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 Harari 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.