Thursday, May 18, 2023

What Money Is

AI-generated image of a bag of cash dripping into an IV leading to a megaphone spewing lightning
Longer ago than it flatters me to mention I had the privilege (not fully appreciated by me at the time) of taking a class on Metaphor taught by George Lakoff, American Linguist and Philosopher, and then-time Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley.

Full disclosure, I did not do well in that class (I think I thought it was something else when I signed up, honestly), but what I did manage to get out of the course, and have retained over the years as a core pillar of how I think about pretty much everything, is the concept of Ontological Metaphor.

An example is “Time is Money”. We’ve all heard this one so much it doesn’t even feel like a metaphor anymore, though obviously it is. What makes it an Ontological Metaphor is that it shapes not only how we talk about the target (“Time”), but how we THINK about what it means, and even what it is. In this case, time is reframed as a resource that we interact with in exactly the same way as money — we spend it, save it, invest it, and often waste it.

Or we think we do, anyway. How exactly does one “save” time? You tell me — I still live paycheck-to-paycheck where time is concerned.

Funny thing about metaphor though — it’s capable of infinite regress, where one definition simply leads to the need for another and so on — the “turtles all the way down” effect. For instance, if Time is Money, what is Money?

I should say here that the reason I failed Dr. Lakoff’s class (I think) is that rather than observing and documenting ontological metaphors in culture, I had a tendency to cobble them together myself, which was really, really not the assignment… but it seems after all these years I still can’t help myself. So here are a few scaffold ontological metaphors for money that I would like to share.

  • Money is Power
  • Money is Freedom
  • Money is a Score
  • Money is Speech
  • Money is Blood

Money is Power

This one is as straightforward and utilitarian as it gets. Money is a way of acquiring and doing things. It enables one to take action in the world. The more money you have, the more you can do.

I want to scuba dive. Do I have the money for gear, and travel? Yep. Off I go. Hello, deep blue abyss.

Money is Freedom

There’s a colorful phrase some people use — ‘ Fuck-you’ Money (where the expletive modifies rather than addresses the subject). Impolite, yes, but very clear. It’s having enough money that you do not have to care what anyone else thinks. It’s an expression of total freedom to act as you wish. The more money you have, the freer you are.

Power and Freedom are really closely related, but not the same. When you have power, you can do something. When you have freedom, no one has the power to stop you. I have the power to break my neighbor’s window, but I am not free to do it — I will face consequences if I do.

Money is a Score

Think of the Elon Musks, the Jeff Bezoses, the Jamie Dimons, and the Larry Ellisons of the world (recognizing that even within this set there is a vast amount of distance). Think of the Forbes 400. This is where money is basically not just a sport, but an fairly intense spectator sport. Such lists are always — always — ranked, and people follow the standings in real time. The more money you have, the higher your score and thus your position in the standings.

When money is a score, the utilitarian value of capital is almost completely eclipsed by the game.

Money is Speech 

In America and much of the rest of the democratic world, there are actually two ways for people to express their will as regards government — voting, and campaign donations. When it comes to actual literal voting, it’s pretty straightforward — everybody gets one (in theory). Not so with money. While there are some (pretty easy to circumvent) rules that limit this, ultimately in American politics, a dollar is a vote — and in this sense, corporations (which are not people) get to vote too. A dollar is a vote — and the more money you have, the more of those votes you get to cast.

The size of a candidate’s “war chest” (oh, so many, many metaphorical paths we will not go down…) is taken as a huge predictor of election success, and it is one of the things that keeps us trapped in a limited, two-party, lesser-of-evils world when it comes to selecting our leaders.

This one out of all of them personally enrages and horrifies me, by the way, and is one of the main reasons I sat down to write this.

Lastly, and this is the Metaphor I Live By (thank you again, Dr. Lakoff)…

Money is Blood

In the body, blood exists to move around. It carries resources to, and removes waste from, all of the various parts of the body. Cut off blood flow from a part of the body — a limb, a digit, the brain, even a single cell — and that part dies. Concentrate too much of it in one place, and it gums up the whole works by becoming a clot (blocking the flow of blood to places that need it) or a hemorrhage, releasing it to places where it does no good because it’s no longer part of the effective circulatory system (this is one you hear a lot — “hemorrhaging cash…” or “bleeding money”).

In this construct, the more money you have, the more responsibility you have to keep it moving to the places it needs to go.

Which is right? 

That’s the question, and perhaps not surprisingly the answer I hold is “all of them, and none of them.” Metaphors are a way of sense-making, not proving. Any and all of these (and more besides) can be useful in making sense of what money is and what it does, but what’s important is what those interpretations lead us to value and do. Power and freedom allow us to meet our goals and realize our desires. Games are for winning and losing (at least those involving scoreboards). Speech is for listening and being heard (preferably in that order). And blood is for keeping organisms alive. The point is not to suggest that one of these is more true or more beneficial to the others. 

The point is to recognize which of them you inhabit at any given time, and what that does to how you view and act with regards to money, and with regards to people who have more, or less of it. No one would suggest that it is wrong to take blood that is pooling in the heart and redistribute it to the left pinky toe which does basically nothing. Nor would many suggest that fraud has occurred when dead people and people who do not exist (by way of estates and corporations respectively) cast votes with their dollars. 

Whatever metaphors you hold for money, one thing that it literally is is a fiction. A shared and agreed-upon one, to be sure, but a fiction nonetheless. That makes it even more flexible in a metaphorical sense, which we employ when it comes to our understanding of it, our habits around it, and ultimately our ethical treatment of it. If money itself becomes a proof point and a foundation for our decisions, those turtles we are standing on start to fall pretty far and pretty fast.

Cross-posted at Medium -

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