Funny Money: Social Illusions about Value, Reward, Cost, and Risk

Money is a funny phenomenon, funny-peculiar that is. Money has a lot of odd characteristics, most having something to do with social definitions and the assumptions that shape perception. It exists, for example, only because we have willed it so – it is a social construction. Money has value only because we value it – we instill it with value. No money has intrinsic value. But most people don’t believe that. “Real” money, they think, is inherently valuable.

Now here is where I get in trouble with the monetary realists – mostly “gold bugs.” These folks believe that gold has intrinsic value independent of human perception or definition. I once took an “independent study” class with a philosopher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was supposed to read Karl Marx’s Capital. Well, it was a very big book and I didn’t exactly finish reading it; I skimmed a lot of it toward the end of the semester. Any college student knows what I’m talking about. So, yes, Marx was quite a scholar and economic researcher – unlike many of his followers. But it was the reaction of the professor to my apparently unorthodox views that I remember most distinctly. Well, I thought his views on both money and matter were rather peculiar too, and overly resolute.

He was convinced, based on what evidence I do not know, that atoms have intentionality, some sort of free will – as if they could do as they pleased. I think it had something to do with his trying to make sense of Marx’s materialism. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the obvious existence of purpose in humans with the mechanistic aspects of materialist determinism. He also asserted that gold has intrinsic value regardless of its relationship to humans. That contradicted other things I was learning that made much more sense to me. That semester I was taking a class in social psychology from Tomatsu Shibutani. He was teaching us about symbolic interaction and its central role in human behavior.

Golden Illusions, Symbolic Reality
Shibutani was a great teacher; he tied the theories and experimental work in social psychology directly to everyday experience. He was one of the most impressive teachers I ever had. I was really into that class. Shibutani was amazingly organized in drawing evidence and explanations from all the social sciences to demonstrate how people behave in relation to one another and the often illusory symbolic worlds we inhabit. So I wrote a paper for this philosopher. I explained how I thought money was essentially a symbolic process in which humans engaged to facilitate their economic relations, whatever their illusions about it. Who knows what Marx might have thought of my paper? But the result did not reflect the philosophy professor’s view of Capital. I cited my sources, but somehow he concluded that I’d plagiarized the whole thing from some author unknown. I didn’t; I explained that it was my interpretation of what I had been learning in social psychology applied to money as a socially constructed symbol of value. I got the impression that he didn’t believe I was capable of writing what I had written. I was offended. We argued. To my distinct indignation, he gave me a B.

That ‘academic’ experience was part of a series of things – including my military experience – that framed my sociological thinking. I was ultimately led to see much of human behavior as well as thought and emotion as based in illusions framed in symbolism. It’s not that our responses to experiencing the real world are not real or are necessarily mistaken. Instead, the thoughts and emotions about the world we experience indirectly respond to and help shape our perceptions. Perceptions are filtered and “edited” by what we already believe. They are always colored by the ideas and attitudes that we have previously acquired and are committed to.

A new phenomenon has to really get our attention in order for it not to be pushed into an old comfortable category. Global warming is a clear example of this. At any point in time, we come to the world with a “preconceived” framework for perceiving and interpreting our experience. In that sense, almost no experience is “pure.” Instead, it is tainted by our expectations. Those expectations are based on our pre-existing beliefs. Here’s the kicker: most beliefs are not a result of perception; they are the result of our being “socialized” into the culture in which we live.

Most of what we believe, we have learned from others and from the mass media that surround us, not from direct experience. But most of us don’t believe that since we define ourselves as “independent.” Any honest assessment of the mass persuasion of electoral politics ought to dissuade us of that illusion. Our perceptions are shaped by the culture within us and its manipulation by corporate-controlled mass media. That is why it is so difficult to face the new facts of climate disruption, the end of the growth economy, and the necessity to reorganize the way we relate to the planet and each other. Yes, many of us are in denial. These emergent realities do not fit the world view that has dominated our entire lives.

Untenable Beliefs in a Rapidly Changing World
Today, we live in the last stages of the dying culture of an extractive industrial economy of increasingly concentrated wealth, expanding poverty, massive waste, and flourishing ecological destruction. But that dying culture still shapes most of what we believe and the way we perceive the world. The industrial revolution began when the earth was not densely populated, and vast expanses of land and mineral wealth were not yet exploited. New technologies were just beginning to apply fossil-fuel energy to do work and reorganize the way we live. There was much room for expansion. The debt-based money system required continual expansion for a return on capital investment. The whole ideology of unlimited economic growth grew and took over the cultures of nations as they industrialized. We perceive value, reward, cost, and risk through the lens of that same dominant preconceived framework that industrial capital continues to sustain in the face of massive evidence that it will no longer work.

Money no longer represents value. Today, money – which is created and tightly concentrated and distributed by and in the interests of the power elites – controls value. The real costs of extractive industrial production are externalized by corporations to the people and planet in the form of increased poverty, diminished health and ecological destruction. The risks of continued economic growth and concentration of wealth are avoided by elites who have transferred those risks to the people and the planet. The power elites – financial and mega-corporate executives and their political allies – are temporarily insulated from risk by obscene salaries and bonuses, bribes, political cover, and gated compounds. But they won’t be protected much longer; Mother Nature makes no class distinctions.

We have already reached the tipping point of ecological destruction and climate disruption. Only massive social action to counter the in-place system of money-driven illusion of unlimited economic concentration and growth will have a chance to turn the tide. The illusions of money are not funny anymore.

