October 1st, 2014

As you may have noticed our human economy does not work very well. In fact, it barely works at all. One of our major problems is that we humans mistake money for wealth. They are not the same.

This error results in a world that works for no one. The 1% would argue that the world does work just fine for them, but they would be wrong.

One of our best human thinkers writing in 1970, explained this error clearly. He felt this error represented such a great danger, that it might destroy the United States of America within the next 30 years.

Wealth Versus Money

Alan Watts

In the year of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2000, the United States of America will no longer exist. This is not an inspired prophecy based on supernatural authority but a reasonably certain guess. “The United States of America” can mean two quite different things. The first is a certain physical territory, largely on the North American continent, including all such geographical and biological features as lakes, mountains and rivers, skies and clouds, plants, animals, and people. The second is a sovereign political state, existing in competition with many other sovereign states jostling one another around the surface of this planet. The first sense is concrete and material; the second, abstract and conceptual.

If the United States continues for very much longer to exist in this second sense, it will cease to exist in the first. For the land and its life can now so easily be destroyed—by the sudden and catastrophic methods of nuclear or biological warfare, or by any combination of such creeping and insidious means as overpopulation, pollution of the atmosphere, contamination of the water and erosion of our natural resources by maniacal misapplications of technology. For good measure, add the possibilities of civil and racial war, self–strangulation of the great cities and breakdown of all major transportation and communication networks. And that will be the end of the United States of America, in both senses.

There is, perhaps, the slight possibility that we may continue our political and abstract existence in heaven, there to enjoy being “better dead than Red” and, with the full authority of the Lord God, to be able to say to our enemies squirming in hell, “We told you so!” On the grounds of such hopes and values, someone may well push the Big Red Button, to demonstrate that belief in spiritual immortality can be inconsistent with physical survival. Luckily for us, our Marxist enemies do not believe in any such hereafter.

When I make predictions from a realistic and hard–boiled point of view, I tend to the gloomy view of things. The candidates of my choice have never yet won in any election in which I have voted. I am thus inclined to feel that practical politics must assume that most people are either contentious and malevolent or stupid, that their decisions will usually be shortsighted and self–destructive and that, in all probability, the human race will fail as a biological experiment and take the easy downhill road to death, like the Gadarene swine. If I were betting on it— and had somewhere to place my bet—that’s where I would put my money.

But there is nowhere to lay a bet on the fate of mankind. Likewise, there is no way of standing outside the situation and looking at it as an impartial, coldly calculating, objective observer. I’m involved in the situation and therefore concerned; and because I am concerned, I’ll be damned if I’ll let things come out as they would if I were just betting on them.

There is, however, another possibility for the year ad 2000. This will require putting our minds on physical facts and being relatively unconcerned with the United States of America as an abstract political entity. By overlooking the nation, we can turn full attention to the territory, to the actual earth, with its waters and forests, flowers and crops, animals and human beings—and so create, with less cost and suffering than we are bearing in 1968, a viable and thoroughly enjoyable biological experiment.

The chances may be slim. Not long ago Congress voted, with much patriotic rhetoric, for the imposition of severe penalties upon anyone presuming to burn the flag of the United States. Yet the very Congressmen who passed this law are responsible, by acts of commission or omission, for burning, polluting, and plundering the territory that the flag is supposed to represent. Therein, they exemplified the peculiar and perhaps fatal fallacy of civilization: the confusion of symbol with reality.

Civilization, comprising all the achievements of art and science, technology and industry, is the result of man’s invention and manipulation of symbols—of words, letters, numbers, formulas and concepts, and of such social institutions as universally accepted clocks and rulers, scales and timetables, schedules and laws. By these means, we measure, predict, and control the behavior of the human and natural worlds—and with such startling apparent success that the trick goes to our heads. All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is. As semanticist Alfred Korzybski used to say, it is an urgent necessity to distinguish between the map and the territory and, he might have added, between the flag and the country. Let me illustrate this point and, at the same time, explain the major obstacle to sane technological progress, by dwelling on the fundamental confusion between money and wealth. Remember the Great Depression of the Thirties? One day there was a flourishing consumer economy, with everyone on the up–and–up; and the next, unemployment, poverty, and bread lines. What happened? The physical resources of the country—the brain, brawn, and raw materials—were in no way depleted, but there was a sudden absence of money, a so–called financial slump. Complex reasons for this kind of disaster can be elaborated at length by experts on banking and high finance who cannot see the forest for the trees. But it was just as if someone had come to work on building a house and, on the morning of the Depression, the boss had said, “Sorry, baby, but we can’t build today. No inches.” “Whaddya mean, no inches? We got wood. We got metal. We even got tape measures.” “Yeah, but you don’t understand business. We been using too many inches and there’s just no more to go around.”

