18 April 2020

Misuse of money

Rhetorically and generally, money is regarded as a rationing system for value.

(value is the ratio between benefit and cost.)

As this rationing system for value -- having a finite amount of money compels you to decide your preferences as a means of spending yourself into the position which best approximates those preferences, given the amount of money which you have, and thus theoretically providing everyone with the closest approximation of their desires possible -- money is defined as a means of exchange and store of value, and if you're lucky the definition will point out that the value arises from the exchange and the exchange is possible because of the value.  Exchange and store of value are not separate properties, the exchange creates the value and the value enables the exchange, you can't pry these two things apart and still have money.

Once you've got money -- your culture has produced the minimum requirements of a sovereign state and sufficiently general organization to sustain the systemic mechanisms necessary to money, including but not limited to compelling sufficiently accurate bookkeeping that the haves don't regularly rob each other -- you find out that value is temporally distributed; you've got fast (I need to buy lunch), medium (I need to buy a house), and slow (I need to buy a transportation infrastructure) and wind up with systemic support for the temporal distribution.  That's everything from credit (I can use my medium asset (a house) as the basis for credit that lets me spend on a fast need (lunch)) to bonds (can't pay for the transportation infrastructure out of immediate income, so I need a mechanism everyone recognizes as able to accumulate sufficient money to match the value) to heritable land tenure (there's a great deal of selection pressure attached to conserving slow assets).

Then you get an emergent property; the slower the money is, the more resilient it is.  (Lunch is ephemeral; houses are generational, with maintenance; the transportation system is an eternal necessity whether we're talking about moving flint around on donkeys or standard containers via an integrated global shipping network.)  That turns into selection pressure to move effort -- the daily production of benefit through work that creates the possibility of value -- into slower time.  It starts to serve the abstraction.

Which is in principle fine; you get a society and civilization that way, the basic tradeoff between immediate direct reward and eventual indirect reward that defines civilization.

Except that the slow stuff has preferences; it wants things to be predictable over long spans of time.  It really doesn't believe in the possibility of surprise.  (Think about how a canal owner felt about railroads.  If you believed in surprise, you wouldn't try to create slow money assets.)  It's a system and associated institutions; it gets predictable by controlling access to slower money.  (Which it can do because it is the slower money.)

So if you want to go from fast to medium, you need a credit rating.  You get a credit rating by doing certain things, mostly (in Anglo NorAm) by buying a car and a house and carrying debt.  Once you're carrying debt, your behaviour is fairly sharply constrained; you have to keep your job.  You then have to devote a lot of your time to commuting, and thus to buying fuel.   You get additional parasite layers -- the Home Owner's Association, there to make the credit rating seem trivial -- but the core point is that the slower money gets to say how you can slow your faster money down.

The thing that has emerged in the last forty years is the outright setting of prices; Amazon's core business model is to be the thing that sets prices, for example.  The profitability of pharma companies derives from using the patent system to set prices; if you want to live, you have to find at least this much money.  (Noting that the patent system is being gamed is missing the point; the point is that the enforcement arm of civilization, the state monopoly on force, has been co-opted to enforce profits for the folks holding slow money.  And to transfer slow assets to well-connected individuals.)

So what you get in late capitalism is a situation where money is used not to ration value (something it as a mechanism actually does do pretty well) but to ration agency.  "You can only make these choices" (if you want to participate in the economy, if you want any  nice stuff, if you want any vague semblance of personal material security...).

Of course someone invents a religion to explain why this is just and good; if people think they're being enriched, they'll come up with a set of morals to explain why god wants this to happen.  And the folks getting access to the inflated supply of slow money are absolutely certain they're being enriched.  (If you're a billionaire, pretty much all the necessities of life are functionally free.  You lose your sense of value pretty comprehensively on the available examples.)

Put this against a time of pandemic, and you get the uncomfortable realization that the system as enacted -- the thing that exists to constrain agency to guarantee that the fast money turns into slow money under its control to the greatest possible extent -- simply hasn't got any way to not kill people.  It can't want that; it has no mechanism to observe value, because it broke the utility of money.

Which (I think) renders the political choices before us simple, stark, and urgent.


Anonymous said...

I think you understate the degree to which pharma profitability is illusory, an artifact of lots of dumb money being destroyed through writedowns and M&A activity that are treated as "one-time items" and thus don't enter into capital's expectations of future returns.

Graydon said...

+Anonymous I would advance the example of the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, and how it presently looks likely they will indeed get to keep the great majority of the loot.

That is, they successfully moved a lot of money out of fast time -- regularly circulating to pay for immediate needs) into slow time -- non-circulating capital supporting "family wealth" (= status as aristocrats). Didn't work for Martin Shkreli, what with not being an aristo to start with. But then again none of Shkreli's victims got refunds, either.

The process doesn't have to be efficient to be selected for; it just has to increase the rate at which money moves from fast time to slow for the particular aristo making the decisions.

Peter T said...

I like the framing. I would put it a bit differently. Money in its origin and current operation is an accounting system for debt (a claim on current and future production). It's not strictly necessary for civilisation - the first ones ran for a millenium or more accounting for various commodities and labour under separate headings. Nor is it necessary for large-scale infrastructure - I have walked stone paths in the Himalayas which form a network covering thousands of kilometres, complete with small bridges, porter rests, marker cairns and so on. Just built up over centuries by cooperative effort. There are plenty of terrace and irrigation systems on the same lines.

The largest part of our production is done under either informal accounting (think families, not-for-profits and local coops), or assigned money prices (corporations, governments) which bear no direct relation to value judgments.

The short-medium-long distinction usefully points to the advantage long-term claims have over short-term ones, and hence their tendency to accumulate. To the ultimate detriment of the system as a whole. A good example is British land-ownership, where primogeniture and entail led to 90 per cent of the country in the hands of around 7,000 families.