Thursday, September 16, 2010

money as a zero-sum game

Reality Sandwich | In game theory, zero-sum games are those where one person's gain is another's loss. A poker game is zero-sum. Those busy accumulating hoards of money try to hide its zero-sum nature by saying that the "pie" is getting bigger. Prosperity is not a zero-sum game, though "prosperity" is too easily conflated with monetary wealth, which is not the same thing at all. Clearly, quality of life is not a zero-sum game-quite the contrary. The whole bodhisattva impulse of Mahayana Buddhism stems from recognizing that individual nirvana is incomplete until everyone is liberated.

All of the things that we might call "true wealth": health, enough to eat, shelter, meaningful work, diverse habitats and resources, beauty around one-natural beauty and artistic beauty-none are diminished by all having more.

But this is not true of money. If everyone had a million dollars, what would a million dollars be worth? Money is a usurper, it pretends to be wealth. And its pretension is backed up by force, creating a new type of slave: the mercenary. And most conveniently, the mercenary, truly the oldest profession, is paid in the money he protects. Money has power because of scarcity, and the threat of scarcity. Without money you will starve and die, even if there is food around. Without money you will become homeless, sleeping in the rain and shivering in the cold. Therefore when I say I need some dirty work done, you say yes. I say yes. We say yes.

Money is coercive, seductive, corrupting, and exploitative, hence often linked with diabolical power. "The love of money is the root of all evil," Paul's first letter to Timothy. Or, as amended by George Bernard Shaw: "The lack of money is the root of all evil." Both sayings seem true: greed for more in the already-haves wreaks destruction on a scale orders of magnitude beyond the petty crimes of the indigent. Still, lack of money, need for money, loads my soul with care.

Money seems like a natural and necessary part of the world, but, actually, it is neither. Money has a history and a biography. It had a childhood and an adolescence. No one knows if it has an old age and senility, unless that is now. No one really understands money, and certainly no one, not even the governments that print money, control it, despite their best efforts.

In some ways money is the ultimate pyramid scheme -- its value is surprisingly sensitive to human attitudes.

"Your money's no good here."

Others make money their god, their master. Pragmatic. Realist.

"Money will win. Trust me. And either you are with the haves or you are with the have-nots."

But how much "have" is enough? There seems no limit.