How Much Money?

Here’s a thought for you: gold is essentially worthless.

The Indians reportedly called gold that yellow rock that white people like so much. Gold does have its uses. It would be good on my flute because it doesn’t tarnish. It makes nice jewelry, if you care about such things. It has certain unique uses in electronics and science. But that’s it. Not much to recommend it, overall.

We consider gold valuable, but is it actually valuable to us, or merely costly? The things that are the most valuable to us have nothing to do with their market price. And we all know what those things are, because they are clichés. Love, friendship, health, leisure, family, loyalty, community, honor, dignity… They cannot be quantified and have no market value.

Gold is essentially worthless.

A true story I read some time ago: A Wall Street bankster, who had a loving wife and daughter, had devoted all his time to making more and more money. Unexpectedly, he was diagnosed with a fatal cancer, and he suddenly realized that he had wasted his life. He sank into a depression and died deeply regretting all the useless extra money he had earned while his family was home without him. A literal case of the old saying that nobody dies wishing they had spent more time at the office.

Besides gold, money has limited utility too. Beyond a level adequate to provide for life’s basics, including such things as health care and old age savings, additional money is only marginally useful in terms of happiness. This has been confirmed a number of times. You’d never know that by looking at all the Americans who define themselves by what they own.

America from the beginning
was known primarily for avarice.

Remember that scathing dictum about someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. I once knew a person like that. Such a person is one who sees everything and everyone as equivalent to a quantity of cash, not as valuable in themselves. To such a person, friendship is useless if it doesn’t “pay”, if there isn’t some way for him to literally profit from it.

America from the beginning was known primarily for avarice. Alexis de Tocqueville remarked extensively on this trait in the 19th century, and so have many others. In America, it is nearly impossible for government to do something for the sole reason that it would be the right thing to do, unless profit is involved. In many other countries, it would be difficult to pass a law if it was not the right thing to do.

The US is an amazing place in so many ways, but I wish the primary requirement for any law would be that it helps people, and does not hurt them. We have many laws that are passed because of other requirements—most of them having to do with money—but they too often end up hurting people even as they benefit Big Business. This is why we have record inequality and many millions of citizens with no health care or retirement savings. Making laws for the sake of money has hurt all these people.

I wish the primary requirement for any law
would be that it helps people,
and does not hurt them.

So when we try to evaluate our national wellbeing, we should not look to gold, or its dollar equivalent, to find its measure. What makes the good life is not money. Everyone needs income a bit above the amount needed to buy essentials, including health care and provision for old age. That’s not a lot. The measure of our true wealth comes not from the extra money we have to buy “stuff”. Our true wealth comes from the things that have been in constant decline for far too many people. Community, family, love, diversity, music, food, and all the rest.

The Dow and the national debt don’t even enter the picture. The price of gold is irrelevant.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good one – too bad more people have not figured this out – greed for the sake of greed –

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  2. Hello John. Well, I have some issues with your comments. I could start with some of my snappy phrases, such as “The only thing money can’t buy is poverty”, or “The best things in life are free, but so are the worst things.”

    But there are several concerns. First, the statement that gold has no intrinsic value makes me do a double-take in light of what is being done to our paper currency nowadays. As Dr. Carson said, if you slap a buck down every second it will take 507,000 years to pay off the current national debt, if only the national debt would hold still. Meanwhile, the same amount of gold will buy the same amount of goods as it did 100 years ago. So gold appears to be an intrinsic store of value.

    Another problem is that The People believe they have a moral right to free health care. Many will say it isn’t free because everyone is paying for insurance or at least having it paid for them. But it should be obvious to most people that the money being set aside for health care is not going to be enough to pay for it. The solution is to make the health care industry work more for less money which is basically partial slavery.

    I also take issue with complaints about people with no retirement savings. I was disciplined all my life, including when I made $8 per hour. I didn’t squander money like so many people have, so I take issue with people who think I should finance other people in their old age. The purpose of accumulating assets is not lay on your deathbed and regret the time you lost with your family. It is to lay on your deathbed and be satisfied knowing that your family will be provided for in a world where the government is probably not going be able to do it.

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    • Really? You have issues? Well!

      I liked your snappy phrases. Well, I’m glad you enjoyed my little semi-joke about gold. I guess my point about all this is an ancient one, that money isn’t everything. But then, we didn’t need the studies that have proven it, because we already knew that.

      Interesting point about gold buying the same goods as a century ago. But that’s not because gold is intrinsically valuable. It’s valuable only because it’s scarce, and we agree to assign high value to it. If gold moved up to the rank of scarcity where magnesium sits, sixth from the top instead of sixth from the bottom, its value would plummet.

