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Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

Commonly Misunderstood Concepts: Wealth (2009) – Article by G. Stolyarov II

The New Renaissance Hat
G. Stolyarov II
Originally Published November 16, 2009
as Part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator
Republished July 24, 2014
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally published as part of Issue CCXVIII of The Rational Argumentator on November 16, 2009, using the Yahoo! Voices publishing platform. Because of the imminent closure of Yahoo! Voices, the essay is now being made directly available on The Rational Argumentator.
~ G. Stolyarov II, July 24, 2014
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Many of the economic and personal fallacies of our time arise from the mistaken belief that wealth and money are identical. In fact, while money is in many cases an important gateway to wealth, it does not even approach describing what wealth truly is.

In our time, money may be equated to wealth even less justifiably than it could have been in times past – when most money was identified with precious metals, such as gold and silver, which had uses other than as media of exchange. Currently, money in virtually all countries consists of pieces of paper which are decreed to be money by government fiat. Legal tender laws force individuals to accept these special pieces of paper as payment for products, services, or debts. The supply of these pieces of paper is controlled by the government’s printing press – typically located at either the central bank or the treasury department.

Why do people seek and hold this money? They do so because they expect to be able to purchase with it actual goods and services – either now or in the future. This means that the money is not seen as valuable in itself; it is seen as valuable because of the other things it can obtain. However, the supply of these other things is not dependent on the number of pieces of paper in circulation. Rather, it is dependent on real factors that affect individuals’ and businesses’ abilities to produce actual goods and services. Thus, having more pieces of paper does not automatically make one wealthier. If the government simply chooses to print more of them, while no external factors affect the production of goods and services, then there will simply be more pieces of paper for the same amount of real goods and services. We would therefore get inflation: prices in terms of the pieces of paper will increase in proportion to the volume of new pieces of paper introduced. Of course, inflation has disastrous impacts on individuals’ existing savings, incentives for frugality, and transaction costs. It also constitutes an unjustified redistribution of wealth from the producers who earn it to the politically connected elites who get priority access to the new pieces of paper. Creating more “money” can often destroy actual wealth and productivity.

But there is another respect in which money is not equivalent to wealth. Consider the fact that, even without inflation, the same amount of money will not purchase the same goods and services in every area. Indeed, a tiny, cramped apartment in the center of a major city may often cost more money than a spacious house in a small town. An individual earning the same amount of money in each area would be able to have a much higher standard of living in the small town. It is quite possible that the individual’s opportunities to earn more money in a big city will be greater, but the prices of goods will not increase in a one-to-one ratio with that individual’s relative salary increase. Rather, the prices are most likely to be higher in a ratio that is greater or smaller than the individual’s ratio of salaries – thereby making life in the city either less or more attractive to the individual. How much money one makes is not an indicator of the rate at which one accumulates wealth; a better indicator is what one can buy for one’s money.

These thoughts should give pause to both advocates of the government’s power of the printing press and to indiscriminate salary chasers. Both may be devoting their time and energy to the pursuit of numerical illusions rather than substantive benefits. A much more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of wealth is needed in order to truly thrive and lead a good life.

To achieve an understanding of wealth, we need to ask ourselves why we seek money in the first place. Ultimately, every unit of money – even one saved or invested for many years – goes to fund some human consumption. Money can pay for either goods – material objects – or services – human behaviors performed for the benefit of the payer. It is actual goods and services that constitute wealth, not the money. Moreover, the money price of these goods and services is irrelevant from the standpoint of the wealth of the person who owns them. If I have a table, I am no less wealthy if I cannot sell the table at all – nor am I any wealthier just because I have the potential to sell it for five million dollars. I still have the same table, and its physical qualities are unchanged. If I actually do sell it, I might become wealthier, but only insofar as my five million dollars would enable me to purchase more tables, better tables, or other goods and services I value. The important principle to recognize is that one either has potential wealth in the form of money or actual wealth in the form of the goods and services one has purchased. One does not have both at the same time in the same object. Fiat money is wealth only insofar as it can reasonably be expected to procure actual goods and services. Goods and services constitute wealth in themselves while they last. Capital goods that can produce other goods can also be described as potential wealth – but it is also true that they are not money while one owns them as goods.

