A Somewhat Disgusting Morbidity

Robin’s Book Report #55
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

-This week I talk about why we shouldn’t worship thrift

-Hit me up with what you have been reading!

A somewhat disgusting morbidity
I enjoy almost all elements of personal money management: saving money, spending it shrewdly, getting credit cards for the points, setting up different savings accounts, finding free stuff on the street, and other absurdities. Most importantly, I love to grocery shop. If I get a sweet deal on ground beef, it’s a great day. As many of you know, I’m a member of not one, but two different discount grocery stores. I keep a spreadsheet on the unit prices of items that are sold at both stores, in order to get the best price. It’s crazy, but it’s fun! On slow days, I’ll go for a walk and invariably end up at a grocery store, wandering the aisles, checking prices.I also love saving money. When I was 18, I saved $12,000 in a year working at a diner. When most people would have been blowing their money on food and clothes and vacations and drugs, I was living like I was broke. I stashed my tips in a shoe box that I would take to the bank every week and deposit. It just made me happy to think of all that money piling up. Anal-rententive? I don’t know! (I lost it all in a two month period the following year.)

My lifelong attentive money management, lust for deals, and love of saving used to seem like something of a virtue. It meant I was better equipped for the world than other people. But now, I regard it as just another predilection like bird-watching, sado-masichism, or knitting.

That is, some people are freaks: they are cursed (or blessed) with a money fixation. The early 20th century economist John Maynard Keynes thought this desire to make money above all else was “a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease.” I agree!

The desire to make a bunch of money––in the stock market, in real estate, in tech, in some other profitable sector––isn’t in everyone. But should this mean that the rest of society, with their unprofitable proclivities, are worthless?

The cruel reality is that we venerate the wealth in America because without a sturdy social safety net, you have to have wealth to do more than survive. Unfortunately, being wealthy is largely a lottery in which some people are born holding better odds. Sometimes wealth comes as a result of hard work, but sometimes it’s inherited with no effort at all. Worse, hard work is often not enough to ensure reward. Frugality is often sold as a path to riches, but it’s really not. Frugality is just a hobby, not a virtue. Recent stories about the Financial Independence Retire Early (FIRE) movement are really myths that allow our culture to dismiss the poor as simply irresponsible spenders.

Being frugal is for the richThe Frugalwoods made a name for themselves teaching millennials how to save money. Trouble is, you have to start with a lot of it. By Miles Howard

The Frugalwoods are an “inspirational” family that had tremendous advantages and tremendous incomes before they “retired” early to rural America. But it’s not about the facts, it’s their story that is insidious:

“These Millennials [the Frugalwoods] are telling an older generation of elite Americans — the very people whose policies and financial decisions kneecapped the economy — what they want to hear: that everything is more or less okay, and young people just need to be more thoughtful about their money.”

The poor are often incredibly thrifty, but it only carries them so far.

So with that in mind I want to review Keynes’ 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which he (correctly) theorizes that productivity gains (and wealth created by the miracle of compound interest) after 1940 will make it possible for wealth to be completely automated. The first challenge will be wealth’s distribution, and the next to figure out how to value our lives and occupy our time when the senseless accumulation of money isn’t the goal. Here are some important, choice passages.

Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” by John Maynard Keynes 1930 [all bold letters are my emphasis]

“[F]or the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.”

Keynes thought we would one day be at least partially free of the orbit of money. It is the opposite of what the Chicago school economists taught: that we should never be free of economic concerns, that we should aspire to make all of life subject to economic concerns.

“There are changes in other spheres too which we must expect to come. When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance, there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles which have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful of human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value. The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease. All kinds of social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties, which we now maintain at all costs, however distasteful and unjust they may be in themselves, because they are tremendously useful in promoting the accumulation of capital, we shall then be free, at last, to discard.

Of course there will still be many people with intense, unsatisfied purposiveness who will blindly pursue wealth – unless they can find some plausible substitute. But the rest of us will no longer be under any obligation to applaud and encourage them. For we shall inquire more curiously than is safe to-day into the true character of this “purposiveness” with which in varying degrees Nature has endowed almost all of us. For purposiveness means that we are more concerned with the remote future results of our actions than with their own quality or their immediate effects on our own environment. The “purposive” man is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his acts by pushing his interest in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor, in truth, the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam to-morrow and never jam to-day. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.

Lastly, Keynes imagined that in this new future economists (and business people) would be much less important:

But, chiefly, do not let us overestimate the importance of the economic problem, or sacrifice to its supposed necessities other matters of greater and more permanent significance. It should be a matter for specialists-like dentistry. If economists could manage to get themselves thought of as humble, competent people, on a level with dentists, that would be splendid!”

So, that is, fuck the job creators!

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