A few years later, people were saying that Germany couldn’t possibly equip a vast army and wage a war, because it didn’t have enough gold.

What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.

But this ingrained and archaic confusion of money with wealth is now the main reason we are not going ahead full tilt with the development of our technological genius for the production of more than adequate food, clothing, housing, and utilities for every person on earth. It can be done, for electronics, computers, automation techniques, and other mechanical methods of mass production have, potentially, lifted us into an age of abundance in which the political and economic ideologies of the past, whether left, middle, or right, are simply obsolete. There is no question anymore of the old socialist or communist schemes of robbing the rich to pay the poor, or of financing a proper distribution of wealth by the ritualistic and tiresome mumbo jumbo of taxation. If, if we get our heads straight about money, I predict that by ad 2000, or sooner, no one will pay taxes, no one will carry cash, utilities will be free, and everyone will carry a general credit card. This card will be valid up to each individual’s share in a guaranteed basic income or national dividend, issued free, beyond which he may still earn anything more that he desires by an art or craft, profession or trade that has not been displaced by automation. (For detailed information on the mechanics of such an economy, the reader should refer to Robert Theobald’s Challenge of Abundance and Free Men and Free Markets, and also to a series of essays that he has edited, The Guaranteed Income. Theobald is an avant–garde economist on the faculty of Columbia University.)

Naturally, such outrageous proposals will raise the old cries, “But where’s the money going to come from?” or “Who pays the bills?” But the point is that money doesn’t and never did come from anywhere, as if it were something like lumber or iron or hydroelectric power. Again: money is a measure of wealth, and we invent money as we invent the Fahrenheit scale of temperature or the avoirdupois measure of weight. When you discover and mine a load of iron ore, you don’t have to borrow or ask someone for “a thousand tons” before you can do anything with it.

By contrast with money, true wealth is the sum of energy, technical intelligence, and raw materials. Gold itself is wealth only when used for such practical purposes as filling teeth. As soon as it is used for money, kept locked in vaults or fortresses, it becomes useless for anything else and thus goes out of circulation as a form of raw material; i.e., real wealth. If money must be gold or silver or nickel, the expansion and distribution of vast wealth in the form of wheat, poultry, cotton, vegetables, butter, wine, fish, or coffee must wait upon the discovery of new gold mines before it can proceed. This obviously ludicrous predicament has, heretofore, been circumvented by increasing the national debt—a roundabout piece of semantic obscurantism—by which a nation issues itself credit or purchasing power based, not on holdings in precious metals, but on real wealth in the form of products and materials and mechanical energy. Because national debts far exceed anyone’s reserves of gold or silver, it is generally supposed that a country with a large national debt is spending beyond its income and is well on the road to poverty and ruin—no matter how enormous its supplies of energy and material resources. This is the basic confusion between symbol and reality, here involving the bad magic of the word “debt,” which is understood as in the phrase “going into debt.” But national debt should properly be called national credit. By issuing national (or general) credit, a given population gives itself purchasing power, a method of distribution for its actual goods and services, which are far more valuable than any amount of precious metal.

Mind you, I write of these things as a simple philosopher and not as a financial or economic expert bristling with facts and figures. But the role of the philosopher is to look at such matters from the standpoint of the child in Hans Andersen’s tale of The Emperor’s New Clothes. The philosopher tries to get down to the most basic, simple principles. He sees people wasting material wealth, or just letting it rot, or hoarding it uselessly for lack of purely abstract counters called dollars or pounds or francs.

From this very basic or, if you will, childish point of view, I see that we have created a marvelous technology for the supply of goods and services with a minimum of human drudgery. Isn’t it obvious that the whole purpose of machines is to get rid of work? When you get rid of the work required for producing basic necessities, you have leisure—time for fun or for new and creative explorations and adventures. But with the characteristic blindness of those who cannot distinguish symbol from reality, we allow our machinery to put people out of work—not in the sense of being at leisure but in the sense of having no money and of having shamefacedly to accept the miserable charity of public welfare. Thus—as the rationalization or automation of industry extends—we increasingly abolish human slavery; but in penalizing the displaced slaves, in depriving them of purchasing power, the manufacturers in turn deprive themselves of outlets and markets for their products. The machines produce more and more, humans produce less and less, but the products pile up undistributed and unconsumed, because too few can earn enough money and because even the hungriest, greediest, and most ruthless capitalist cannot consume ten pounds of butter per day.

