to see that the so-called value much of our work is providing doesn't outweigh the damage it is causing. This make-work (work done for the benefit of the wealthy to generate more profits) would vanish, and real work (the work humanity really wants done and needs to do for its own sake) would take its place.

Just think about that for a moment, and you'll realize that freedom would suddenly break out all over our planet! All the laid off school teachers, along with those who can't get hired because there's no money to pay their wages, would be able to live out their passions and help all children learn. We might see student/teacher ratios as low as five to one, enabling teachers to work with students individually and nurture their personal passions, skills and talents. Firefighters, policemen, construction workers and engineers could all go back to work. We could build adequate housing for everyone in the world, in ways best suited to their local climates and using local materials to make them more sustainable over time. We could design renewable resource technologies, and everyone could have access to the free energy such technologies would provide. We could restructure our manufacturing systems so that waste, planned obsolescence and throwaway products are no longer manufactured, because our focus will have shifted to producing genuine value - not paper profits - for the sake of the world. Last but not least, we could learn once again to trust each other, to give and share and support and nurture each other and our home planet, because the question we presently ask ourselves before today we do anything in exchange for value: "What's in it for me?" would gradually shift to, "How will my effort (or my consumption) add greater value to myself, to humanity, to our community and to our living world?"

The fact is, there is no shortage of genuine value, no shortage of natural resources (when they're distributed fairly, used intelligently and not exploited wastefully) no shortage of human creativity, labor or innate drive to achieve. We already have within us and all around us all the value we need to accomplish everything we need to do for humanity and our planetary system to thrive, if we relinquish the power money holds to prod us into working...or to hold us back from doing the things that need done.

No comments:

Post a Comment