Money is not everything

Men go through life avoiding suffering and trying to obtain pleasures. As a matter of fact, this is an instinct also present in animals – but we have sophisticated these objectives and the ways to achieve them to the nth power. With our intelligence and sensitivity, we made science and art, comfort and luxury, religion and philosophy. This way we differentiate from nature and dominate the planet. And, to mediate it all and facilitate life, we developed money. However alongside came a lot of confusion.

 

When it was invented, money had the purpose of facilitating exchanges. Before money came up, the only alternative was the famous bartering, the practice of swapping a product or a service for another. If a chicken farmer needed milk, for instance, he would have to offer eggs for the dairy farmer. It wasn’t a bad idea, but the problem was to walk around the market with eggs in your pockets. Or even worse, litres of milk.

 

It was when someone had the idea of creating a sort of “standard measure” for things, something that was relatively rare, but could be quickly recognised and measured – like salt, for example. For quite a long time, rock salt was used as currency. Therefore, if 5 litres of milk cost certain amount of salt, the buyer didn’t have to bring eggs, but a small bag full of white little rocks. And the same little rocks could later be exchanged for eggs, chickens, bread, clothes, transportation, housing or general services.

 

Employees, for example, received from their employers a quantity of salt that would permit them to attend their living coasts. There is the origin of the word “salary”, still used nowadays. With the passage of time, the salt was substituted for something more practical, such marked stones or coloured shells. Nevertheless, this practice brought the possibility of the indiscriminate production of these exchanging units. So someone had the idea of minting metal pieces, called “coins”, under the authorities of the State supervision, to organise the value of things and people’s work. From coins to paper bills, to bank account and to credit card was only a matter of improvement.

 

This way the world became more practical. But men acquired something a little hard to deal with too, as the value of money is not only absolute, but also relative – what generates some discomfort, because all that is relative will eventually incur great variations amongst people.

 

The confusion with money lies in the different ways that people perceive it.  For some the power of money lies within the act of exchanging; for others it is money itself that is a sign of power. Because the value people give to money is so different, it is not surprising that conflicts have surged amongst them.

 

To spell it out, money is not a good or a bad thing. The good and the bad come from what is made with it, and not from money itself. Even sacred texts ratiocinate this way. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil”, we read in the Bible (1 Timothy 6:10), what puts some order around and dislocates the evil from the money itself to what is made to obtain it and to what is done with it. However we cannot deny that there are very ambitious people, who evaluate the others for their capacity of earning money and exhibiting their conquests.

 

How to contain ambition? We have seen that money doesn’t have value for itself, but it is worth for what it can provide. Therefore, its importance is relativised by each one’s necessities and desires, what we could call degrees of ambition.

 

Ambition is not a bad destructive feeling. But it can be if transformed into an obsession. Furthermore, ambition can work as a kind of energy source to existence, making people and the world move ahead. Besides, ambition doesn’t have a moral on its own – it assumes the moral of the ambitious person, with the same dimension, purpose and desire.

 

About this subject, two very profound books explained me a few things. The first book “Is Capitalism Moral?, written by the French philosopher and professor of University of Paris André Comte-Sponville, taught me that ambition is neither moral nor immoral, it is amoral.

The author compares this human quality with the water that falls from the clouds: “The rain is neither good nor bad, neither moral nor immoral: it is submitted to laws, causes, and to an immanent rationality that has nothing to do with our senses of value”.

 

In other words, ambition is as natural as the meteorological phenomena: can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances, intensity and what we do with it. Although social ethics has further considerations on this matter, valuing ambition whilst criticising it. How to sleep with a noise like this?

 

Let’s now observe what the second book says. “Our Immoral Soul”, by Rabin Nilton Bonder, is a sophisticated analysis of biblical texts and Jewish parables about the facts of life. In one of the passages he tells the story of a wealthy man who went to get advises from a Rabin. Right in the beginning of the consultation, it is the religious who asks a question:

 

– “What are you used to eat?”

 

– “I am quite modest with my demands. Bread, salt and water is all I need” – replied the man, thinking he would be praised for his humbleness.

 

– “What do you think you are doing? You should eat meat and drink wine as a rich person [that you are].”

 

Later, the disciples questioned the Rabin’s surprising reaction, and he promptly explained:

 

– “Until he eats beef and drinks wine, he will not comprehend that the poor need bread. While he feeds himself with bread, he will think that the poor can be fed with stones”.

 

Those who somehow don’t use all their potential of life, diminish the potential of all the rest. If we were braver and feared less the possibility of being perverse, the world would have less unnecessary interdictions and would certainly be of better quality.

 

Yes, the superfluous limitations act like a blockade on the evolution flux as much as the superfluous acquisitions. I other words, the very ambitious and the little ambitious are both harmful to the society. The search should be focused on the healthy ambition, on an exact measurement, on which one moves away from conformity, but does not approach greed.

 

Dealing with money

 

Is it possible to learn how to deal with money in a way that it doesn’t become an objective itself and neither is considered as something of a minor importance? This is called financial literacy – to develop a personal competence that will allow you to deal well with money, without overvaluing or underestimating it.

 

Another good expression is “to make money”. If we don’t count the heirs and the lucky lottery winners, we all have “to make our money”. We don’t “win” anything – we earn it through commitment and work.

 

This is an essential lesson for all of us, as work is the only way to produce the rock salt required to get what we need and to attend our wishes.  Whoever thinks differently than that, either greedy people or companies that decide to profit from financial operations and end up moving away from their true reason of being, will eventually be punished. The latest worldwide financial crisis, which spread all over the planet as a grasshopper plague, is there to prove the thesis.

 

No, money is not everything. Men are able to produce much more than currencies, countable values and letters of credit. From humanity came architecture, music, poetry, and medicine. The question is that men need algorisms to reach their major goals and it is on this path that they get lost, confusing the ends with the means, leaving things at sixes and sevens.

What we need to learn are the dimensions of our behaviour where the money resides. The first dimension is to know how to earn it – and it depends on preparation and work. The second is to know how to spend it – and here enters the logic, as simple as it is disregarded, of not spending more than what is earned. These two dimensions are fundamental, but there are two others, complimentary: the saving dimension, as we never know the surprises the future can bring, and the investing dimension, which means to put the surplus amount into something that will make the money grow with time.

 

The American psychologist Frederick Herzberg explained the value of money to companies to motivate employees. He said that the salary fits into a motivational category he called “hygienic”, as they are only noticed when missing. “If the remuneration is fair doesn’t motivate, but if it’s not, disincentives people”, said Herzberg.

 

The specialist’s vision lights up the importance of money in our lives. Money doesn’t guarantee happiness, but when it is lacked, it is quite possible that we meet sadness. There is no way we cannot agree that money is not everything in life, but it is not clever to imagine that money isn’t anything.

 

However, as caution and chicken soup never harmed anyone, be warned, because in this long-established partnership between “people and money”, in which you also take part, it is mandatory to define who dictates the rules.

 

Translation: Melissa Mussak ([email protected])