Any child should understand that money is a convenience for eliminating barter, so that you don’t have to go to market with baskets of eggs or firkins of beer to swap them for meat and vegetables. But if all you had to barter with was your physical or mental energy in work that is now done by machines, the problem would then be: What will you do for a living and how will the manufacturer find customers for his tons of butter and sausages?

The sole rational solution would be for the community as a whole to issue itself credit—money—for the work done by the machines. This would enable their products to be fairly distributed and their owners and managers to be fairly paid, so that they could invest in bigger and better machines. And all the while, the increasing wealth would be coming from the energy of the machines and not from ritualistic manipulations with gold. In some ways, we are doing this already, but by the self-destructive expedient of issuing ourselves credit (now called debt) for engines of war. What the nations of the world have spent on war since 1914 could, with our technology, have supplied every person on earth with a comfortable independent income. But because we confuse wealth with money, we confuse issuing ourselves credit with going into debt. No one goes into debt except in emergency; and therefore, prosperity depends on maintaining the perpetual emergency of war. We are reduced, then, to the suicidal expedient of inventing wars when, instead, we could simply have invented money—provided that the amount invented was always proportionate to the real wealth being produced. We should replace the gold standard by the wealth standard. The difficulty is that, with our present superstitions about money, the issue of a guaranteed basic income of, say, $10,000 per annum per person would result in wild inflation. Prices would go sky–high to “catch” the vast amounts of new money in circulation and, in short order, everyone would be a pauper on $10,000 a year. The hapless, dollar–hypnotized sellers do not realize that whenever they raise prices, the money so gained has less and less purchasing power, which is the reason that as material wealth grows and grows, the value of the monetary unit (dollar or pound) goes down and down—so that you have to run faster and faster to stay where you are, instead of letting the machines run for you. If we shift from the gold standard to the wealth standard, prices must stay more or less where they are at the time of the shift and—miraculously—everyone will discover that he has enough or more than enough to wear, eat, drink, and otherwise survive with affluence and merriment.

It is not going to be at all easy to explain this to the world at large, because mankind has existed for perhaps one million years with relative material scarcity, and it is now roughly a mere one hundred years since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As it was once very difficult to persuade people that the earth is round and that it is in orbit around the sun, or to make it clear that the universe exists in a curved space–time continuum, it may be just as hard to get it through to “common sense” that the virtues of making and saving money are obsolete. It may have to be put across by the most skillfully prepared and simply presented TV programs, given by scientific–looking gentlemen in spectacles and white coats, and through millions of specially designed comic books.

It will always be possible, of course, for anyone so inclined to earn more than the guaranteed basic income; but as it becomes clearer and clearer that money is not wealth, people will realize that there are limits to the real wealth that any individual can consume. We may have to adopt some form of German economist Silvio Gessell’s suggestion that money not in circulation be made progressively perishable, declining in value from the date of issue. But the temptation to hoard either money or wealth will dwindle as it becomes obvious that technology will keep the supplies coming and that you cannot drive four cars at once, live simultaneously in six homes, take three tours at the same time, or devour twelve roasts of beef at one meal.

All this will involve a curious reversal of the Protestant ethic, which, at least in the United States, is one of the big obstacles to a future of wealth and leisure for all. The Devil, it is said, finds work for idle hands to do, and human energy cannot be trusted unless most of it is absorbed in hard, productive work—so that, on coming home, we are too tired to get into mischief. It is feared that affluence plus leisure will, as in times past, lead to routs and orgies and all the perversities that flow therefrom, and then on to satiation, debilitation, and decay— as in Hogarth’s depiction of A Rake’s Progress.

Indeed, there are reasonable grounds for such fears, and it may well be that our New England consciences, our chronic self–disapproval, will have to be maintained by an altogether new kind of sermonizing designed to inculcate a fully up–to–date sense of guilt. Preachers of the late twentieth century will have to insist that enjoyment of total luxury is a sacred and solemn duty. Penitents will be required to confess such sins as failing to give adequate satisfaction to one’s third concubine or lack of attention to some fine detail in serving a banquet to friends—such as forgetting to put enough marijuana in the turkey stuffing. Sure, I am talking with about one half of my tongue in my cheek, but I am trying to make the deadly serious point that, as of today, an economic utopia is not wishful thinking but, in some substantial degree, the necessary alternative to self–destruction.

