Money Is A Shared Delusion: Why How We Think About Money Matters

MD: Quickly scanning this article it appears this writer does not get it. Let’s dissect it and see.

https://explorewhatworks.com/money-shared-delusion-why-how-we-think-about-money-matters/Money Is A Shared Delusion: Why How We Think About Money Matters

Feb 10, 2022 | Mindset & Identity, Money & Life, Productivity

Tara McMullin is a writer, podcaster, and producer who explores what it takes to navigate the 21st-century economy with your humanity intact. Click here to support this work.

“Time is money.”

MD: A common provocative phrase. Money is an “in-process promise to complete a trade over time and space.” Well, substituting this provable definition for the “money” in the phrase, we essentially get “time is an in-process promise”. Obviously, it is not. Rather it is a fourth dimension defining “when” something is located “where.” Further we know that money is “always and only created by traders like you and me.” Well, you and I don’t create time. So how can time be money. The real principle is the “time value of money”. Does money today have a different value than money last year…or money a year from now. The simple answer: In a “real money process”, the value of money never changes…not over time…not over space. Thus, we can’t say it has time value.

It’s a phrase you’ve heard before. And probably a phrase you’ve accepted as truth. And it’s certainly true that there are plenty of ways that time and money relate to each other.

But a few months ago, I started to wonder: Is time really money? And if not, how does that change the way I think about my time and my money?

MD: Shouldn’t you begin by defining both “time” and “money”?

Today begins a series exploring those questions. I’ll tackle them from different angles and different aspects of entrepreneurship so that we can make more intentional decisions about how we spend our time and our money.

MD: How we “spend” our time and our money? That’s like “making more intentional decisions about how we trade.” There are only two ways: (1) Simple barter exchange in the here and now. (2) Exchange spanning time and space.”

First, a little context.

“Remember, time is money” is a line from Benjamin Franklin’s 1748 essay, “Advice to a Young Tradesman.” He encourages the reader to consider the money they might spend if they take a day off, as well as the money they’d lose for not working. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been running that calculation on repeat since I was sixteen years old! At least in the US, it seems we’re born with this idea already encoded into our brains.

MD: This is kind of a false choice. When you’re working, you’re in the process of making a trade. Not all work results in useful gain. Further, when you’re idle you’re in the process of doing something besides trading your “time and effort” for something. “Rest” is just such a thing…and if you don’t make that trade regularly you will die of exhaustion. Regardless, this has nothing to do with money.

Max Weber cites this aphorism repeatedly in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. He sees it as a sort of semiotic turning point—a shift from the godly ethic of vocation to the secular ethic of capitalism. And remember, this phrase dates back to at least 1748. That’s 274 years of cultural indoctrination to this idea.

Now, if all of that sounds like I’m firmly against considering time as money (or money as time), I’m not. But I do think it’s an incredibly complicated truism that’s worth interrogating instead of merely accepting as immutable.

To kick off this deep dive into the question of whether time is actually money, I wanted to talk about money. And what money actually is, how we think about it, why the way we think about money matters. So I called up Paco de Leon, who just released a fantastic new book called, Finance For The People. She’s also the founder of The Hell Yeah Bookkeeping, which serves production companies and creative agencies. Paco knows more than a thing or two about money. But I wanted to start with the basics:

https://bookshop.org/widgets/book/book_featured/17354/9780143136255


This article is also available as Episode 382 of What Works.
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MD: Well, let’s see if Paco does indeed know a thing or two about money.

What is money?

At its most fundamental level, Paco told me, “Money is a shared delusion.” Money is valuable because we believe it’s valuable, not because it has inherent worth. If you’ve ever heard the term “fiat currency,” this is what it refers to: money that’s based on an agreement rather than an intrinsic value.

MD: Does a promise have value? Yes…of course it does. We value promises continually throughout our lives. And some promises we come to “not” value…because we know they won’t be kept. But knowing “all” promises creating money “will” be kept, either by the creator of the promise (and thus the money), or by the process that “guarantees” that the promise is delivered…and thus has value.

