Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What Is Wealth?

Wealth is what makes us well in the world. It is the existential necessities of food and shelter followed closely by community. We are social animals and life means little without the sharing we do with family, friends and society. Even less without food and shelter. In the urban world most of us now inhabit these existential necessities are entirely or largely mediated by money: we live in a market society where the means of subsistence are accessed only indirectly, through a complex and stratified division of labor bequeathed by industrialization. Even our private lives have become monetized with our parents in assisted living and our children in day care. Ever more of our existence is mediated by the division of labor and channeled through markets by the psychological pull of money.

Money looks like wealth because we can exchange it for necessities as well as luxuries. That money makes no distinction between the two highlights its amorality. Money is morally neutral, real wealth is not. In fact, I'll argue here that real wealth is necessarily moral as it is what makes life good, it provides moral value. Money is a tool that like all others lacks moral agency: it is neither good nor bad on its own and achieves what moral meaning it can only through the agency of the people that use it. Real wealth is existential goods that propagate our genes into the future. Wealth is what is necessary for the long term prosperity both of ourselves individually, and our species. Where it fails on either count, it is not real wealth, at best it is extraction which can parade as wealth only to the extent it escapes scrutiny while it wastes what is real beyond view.

Most economic activity is purely extractive and cannot earn the moral appellation, wealth. This activity and its product is none the less commonly considered wealth despite its destruction of individual and species wide futures through its waste of what is real, living and valuable. This destructiveness usually happens beyond the immediate environment where money falsely parades as wealth. How and why is this self destructive delusion sustained? And how does money maintain the penumbra of wealth's positive association despite its destructive effects?

This is tied up in the illusory value of money where we let it stand in metaphorically for wealth. It is an artifact of our fast, heuristic thinking eliding the complex meanings of the systems we have built, stretching them over emotional templates evolved for an environment these systems have replaced. We elide our existential dependence on life, the ecology from which we actually feed, and seize the abstraction at hand, money that delivers it to our table. To understand how and why this happens wherever civilization obtains lets look at the usage of the word "wealth".

From Merriam-Webster on line:

WEALTH, noun \'welth also 'weltth\:
  1. a large amount of money and possessions
  2. the value of all the property, possessions, and money that someone or something has
  3. a large amount or number
Full Definition of wealth:
  1. obsolete: Weal, Welfare
  2. abundance of valuable material possessions or resources
  3. abundant supply: profusion 
  4. a.  all property that has a money value or an exchange value, b. all material objects that have economic utility; especially: the stock of useful goods having economic value in existence at any one time
Lets flesh these out:

  1. a large amount of money and possessions: This is the practical day to day usage to which civilization puts the word. A large amount of money or possessions is what we think of when we hear the word and underlying questions of what value is and why don't enter out thoughts. As supported by the institutions of a money issuing central bank, courts and their executive agencies, governance and the resulting markets that call forth what goods and services we need as we need them, this definition is a good short hand for those who have wealth and deploy it into civilizations infrastructures. 
  2. the value of all the property, possessions, and money that someone or something has: Is our next most common usage, essentially a summary of an individuals or institution's endowment of 1. above.
  3. a large amount or number: Having taken the implicit value of the two definitions above at their face, a large quantity of anything is by virtue of its number alone, "wealth".
Full Definition of wealth:
  1. obsolete: Weal, Welfare: Now things get interesting. Again from Merriam-Webster, weal is a sound, healthy or prosperous state: well-being. Quite different this, nothing about money at all. Further, as a second meaning, now doubly obsolete: body politic, commonweal. Then, welfare, the state of doing well especially in respect to good fortune, happiness, well-being, or prosperity. 
  2. abundance of valuable material possessions or resources: in the above context, this would be shelter and food, of the healthy, sustainable variety. This is the very essence of real wealth, where an individual can command it in security or where for collective security it is commanded by a society, an amalgam of our fellow beasts for which we are obviously socially evolved despite our selfish predilections otherwise.
  3. abundant supply: profusion: This abundant supply or profusion becomes a commutative part of the word usage, porting the idea elsewhere as metaphor.
  4. a.  all property that has a money value or an exchange value, b. all material objects that have economic utility; especially: the stock of useful goods having economic value in existence at any one time wealth: And finally we collapse back into our habitual, civilized usage: money and other "values" as measured by money. 
Our caloric weal is the most useful entry point into understanding what real wealth is. We all need around 2,000 calories a day of food. Within that, there needs to be a particular distribution of nutrients. The calories alone aren't enough, it is the balance of nutrients that make a diet healthy, which is, from