Money is a strange thing. It is quite unlike any other “thing” that we know. Its value manifests itself only in a social context where we have pre-agreed conventions as to what it should be. In this sense, money is not a thing at all, but a meta-thing, which is why you are happy when your boss gives you a letter stating that you got a fat bonus even though you never actually see the physical thing. Well, if it is not physical, it is metaphysical, and we can certainly talk about the philosophy of money.
The first indication of the meta-ness of money comes from the fact that it has a value only when we assign it a value. It doesn’t possess an intrinsic value that, for instance, water does. If you are thirsty, you find that water has enormous intrinsic value. Of course, if you have money, you can buy water (or Perrier, if you want to be sophisticated), and quench your thirst.
But we may find ourselves in situations where we may not be able to buy things with money. Stranded in a desert, for instance, dying of thirst, we may not be able to buy water despite our sky-high credit limits or the hundreds of dollars we may have in our wallet. One reason for this inability of ours is obvious – we may be alone. The basic transactional value of money evaporates when we have nobody to transact with.
The second dimension of the meta-ness of money is economical. It is illustrated in the well-worn supply-and-demand principle, assuming transactional liquidity (which is a term I just cooked up to sound erudite, I confess). I mean to say, even if we have willing sellers of water in the desert, they may see that we are dying for it and jack up the price – just because we are willing and able to pay. This apparent ripping off on the part of the devious vendors of water (perfectly legal, by the way) is possible only if the commodity in question is in plentiful supply. We need commodity liquidity, as it were.
It is when the liquidity dries up that the fun begins. The last drop of water in a desert has infinite intrinsic value. This effect may look similar to the afore-mentioned supply-and-demand phenomenon, but it really is different. The intrinsic value dominates everything else, much like the strong force over short distances in particle physics. And this domination is the flipside of the law of diminishing marginal utility in economics.
The thing that looks a bit bizarre about money is that it seems to run counter to the law of diminishing marginal utility. The more money you have, the more you want it. Now, why is that? It is especially strange given its lack of intrinsic value. Great financial minds could not figure it out, but came up with pithy and memorable statements like, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” Although that particular genius was only fictional, he does epitomize much of the thinking in the modern corporate and financial world. Good or bad, let’s assume that greed is an essential part of human nature and look at what we can do with it. Note that I want to do something “with” it, not “about” it – an important distinction. I, intrepid columnist that I am, want to show you how to use other people’s greed to make more money.
Photo by 401(K) 2013