How is this guarantee accomplished? Well, it’s a lot like “casualty insurance”. You can send a ship of goods half way around the word. You can buy an insurance policy to guarantee “you” get paid for those goods and your ship returns. This is called a “PREMIUM”. And if your ship doesn’t return, you make “CLAIM” on the insurance provider. And in the insurance business, the operative relation is: PREMIUMS = CLAIMS. The money is made on the “investment income” from the PREMIUMS.

The operative relation for money is INFLATION = DEFAULT-INTEREST =zero. If the promise is not delivered, that is DEFAULT. Mitigating DEFAULTs with immediate INTEREST collections of like amount “guarantees” zero INFLATION. The crucial issue is “how” do you collect INTEREST and who do you collect it from?

That answer is you put the INTEREST load on irresponsible traders who have a non-zero propensity to DEFAULT. This is the same as the actuarial process of insurance: those who have the most CLAIMs pay the HIGHEST premiums.

About 10 or 11 years ago, I went to a lecture on money & meaning at my alma mater. Yes, I am that kind of nerd. That was the first time I was introduced to this idea—this fact, really. Money becomes valuable because you and I (and millions of other people) believe it is valuable. We believe it strongly enough to use money as a means of exchange and pay taxes and wages. The government incentivizes us to believe that—but ultimately, without the trust of US consumers, the dollar just wouldn’t be as valuable.

MD: So the lecture didn’t tell you that government is a dead-beat trader? If someone repeatedly lies to you, does that incentivize you to believe them? Of course not. You are admitting…you are deluded by government. A “real” money process gives money value buy guaranteeing the completion of a trading promise spanning time and space. It doesn’t require government. In fact, government behavior precludes it from creating money…i.e. a promise it is known never to deliver…but rather to just roll over with a new promise…to deliver on a failed promise with a new promise, also guaranteed to fail.

Further, this lecturer explained money exists to make exchanging goods—buying and selling—easier. Instead of every trade being a negotiation of how many eggs are worth a pound of wheat, we can assign a monetary value to each product and then independently decide whether we want to trade our money for the eggs or the wheat or a new phone.

MD: The common unit of measure is only part of the story. Our current money process gives a name to a certain amount of gold and/or silver. That name is the “dollar”. It assumes that the value of gold and silver never changes. That assumption is a delusion. If they had chose the name HUL (standing for Hours of Unskilled Labor), that would have been better. A HUL trades for the same size hold in the ground over all time.

We’re seeing this play out in real-time right now with cryptocurrency, my current research obsession. What do people believe bitcoin or ether is worth? And how does that value fluctuate based on the number of people who believe in its value? How is a quote-unquote currency impacted if few sellers accept it as payment from buyers? If you’re curious about how this “money is a shared delusion” thing plays out practically, learn about crypto and all the wild things happening in that market. (Hint: it’s not great.)

MD: Crypto (specifically Bitcoin) claims a solution to the “byzantine general’s problem”. Basically it tries to guarantee truth. It does this with a concept it calls “proof of work” and therefore proof of value. It’s another delusion. You don’t create value by digging a hole and then filling it in again. But you do expend work. A real money process makes no claims whatever about the value of the “promise” (i.e. money). It just guarantees that is ultimately delivered on…and destroyed. In the interim it trades as the most common object in simple barter exchange.

Back to the kind of money we have a stable agreement about. It can be hard to integrate the idea that money is a shared delusion because it’s so integral to the way we navigate the world. Our survival, in many ways, depends on how we earn and spend money. Paco was fascinated with that duality; money is both imaginary and key to our contemporary existence. She said, “Once we start to examine what [money] is at its core, we can start to ourselves, ‘If this thing is based on belief, well, how else is the way I interact with it based on beliefs?’”