A further distinction should be made. Not all material objects are goods, and not all human behaviors are services. Some material objects – such as clouds of poison gas in one’s living room – are active bads. Likewise, some human behaviors – such as people raping or murdering one another – are active disservices. The only way to comprehensively define wealth is with regard to a standard by which goods and services can be identified. The most fundamental standard from both a moral and a practical standpoint is the principle that the life of every innocent individual is the greatest and most basic good – where an innocent individual is one who has not violated this principle through actions such as murder or the attempt at murder. Thus, any object that promotes any individual’s life is a good; any behavior that promotes any individual’s life is a service. The more life-promoting objects one has – and the more life-promoting behaviors one either is able to elicit from others or is able to initiate oneself – the wealthier one is.

Everything else is a matter of means and context. How one gets wealth – whether it be through money, barter, gifts, or one’s own work and transformation of raw materials – has no bearing on the nature of that wealth; all of us who are not self-destructive pursue a wide variety of means that fundamentally aim at the goal of improving our lives. Ethically, the means ought to be non-coercive; we must not intrude on other people’s prerogatives to control their lives just like they must not intrude on ours. Wealth is still wealth, even if acquired through dishonest or evil means – but immoral means of wealth acquisition will destroy other wealth on net, through damage to property and human beings and their incentives to produce.

Moreover, it is possible for the same object to be beneficial in some circumstances and harmful in others. For instance, a piece of rope used to tie a knot may be extremely useful, while the same piece of rope strung across the floor of a room might be a tripping hazard. However, the same item or behavior in the exact same context should produce the same results; actual situations are never precisely repeatable, but we can at least estimate an object’s usefulness or lack thereof by analyzing situations where it has been applied in similar ways.

This view has practical implications beyond the scope of one’s views on economics or politics. Most items in our lives should be viewed not in terms of how we might be able to resell them to others, but rather in terms of what use they are to us personally. There is nothing wrong with resale as such, but it is not a behavior that can be imposed on all objects – and, indeed, economic bubbles are created when the expectation of resale for continually rising prices is applied by enough people to too many commodities. Those of us who acquire an item for our own use – which includes our purchases of art, furniture, automobiles, and yes, even houses – are not in the same position as businessmen who produce or acquire items for the specific purpose of reselling them at a profit. Businessmen see their inventories as potential money generators – an indirect route to greater wealth; consumers ought to see their property as useful in itself and any resale as incidental or fortuitous – a kind of loss mitigation once one is no longer able or willing to make good use of the property. We have adjusted quite well to the idea that the resale value of an automobile or a computer is virtually always much lower than its purchase price. In the role of consumers, we should adopt the same default expectation for houses – and for everything else. But the silly notion that one is entitled to resell any property at a higher price than one purchased it must be discarded, as it results in the foolish pursuit of higher-priced items in the vain hope of their further appreciation in price – without any expert knowledge of how markets in these items actually work. This turns many a layman into a speculator, while enticing him to take out loans with his fanciful expectations as collateral – as happened all too often during the housing bubble. Moreover, it engenders the disastrous attitude that price decreases – which make goods such as houses more affordable for people – are in some manner harmful. But one cannot destroy wealth by making goods easier to earn through honest work – nor can one create wealth by piggybacking off of others’ expectations of price increases.

Leave the house-flipping to the experts, and buy a house that you would want to live in, just as you buy clothes you want to wear and computers you want to use. That house would constitute real wealth for you, irrespective of its market price, and it will be there irrespective of financial market or currency value fluctuations – if you actually own the house or have a fixed-rate mortgage. To maximize your wealth, you should act in such a manner as to improve your access to actual goods and services that you value. Pieces of paper and expectations can only get you so far. And remember that your own ability to do useful work – including work that does not bring immediate monetary returns – is one of your most reliable gateways to wealth.

Read other articles in The Rational Argumentator’s Issue CCXVIII.