Moontower #24


At first grade open house, Zak’s teacher had a striking way of reminding us to slow down and smell the roses. She recounted how a dad once asked her “is my son Stanford material or Oregon St?” The father was wondering if he had a blue-chip stock on his hand. Let’s be charitable to this guy and presume a teacher sharing a parable might sacrifice some context for a more potent delivery to her current audience. If the guy was subconsciously pricing his son, our outrage should be at how common this is in our culture.

Have you ever Zillow’ed someone’s house? Do you notice that when you type a person’s name in Google one of the autocompletes is always “net worth”?  Just consider the language: “net worth”. On average we measure people but what they accumulated.

How does this happen?

In Sapiens, Yuval Hariri tells us that humans’ unique ability to coordinate has been the source of its triumph. Coordination lies in our ability to share stories. Money is one such story. Economists refer to money as a construct for settling “the double coincidence of wants”. To use hokey econ examples, a farmer can trade with a cobbler even if the cobbler doesn’t need corn at that exact moment. Money is the symbol of each of their efforts. Money’s utility is it allows us to reduce services, talents, and goods comprised of many features (utility, quality, aesthetics, convenience, scarcity) into a price. The price modulates to allocate demand to a populace according to their preferences for those features. By compressing a lot of information into a number we achieve liquidity.

This compression is no free lunch. Consider the word “powder”. In some contexts, it’s a reasonable label for either sugar or cocaine. But if you are carrying powder while standing in a security line as the canine approaches, you’ll wish you didn’t collapse the breadth of the powder’s traits into such a low-resolution summary term. If you compare 2 different job offers with the same powder (salary) you are gonna want to get more granular. The compression leaves out critical info. When we use “net worth” as a proxy for societal contribution we are being lazy with a low-resolution term.

The most important feature we sweep into a number is emotion. Like a prism, a single price emanates rays of envy, admiration, desire, disdain to its observers. Both a car and handbag can cost $10k. The colors spreading out from that single price are different shades to each gaze fixed upon it. So now imagine what happens when we summarize people with a number. The gap between their qualitative value and their actual net worth can mercilessly control that person’s outward-facing narrative. The QB who signed the big contract who turned into a bust cannot be left alone with his failure but is now also called a ‘bum’. The critically acclaimed saxophonist that has to tutor to make rent is labeled ‘underpaid’ and granted a halo of virtue. We may know nothing about these people other than the gap between output and income. What’s given vs what’s deserved. Capitalism may be the best arbiter but don’t confuse the map with the territory.

Whether one cannot stop spending or has first-gen-immigrant money security issues, it’s no wonder people have a complicated relationship with money. The magic of money’s symbology cannot be fenced in enough to stop it from conveying that which it is unqualified to do. It’s like asking a compass to measure your elevation.

Your money says way more about you than it deserves to. Rich or poor.

Climb Higher

Most of the personal finance gurus that have gained mass popularity will give you sound advice. They all promote saving, avoiding credit card debt, and explain interest rates and taxes. I like to ankle-bite entire sections of Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman’s advice. Rich Dad Poor Dad is more of a charlatan but even that blind squirrel is able to find a nut and say some things of value. I won’t waste time nitpicking them here. Instead, if you are interested in personal finance, I’d push you towards Ramit Sethi.


The easy part of money is the technical details. All the gurus get that right. Online calculators are abundant and free. As I showed, money is complicated because of psychology. Money planning can feel like torture so people put their head in the sand. This is where Sethi’s edge comes in. With a keen understanding of psychology, Sethi frames money decisions in ways which invert the trade-offs so that instead of making you feel deprived, you can’t wait to follow your plan.

Some of his best insights:

  • Identify your “invisible scripts”. These are beliefs that are so deeply held in our culture that we don’t even realize they’re beliefs.
  • By focusing on what you love you are forced to pinpoint what money means to you. For example, if you want more money to increase some vague sense “security”, it’s worth unpacking this feeling. Security is one of these concepts that will eat you whole. You’ll never have enough. This pull towards some unattainable, undefined goal will affect your risk tolerance and ultimately your well-being. Sethi will help you dissect it. When you forget that money is a tool, not a goal, every decision becomes a monetary one. That would be like living without depth-perception.
  • That approach leads to his concept of “money dials“. Introspect then ruthlessly cut spending on things that don’t matter to you. So many things appear to matter until you dig deeper. Not to mix gurus, but Marie Kondo this. For the things that do matter, here’s a new idea — think about you could achieve spending 10x or even 100x on it. Reading about “money dials” feels like emerging from a cave. Imagine implementing it.
  • Sethi gives practical advice for automating your finances. Instead of hyper-focusing on budgets, which isn’t behaviorally sustainable, he shows you how to not only think in more flexible buckets but automate the process as well. A huge upgrade to your odds of adherence.

  • Stop fighting with your partner over $5 coffees. If that’s something they deeply enjoy respect it. Focus on high impact decisions. He inspired my matrix. You are guilty of “bikeshedding”. Quit it.
If you’re interested, don’t let his book title deter you. It’s legit. You can also start here:
  • YouTube interview
  • He was recently on Tim Ferriss’ podcast (link with notes). The discussion on prenups is interesting and the money dials are fun to hear.

Last Call

  • A Moontower reader dropped his eldest off at Binghamton this week to start college. This is the no-bs article he gave him to read.
  • A surprising number of Moontower readers have 4 kids. One of them asked me to share this for new parents: Since 2011 the government has mandated that children and infant acetaminophen have the same dosage. Don’t overpay for the infants it the same stuff. Note: this isn’t true for ibuprofen.
  • Yogi Berra once said “Nobody goes there, it’s too crowded”. The new Star Wars park at Disneyland understands that contradiction.
  • Youth participation in sports is actually falling despite the industry exploding in value. What’s happening?
  • A programmer tries to outsmart the system with a vanity license plate. It backfires spectacularly.
  • I was in Vegas this weekend. PSA: the best website for knowing optimal strategy and casino edges is
  • Coach Gruden at the first Raiders meeting at training camp: “It takes no talent to lead the league in effort”. I don’t watch much tv but I do subscribe to HBO in Augusts to watch Hard Knocks.

From my actual life 

The kids are recently into a show called You vs Wild with Bear Grylls. It’s on Netflix. As I said, I don’t watch much TV but I have never seen an interactive TV show. It’s a ‘choose your own adventure’. You select what Bear does at various decision forks in the episode. Sometimes your decision results in him needing to be bailed out of the mission. The whole family likes watching it and the kids like choosing whether Bear eats poop or not. I’m not making that up. That homeboy is nuts (that’s a gross pun. You need to see the episode).

Oh yeah, there was a blatant pun earlier in the letter. 5th person that reports it gets a surprise. Really.

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