MD: Do you describe “insurance” as a “shared delusion”…because it’s so integral to the way we make promises? Our survival depends on being of value. And that means trading our time for sustenance. Paco evidently failed in her examination of what [money] is at its core. You plant seeds with the belief that they will grow into a plant that you can eat. If you have a brown thumb like I have, you don’t believe it. But you can see skilled farmers making things grow. For me, I choose not to trade my time in planting. Rather, I trade it for something the farmer wants…and I trade that for the fruits of “his” planting. Don’t make this more complicated than it is.

What we believe about money impacts how we interact with it.

It’s the reason you and I can make drastically different money decisions, and they’re still the right decisions for us. Money isn’t an immutable, universal Truth—but a fluid, relative representation of value, which is always individual. What I value is not what you value. What you value is not what I value. What we each value will be decided by our circumstances, values, personal preferences, and priorities. And even within that relativity, there’s also the question of how value is related to available resources. For instance, I might understand and appreciate the value of investing in a house in Montana right now. It’s where we plan to move in about five years. But saying the market there is volatile would be an extreme understatement. Could I put together a down payment to buy property there? Sure. But I have to weigh the value of that money against the potential risk of buying now versus purchasing a few years from now.

Money isn’t an immutable, universal Truth—but a fluid, relative representation of value, which is always individual.

Paco gave me an even better example. Imagine you’re at a restaurant with a friend, and the Happy Hour special is $1 oysters. If you’re not an oyster fan, know that that price is a steal. You say to your friend, “I love oysters! Let’s get a dozen—that’s such a good price.” But your friend is dubious. “$1 oysters?” they say, “That’s… suspicious.” Maybe they are old. Perhaps the restaurant got them from an unscrupulous purveyor. Maybe they’re just not very good. You and your friend are working with the same financial information on the surface. It’s Happy Hour, and the oysters are $1 each. But you bring your beliefs about money and value to the table, and your friend brings theirs. The result is two drastically different approaches to the potential purchase.

MD: But none of that has to do with money. That has to do with trade. Trade has three stages: (1) Negotiation; (2) Promise to deliver; (3) Delivery as promised. In simple barter exchange, (2) and (3) happen simultaneously in the here and now. Money enables (2) and (3) to happen over time and space. And money has nothing to do with “belief”. That’s all taken care of in stage (1)…and it only applies to the two parties involved.

Our values, personal histories, upbringing, geographic location, culture, class… all these things and more influence the way we approach the proverbial $1 oyster. So do the beliefs that we have about ourselves. Paco told me that many of her original stories about money were informed by her belief that she wasn’t good enough. It might be easy to write it off as a “money mindset thing.” Yet, her anxiety about not being good enough was based on real experiences. She told me, “Being queer and a woman of color has not been a nice day at the beach. I’ve heard family members talking about so-and-so being gay. I remember hearing that story and being like: okay, noted, not okay to be gay.” She also picked up the “not good enough” message from thirteen years of Catholic school—a privilege in many ways, but also a daily immersion into a story about being fundamentally flawed.

MD: If Paco was this easily conflicted about money, what did she have to say about trade? Could she compare and contrast the two? I think you were wasting your time with Paco. In the land of the blind, the one eyed person is most value. In the land of the queer, the straight person has a value deficiency in at least one category of trade…that being an inter-personal relationship…which is the most equitable trade possible.

The worry about not being good enough coalesced into a story that she should take what she’s given and be grateful for it, grateful to be included, to belong. But eventually, she started to shift that story—and decided to go out on her own in order so she could take control of the value of her work on the open market. And… still, she was undercharging for bookkeeping services and consulting. “I was that $1 oyster,” she said. So the work continued. She pursued therapy and other ways of processing her beliefs and experiences to unpack why she was perennially coming up short on decisions about price.

MD: Again, this has nothing to do with money. She is addressing the (1) Negotiation state of trader.

This is what we mean when we talk about understanding your money mindset. It’s not about “charging what you’re worth” or investing in yourself. It’s really a process of unpacking unconscious stories, weighing them against cultural conditioning, and finding ways to resource yourself to shift your thinking. “Thinking bigger” is just a bandaid over a much bigger issue. If you try to cover your money wounds with “charge what you’re worth,” you won’t get very far without bleeding out. This is why so much money mindset advice feels like a panacea. Before we can write a more effective money story, we actually have to root out and process the old one.

