I am so pleased to have stumbled across a short excerpt from a talk by Alan Watts, forwarded by a Twitter follower. Watts makes a truly profound argument about what money really is. I’ll summarize it here and you can watch the full three-and-a-half minute video below if you like.
Watts notes that we like to talk about “laws of nature,” or “observed regularities” in the world. In order to observe these regularities, he points out, we have to invent something regular against which to compare nature. Clocks and rulers are these kinds of things.
All this is fine but, all too often, the clocks and the rulers come to seem more real than the nature that is being measured. For example, he says, we might think that the sun is rising because it’s 6AM when, of course, the sun will rise independently of our measures. It’s as if our clocks rule the universe instead of vice versa.
He uses these observations to make a comment about wealth and poverty. Money, he reminds us, isn’t real. It’s an invented measure. A dollar is no different than a minute or an inch. It is used to measure prosperity, but it doesn’t create prosperity any more than 6AM makes the sun rise or a ruler gives things inches.
When there is a crisis — an economic depression or a natural disaster, for example — we may want to fix it, but end up asking ourselves “Where’s the money going to come from?” This is exactly the same mistake that we make, Watts argues, when we think that the sun rises because it’s 6AM. He says:
They think money makes prosperity. It’s the other way around, it’s physical prosperity which has money as a way of measuring it. But people think money has to come from somewhere… and it doesn’t. Money is something we have to invent, like inches.
So, you remember the Great Depression when there was a slump? And what did we have a slump of? Money. There was no less wealth, no less energy, no less raw materials than there were before. But it’s like you came to work on building a house one day and they said, “Sorry, you can’t build this house today, no inches.”
“What do you mean no inches?”
“Just inches! We don’t mean that… we’ve got inches of lumber, yes, we’ve got inches of metal, we’ve even got tape measures, but there’s a slump in inches as such.”
And people are that crazy!
This is backward thinking, he says. It is allowing money to rule things when, in reality, it’s just a measure.
I encourage you to watch:Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.