Creative Destruction Transformed

The concept goes way back in the intellectual history of the West, also the East.  Simply put, “creative destruction” suggests that in the creation of the new, something of the old is destroyed.  Innovation often makes “the old ways” of doing things obsolete.  Not surprising.  Examples abound in the history of the growth economies of the industrial era.  An obvious case: The American family farm virtually disappeared with the mechanization of agriculture driven by fossil fuel energy mostly in the twentieth century.

What is Creative Destruction?

Like so many fundamental concepts, creative destruction has a history of ideological dispute, at least in the West.  The Hindu god, Shiva, on the other hand, has offered a consistent vision of change.  Shiva, “the transformer,” is the god of creation and destruction in the world of the Hindu — he creates and he destroys.  Thus, he is seen as both the fearsome and beneficent agent of all change in the world.

In the West, however, the idea of creative destruction has been shaped by a history of philosophical debates about the politics of the economy.  The Hindu idea was brought into German philosophy by Herder, then used by Hegel in his dialectic of history.  Then Marx turned it on its head as his own dialectical principle of material (economic) change.  Later, for Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter the idea was used  to explain how innovation transforms an economy from within.

Today, the Austrians, especially Friedrich Hayek, are the philosophical darlings of the quasi-libertarian anti-government neo-liberal economists.  These are the economic ideologists whose ideas about innovation are used to justify corporate actions that may have destructive consequences for society.  For Example, they use “free markets” to argue that the destructive consequences of unlimited financial “innovation” — manipulation of financial markets — are necessary and good for promoting economic progress.

That creative destruction is so easily adopted by both left and right economists should raise some questions.  Does it explain everything and thus nothing?  No.  But it is important to understand why its application is so broad, and with such different political implications.

For the capitalist, the importance of creative destruction is found in the effect of innovation on markets.  When capital is invested in new technologies, the result is said to be “disruptive,” and often is.  That is defined as good and healthy for economic progress.  In fact, it may wipe out existing industries and jobs.  But new and better ones are expected to result.  While people can be put out of work and factories shut down, the ultimate outcome is said to be good because of the growth and new products and profits that often result from such disruption.  “That’s progress.”  And, of course, it is all based on the idea that growth is always necessary for a healthy economy with full employment.  The argument is all internal to economics, as if it were a closed system.  But it is not.

Karl Marx admired the creative destruction he saw in capitalism resulting from the innovations it stimulates, but he saw within the capitalist system inherent “seeds of its own destruction.”  Without external constraints, it was never clear when Marx’s internal contradictions might actually produce the revolutionary end of capitalism as he had predicted.  Both the Russian and Chinese revolutions were largely agrarian in origin and did not really fit Marx’s model, although they adopted his terminology as their ideology.

The historical realization of Marx’s image of industrial revolution never quite materialized.  But the vision of Werner Sombart — that capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to periodic crises — has been repeatedly confirmed by historical events.  The biggest and most obvious U.S. example was the Great Depression.  The New Deal was capitalism’s relatively effective response to that crisis — it worked for several decades.  The Great Recession of 2008 is another — it was caused in part by elimination of the New Deal financial reforms.  But in this case the responses were denial and bailouts, which are pushing the crisis down the road without real economic adjustments.  Be that as it may, Marx made the same mistake that today’s corporate economists make — they all treat the economy as if it were a closed system.  Internal contradictions aside, they all assume that the economy is unaffected by any environmental constraints such as resource limits or ecological destruction.

The Destruction of Creation

Neo-liberal economists attempt to justify the concept of creative destruction as inherent in innovation, the driving force in developing the economy.  It is required for capital growth and investment in new technologies, which have new resource-extraction and waste production requirements.  But their vision of economic growth has no direction or meaning, except that of an irrational faith that whatever innovation occurs and whatever the destruction, the result will be good.  After all, the illusion of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” is still at play in their minds.

Economic theory is often not very empirical.  Of course, money is the easy measure of all undifferentiated economic activity.  But it says nothing of the value of an investment, an innovation, or a business decision or practice for humanity.  It’s about that darn externalization of costs, which is always ignored in the investment of capital.  What are all the consequences of an economic decision?  Well, consequences external to the unit in which capital is invested are routinely ignored.  The creation of phantom wealth by destroying the environment it attempts to dominate can be clearly seen as destroying creation.

Ending Destructive Capital, Creating a New Economy

One of the most important — and destructive — innovations in the use of capital today is the corporate application of micro-electronic computing power to the processes of capital investment, or, I should say, “programmed trading,” in the stock markets.  “High-speed institutional traders” — computer programs — can “capture” minute differences in price from one nano-second to another and issue buy/sell orders that intercede into an ordinary trade and in effect steal pennies that the ordinary trader would have received in a trade while the price information is being transmitted to the trader.  At super high rates of programmed trading, this results in millions of dollars skimmed off the market in any given week.  Yet the SEC does nothing.  This is only one of the many corrupt practices that are tolerated in a culture that deems whatever you can get away with as the highest value.

Only by setting human and ecological values as the primary criteria for allowing or banning economic system “features” can a new ecological economy be shaped in the public interest.  The highest public interest in the economy is to foster practices that support the health and well-being of people and the planet.  Any economic practice or institution that conflicts with that value must be destroyed.  New practices and institutions that serve the interests of life on the planet must be created.  Creative destruction is an economic process with limited justification.  Only if an innovation supports life and the practices and institutions it destroys are damaging to human life and the biosphere that supports us, can it be justified.