Before we can write a more effective money story, we actually have to root out and process the old one.

“The quality of your thinking impacts the decisions you make,” Paco told me. That’s why she cares about really getting to the heart of how we think about money, rather than trying to plaster over it with affirmations and financial advice. When you say something like “charge what you’re worth” to cover over feelings of inadequacy, the inadequacy is going to leak through. Those unexamined feelings influence your decision-making. So you find a way to rationalize a decision prompted by your original, negative money story rather than the one you think you’re telling. Paco says:

“Just feel your damn feelings on the upfront! Recognize that you’re an emotional creature. Sometimes your feelings are going to get in the way. Feel them and manage them and regulate your nervous system.”

MD: Again…is irrelevant to money.

The Moral Quality of Money

When we start talking about how our beliefs impact our decisions with money, we inevitably land on assumptions about the moral quality of money. Money and what we do with it seem to signal whether we’re a good or bad person, a good citizen or a bad citizen.

MD: This is nonsense. If you have grapes and you want strawberries money gives you an option. You can “sell” your grapes for some number of HULs …hours of unskilled labor. You know a HUL value because you traded in them at some point in your life…usually a job during high school. You then take those HULs and find someone with strawberries. And you negotiate that trade. Using money you have two negotiation steps. (1) grapes for HULs; (2) HULs for strawberries. If you make a bad trade on you grapes, you still have a chance of correcting it on your trade for strawberries. Or you can gain on both trades or you can lose on both trades. It’s about your ability to trade. It’s not about money.

The messages around this can come from the oddest places—or, maybe, the most predictable least helpful places. For instance, in an interview on cable news, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said that low-wage workers had a patriotic duty to get back to work. Prosperity gospel preachers tell you that wealth is a sign of god’s favor. And the vast majority of the political machine in the US has been touting the welfare queen as the ultimate moral villain since Reagan.

MD: And again, be that as it may, it has nothing to do with money.

These messages aren’t the whole of the moral lessons we learn about money—they’re just the tip of the iceberg. They’re signposts of a pervasive, inescapable message about money; having money is good and, if you don’t have it, you better work your ass off for more of it so you can be good.

Paco said:

“We are overly focused on our own personal shortcomings, right? You did this wrong. You are bad. You are not disciplined. But what I really think what we need to focus on when we feel these negative feelings of shame and guilt is exploring and understanding where they came from. Who taught you that you should be ashamed of this? Where did you pick that up? Was it a move? Was it a song? Was it your grandparents?”

MD: I wonder what Paco would have to say about trading for art?

She said we pick up these expectations from family, friends, and society. When we violate that behavior, we feel bad. The answer? Paco says that financial pros need to help people heal the parts of them that are broken to help the people they serve to heal.

MD: And don’t forget the things we pick up from advertising and other forms of information and/or brainwashing.

Nowhere is moralizing more prevalent than in discussion about debt. But as Trump and other billionaires have proved repeatedly, debt only seems to be bad when you’re the wrong kind of person with that debt on your balance sheet. So I asked Paco: what’s the deal with debt?

MD: While you were at it did you ask her “what the deal with a promise”? Is a promise a debt? Of course it is.

As is her gift, Paco gave me a great analogy. Debt is like fire, she said. Fire has benefits—it lets us cook our food, for instance. But if that fire gets out of control? Well, then there’s a problem. Debt has significant benefits. Without the invention of the 30-year mortgage, many of us would not be able to own real estate. Without a loan or a business credit card, we might not be able to make investments in the growth of our companies. But debt can quickly get out of control. And that’s when it becomes a problem. “We shouldn’t look at things with this tunnel vision of ‘debt is bad,’” Paco said. Black and white thinking rarely (maybe never?) benefits us.