      As for The People believing they have a “right” to health care and security in old age, that’s not quite the way I view it. I believe that, in the richest nation the world has ever known, it ought to be possible for everyone who works full time to gain the minimal blessings of their labor that a democracy should provide, including health care and retirement savings. I’m probably less strict than you in believing they should save on their own for old age–when minimum wage won’t even pay the rent anywhere in the country–because even people who make a lot more don’t have your discipline.

      The standard Republican belief is that a large percentage of the country are poor simply because they are lazy. Some are, of course, but I haven’t seen any actual evidence that this is common. Most people work hard to afford what they believe are the important things. But some people are born into conditions that stifle them, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Others are born into an affluence that allows them to buy good schooling and all the other things that money can buy, which supports success in succeeding generations as well. I believe very strongly that an increasing part of the population is underpaid to the point that they cannot afford to pay for even a very modest life, which is something that also echoes for generations. We agree that building your savings protects your family should you die. The trouble is that doing so requires a living wage, which the poor don’t get. If you don’t earn a living wage, there’s no way you can save adequately, pay for health care, or much of anything else.

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      • So we agree that gold is simply a medium of exchange for one’s wealth or labors, and it is simply used because there isn’t a lot of it. If potatoes were rare we could use those.

        The standard Democratic belief is that a person should be able to afford a place to live on minimum wage. If you are making minimum wage, you shouldn’t even be thinking about renting a place on your own. You should be living with at least one more person, preferably several. Responsible people are dismayed because the government is Hell-bent on expanding the welfare class which provides a disincentive to become a productive member of society. Welfare provides a better income than many unskilled jobs.

        Yes, a significant part of the population is not making much. This is largely due to the globalization I have been talking about for the last 40 years. It’s not a good thing and there is nothing we can do about it.

        You can’t push a string. You can’t decree that everyone in America should have a comfortable lifestyle. They tried that in Spain and the result is perpetual 25% unemployment and kids living with their parents for life.

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      • Potatoes, eh? I kind of like the idea, but they’ll get mushy.

        I disagree that the goal is to live on minimum wage. The goal I support is Living Wage, not a “comfortable lifestyle”, and I certainly don’t think a comfortable lifestyle can be decreed. Living Wage means being able to pay for essentials with one’s labor. We undervalue ordinary work by a whole lot, which is the main reason the poor are in such trouble.

        I think we probably disagree most on the role of government in improving and protecting the lives of the poor. I’m sure you agree that there are unfortunate people with illnesses, etc. whom we have a moral duty to protect. The important ones are able-bodied people who want to work, and they are getting the shaft.

        Yes, I’ve been talking about globalization for 40 years as well, but I think there are a few things we could be doing that would improve the situation. First, third world countries should not be able to get away with worker and environmental exploitation. We’re improving there. But then business usually just moves on to cheaper places where workers can be exploited more and there is worse environmental abuse. The most powerful protections against the flaws of capitalism I’ve learned about are unions and worker-owned businesses. Unions are in eclipse, but worker ownership is powerful and growing. In some cases, better accounting for things like environmental and transportation costs gives a truer picture of the actual expense of manufactured items. When that happens US manufacturers have an improved shot at competing. However, you are right that it’s a force largely out of our hands. It’s hard to fight it, but you may be able to sidestep to your benefit.

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      • Minimum wage, living wage. Maybe the real problem is there are just too many people available to do simple work, and too many people for complex work too at this point. Like everything else, labor sinks to the lowest common denominator. People earning minimum wage should be living with their parents, but I know adults also earn minimum wage. Paying teenagers a Living Wage would not work either. It will simply result in mass unemployment for teenagers (and adults who have not progressed beyond minimum wage jobs).

        Unions in the private sector have been made moot by globalization. A good example is the high-rise building manufacturer who closed because the Koreans could construct a high-rise in Korea and then take it down and ship it here and put it back up, cheaper than the domestic company could just make it here. It is mostly not possible to force a decent level of working conditions on the governments of other nations. Companies who would like to provide a living wage for workers lose business to companies who have a disregard for their employees.

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      • In Australia, which has had living wage laws for a century, only dependent teenagers earn what we call minimum wage. Once they are out of school, they earn an actual wage. The beginning Living Wage in Australia is in the range of $15. One can survive on that, but it takes several such incomes to afford things like a house, insurance, and savings. And that is what people do, as you mentioned. In many parts of the world, wealth is family wealth, not individual wealth. That includes the Middle East and most Asian countries. Chinese families in SF all worked and pooled to buy a building with several units, which, decades later, have become valuable.

        It is not possible to force decent living conditions on foreign businesses, but it is possible to force them to observe their own laws. Alas, we rarely consider such humanistic considerations in our purchases. But there have been exceptions. Americans have been outraged to read about conditions in some Asian factories, who made things for Apple and Nike, for example. And they changed.

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