Money get back
I’m all right Jack
Keep your hands off my stack
Money, it’s a hit
Don’t give me that
Do goody good bullshit
A few days ago the Rabbit clan went out for dim sum with six members of my husband’s family. After we’d all stuffed ourselves with dumplings and sticky rice, it was time to settle up. I suggested the other members of the party throw in some cash while my husband paid the bill with his credit card. You’ve all done it that way, right? I’m not from another planet? Nevertheless, everyone at the table looked at me in bewilderment. “What is this ‘cash’ you speak of?” my brother-in-law cheekily asked.
Personally, I generally keep some cash on me, but rarely have any coins. I used to carry the exact number of coins I would need to pay for my daily mocha. It was a good way to keep the pennies from accumulating. But it only works if you go to the same coffee shop every day so you know what the price will be, and I like to spread the love around. Lately I’ve been carrying exactly 38 cents—the salad I get for lunch most days comes to $4.38.
Will we reach the point where no one uses cash for anything, ever? And if we do, is the money still real? Not only will we not have a gold standard, we won’t even have a paper standard. We all trade imaginary digital money while participating in the group delusion that it has value.
Recently I’ve been studying a bit about economics. I learned that we all make choices that maximize our utility within the constraints we have. Utility is a cumbersome way of saying something like “happiness and need satisfaction.” Investopedia defines utility as “the advantage or fulfillment a person receives from consuming a good or service.” Maximizing utility is rarely straightforward. Any given choice may have some advantage (cheesecake is delicious) and some disadvantage (cheesecake makes you fat). Utility is subject to change. Years ago I found out that a Cinnabon contains 32 grams of fat. I have not eaten one since. That piece of knowledge sucked all the utility right out of those fabulously gooey things. For me. Your utility may vary.
This is a critical point. Utility is different for everyone and subject to all sorts of constraints. In some cases, someone else’s needs may get in the way of your utility. That’s a pretty good definition of parenting, don’t you think? On the other hand, we derive utility from being good parents, so whatever sacrifices we make, we still come out ahead.
Economists assume that people are rational actors and make choices that maximize their own utility. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are greedy. Utility doesn’t equal money and possessions, though those things may play a role. In politics, we are all suspicious of the utility motives of others. I spent some time today reading the editorials and comments on the right-wing National Review Online. As you might expect, there was much gnashing of teeth over the recent election. I learned that conservative people think that liberal people are selfishly maximizing their own utility while creating negative externalities (consequences) for others. Which of course is exactly what liberal people think about conservative people. Also, both sides think the other side is stupid and/or operating with inadequate information.
What if we let go of all that and assumed instead that everyone has a modicum of intelligence, everyone has information, everyone acts to maximize their utility within their given constraints, and everyone derives some utility from making the world a better place? What if we also decided not to trivialize the concerns that other people have and instead made an honest effort to grapple with them? Examples in both directions: Having the ability to control one’s reproduction is not unimportant when compared with economic issues. It IS an economic issue. And onerous tax burdens that affect a small business’s ability to hire or even survive are not just the grumbling complaints of multi-billionaires.
My proposal: Engage seriously with someone else’s reality. If we can all agree that the electronic coinage we trade these days has real meaning and value, perhaps we can find other pieces of ground to share.