MD: The “30 year mortgage” illustrates the scam that is our existing money system. (1) It assumes someone is “lending” you the money when in actually, “you” are “creating” it. (2) It assumes you must pay “interest” on the money you have still not returned. Both are false in a “real” money process. In a “real” money process, money is in perpetually free supply. It never changes its value. And it imposes no resistance to trading (e.g. interest load).

Is time money?

As I mentioned, I’m really interested in exploring the maxim, “time is money.” In what ways is that true? In what ways is it not true? And how might a fundamental, unexamined belief that time is money benefit or harm us and our work? So I asked Paco for her thoughts. She told me that there was a long time where she definitely ascribed to this philosophy. She’d make calculations about what she wanted to buy and whether the price was worth the amount of time it would take to earn that amount. She said it wasn’t a horrible way to think about money—but it’s certainly not the only way to think about the relationship between time and money.

MD: You took time to write this article. I took time to make these annotations. I received nothing in trade for my effort. That makes me a fool. What did you receive for writing the article?

For instance, when she started hiring, she realized that she could create leverage with other people’s time. As a business owner, she could use their work to earn more. She also thinks about how money can buy time, “Time is a non-renewable resource. Money is a renewable resource.” And, of course, she’s very interested in investing in a way that produces more money without more time spent on work.

MD: “Money is a non-renewable resource”: Try this? You can make money writing this article. You can obtain a hole by digging. If you need a hole, would you choose to spend your time writing this article for money…then trading that money for a guy to dig your hole? What if it takes twice as long to dig the hole yourself than to have the guy do it. Did you “reclaim” some non-renewable time? You know the old axiom: work smarter, not harder.

Paco and I agree that the danger in believing “time is money” is that it often reinforces conditioning around productivity and usefulness. We learn at an early age that the goal is to get as much done in a certain period of time as possible—the more ways we can hack our time to produce more, the more we’re rewarded. We’re also taught to evaluate our worth to society from the perspective of productivity. Taking time off, therefore, risks getting you labeled as lazy. And that brings us back to the core belief Paco (and I) have had to wrestle with: Am I enough? Am I doing enough?

MD: And again, that’s all irrelevant.

“Am I deserving of the space to just be a human appreciating the sunshine on my face? I want to normalize wanting to chill,” she told me.

“To me, money is freedom and it’s power. It allows me to live a life of dignity.”

MD: And if sea shells were money does that make picking up sea shells bring you more freedom and power? You know it doesn’t. You can’t just call something money and make it be so. It’s the process that brings the value.

As we started to wrap things up, Paco told me that she really wants people to be able to live a life of dignity. Yes, we need to concern ourselves with our own personal finances. But we should also be concerned about the public policies that would allow all people to live dignified lives. She said, “let’s just solve that problem first. And then luxury will follow.”

MD: If “all” people just took care of themselves “all” would be fine. That’s everyone’s first task…take care of yourself.

I’ve been rolling the idea of “dignity” around in my mind since I talked to Paco. Who is denied dignity? What are the mechanisms that enforce that denial? What does a dignified life look like, and how much does it cost?

Paco does such a great job of addressing the things we can control about money. And she also does a great job acknowledging that there is much that’s out of our control. This is certainly true when it comes to dignity, as well. We can do a lot for ourselves to ensure a dignified life. But for many of us, factors out of our control make it incredibly difficult. So, what policy changes could we advocate for so that all people could have access to a dignified life? What community care projects could help more people live with dignity?

MD: If you have money and you created it, you must eventually return it as you promised and it is destroyed. If you obtained your money in trade, it’s no different than grapes you obtained in trade…except for the process. With a “real” money process, you can put your money under a rock for 10 years…then take it out and trade it for the same size hole in the ground as you could 10 years ago. With grapes…well, they rotted 10 years ago. And with our counterfeit dollar, you can trade for a hole that is 2/3rds as big…assuming 4% inflation caused by government counterfeiting.

We all have room to work on our beliefs about money, and many of us have enough space to start changing the larger conversation, too.

MD: Actually, everything in your article is about “trade”…not “money”.

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