The moral challenge and the grim problem we face is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination. Somewhat as metals deteriorate from “fatigue,” every constant stimulation of consciousness, however pleasant, tends to become boring and thus to be ignored. When physical comfort is permanent, it ceases to be noticed. If you have worried for years about lack of money and then become rich, the new sense of ease and security is short–lived, for you soon begin to worry as much as ever—about cancer or heart disease. Nature abhors a vacuum. For this reason, the life of pleasure cannot be maintained without a certain asceticism, as in the time and effort required for a woman to keep her hair and face in fine condition, for the weaving of exquisite textiles or for the preparation of superior food. Thus, the French distinguish between a gourmand and a gourmet, the former being a mere glutton, a trencherman who throws anything and everything down the hatch; and the latter, a fussy, subtle, and sophisticated devotee of the culinary arts.

Timothy Leary was not so wide of the mark when he said that we must go out of our minds (abstract values) to come to our senses (concrete values). For coming to our senses must, above all, be the experience of our own existence as living organisms rather than “personalities,” like characters in a play or a novel acting out some artificial plot in which the persons are simply masks for a conflict of abstract ideas or principles. Man as an organism is to the world outside like a whirlpool is to a river: man and world are a single natural process, but we are behaving as if we were invaders and plunderers in a foreign territory. For when the individual is defined and felt as the separate personality or ego, he remains unaware that his actual body is a dancing pattern of energy that simply does not happen by itself. It happens only in concert with myriads of other patterns—called animals, plants, insects, bacteria, minerals, liquids, and gases. The definition of a person and the normal feeling of “I” do not effectively include these relationships. You say, “I came into this world.” You didn’t; you came out of it, as a branch from a tree.

So long as we do not effectively feel this to be so, there is no motivation for forms of politics that recognize the interdependence of all peoples, nor for forms of technology that realize man’s inseparability from the entire network of natural patterns. How, then, is the sense of self to be changed? By scientific education? It convinces the intellect but not the emotions. By religion? The record is not hopeful. By psychotherapy? Much too slow. If anything is to be done about it, and done in time, I must agree with Aldous Huxley (and with the sober and scholarly Arthur Koestler in his Ghost in the Machine) that our only resort may be psychopharmacology—a chemical, a pill, that brings the mind to its senses.

Although I have experimented very sympathetically with such methods (LSD, etc.), I would be as reluctant to try to change the world with psychedelics as to dose everyone indiscriminately with antibiotics. We do not yet know what ecological damage the latter may have done, how profoundly they may have upset certain balances of nature. I have, therefore, another and perhaps equally unacceptable suggestion.

This is simply that nothing be done about it. Shortly before his death, Robert Oppenheimer is said to have remarked that the whole world is, quite obviously, going to hell—adding, however, that the one slim chance of its not going to hell is that we do absolutely nothing to stop it. For the greatest illusion of the abstract ego is that it can do anything to bring about radical improvement either in itself or in the world. This is as impossible, physically, as trying to lift yourself off the floor by your own bootstraps. Furthermore, the ego is (like money) a concept, a symbol, even a delusion—not a biological process or physical reality. Practically, this means that we stop crusading—that is, acting for such abstract causes as the good, righteousness, peace, universal love, freedom, and social justice, and stop fighting against such equally abstract bogeys as communism, fascism, racism, and the imaginary powers of darkness and evil. For most of the hell now being raised in the world is well intentioned. We justify our wars and revolutions as unfortunate means for good ends, as a general recently explained that he had destroyed a village in Vietnam for its own safety. This is also why we can reach no genuine agreement—only the most transitory and unsatisfactory compromises—at the conference tables, for each side believes itself to be acting for the best motives and for the ultimate benefit of the world. To be human, one must recognize and accept a certain element of irreducible rascality both in oneself and in one’s enemies. It is, therefore, an enormous relief to realize that these abstract ambitions are total nonsense and to see that we have been wasting untold psychic and physical energy in a fatuous enterprise. For when it is understood that trying to have good without evil is as absurd as trying to have white without black, all that energy is released for things that can be done. It can be diverted from abstract causes to specific, material undertakings—to farming and cooking, mining and engineering, making clothes and buildings, traveling and learning, art, music, dancing, and making love. Surely, these are excellent things to do for their own sake and not, please not, for one’s own or anyone else’s improvement.

Read more Alan Watts: Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality

About Alan Watts

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