On Money and Misers: How Much is Enough?

I recently read How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky. One of the things the Skidelskys do in the book is provide an analysis of the roots of our insatiability, why we can't seem to answer the question "When is enough enough?" Why is it that we keep wanting more and more?

A part of the reason has to do with the advent of money.

Money has blurred the line between needs and wants and between necessities and luxuries. Because of this we tend to want more as the line of "enough" is fuzzy and obscured.

How has money contributed to this situation?

One of the things that the Skidelskys point to is how money has shifted us away from use-value to exchange-value. Prior to modern economies and the ubiquity of money value was determined by use. The question wasn't "How much does something cost?" but "What is it good for?" Value was tied up with function. A shovel was valuable because it helped you dig. A bucket was valuable because it helped you carry things. And so on.

When use-value governs our imaginations the question "How much is enough?" is easier to answer. For example, how many forks do you need? How many cars? How many shoes? How many chairs? How many lawnmowers?

When we ask about use-value we get a sense that there is a reasonable answer and a limit to how much might be "enough." We don't need 100 forks or cars or shoes or chairs or lawnmowers. How many lawnmowers is enough? Just one for most of us.

Most of the ancient moral philosophers, as they pondered vices such as greed and acquisitiveness, were working with conceptions of use-value. That is, they could rightly see and condemn persons who acquired more things than they had use for. Such greed looked irrational, it was hoarding. Why would anyone want 1,000 chairs or shovels?

But things changed with the rise of money. Money shifted us away from use-value to exchange-value. Instead of acquiring chairs or forks--which have defined functions and, thus, inherent limits as to how many of these things are "enough"--we now acquire money which has no particular use or function beyond purchasing power. Money introduced liquidity into our lives, where goods can be reduced to money and that money used to purchase other goods. In modern economies liquidity is what makes the world go around. But liquidity makes is hard to determine how much is enough.

How much money is enough? It seems clear that a person with 1,000 forks has a bit of a fork-problem. How many forks do you really need? You only need as many as you have use for. But what about money? Does someone with with $1,000 have too many dollar bills? How about $10,000? Or $100,000? Or $1,000,000?

Because money has no use-value such questions seem odd. You can never have enough money because money is about exchange-value. Money can get you anything with a price, anything you need. Or want. And that's the root of the problem. When our desires shifted to money rather than to real goods and their function we lost our ability to draw a clear line between need and want and between necessities and luxuries.

Money, in sort, allows us to hoard. Someone with a million forks is clearly insane. But someone with a million dollars? To be sure we've tried to make a connection here. Misers are those who hoard money like a crazy person hoards forks. We think of someone like Ebenezer Scrooge here, a miser counting his money, hoarding it, having too much of it.

But the miser is an old-fashioned concept. The miser expressed a moral worry in the early years of capitalism when use-value began to give way to exchange-value. The miser was an attempt to apply notions of hoarding, a notion coherent in a world of use-value, to the new era of exchange-value. The miser was hoarding money. The miser had more than enough. Like a person with 1,000 forks.

But again, the miser as a moral concept has fallen on hard times. It would sound weird today to call a millionaire a miser, a hoarder of money.

But it's not just an issue with millionaires. Money has affected how all of us ask and answer the question "How much is enough?" We can never have enough money. And this drives greed, materialism, consumerism, and insatiability.

Basically, because of liquidity money hides our hoarding.

With the rise of money we've lost the ability to ask "What do I really need?" That's a good old-fashioned use-value question that we should spend more time contemplating. Unfortunately, our questions tend to be exchange-value questions, questions like "How much can I buy?"

And with those sorts of questions leading us forward the words of Paul seem particularly prophetic and apt:
1 Timothy 6.10
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

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32 thoughts on “On Money and Misers: How Much is Enough?”

  1. Someone said, "In a society where the dominant form of production is for market exchange, the relations between people become value relations". Understanding exchange value versus use value helps explain wasted food, abandoned buildings and countless other social ills that seem to come from outside and disturb the system. But it is the system. Running quite smoothly in fact. The absent landlord rented his property for exchange value until its use value was depleted. The Food show down the road produced elaborate food dishes for display as an exchange value and then at the end of the day threw it all out for it had no use value. 

  2. Richard, this reminds me of what Marx discussed regarding the commoditization labor. A person’s work went from being a valuable, personal craft inherent to production to a commodity to be bought and sold (in bulk) to maximize profit. I think the exchange-value transition you discuss here goes hand in hand with labor commoditization. Labor is another currency within kapitalizm.    That, in turn, brings up the dehumanization of people, which you have discussed here, prior.

  3. Yeah I really like this way of thinking "how many buckets do I need?  how many forks?"  While this answer may vary from person to person, family to family, I think it at least forces the issue of having to define what contentedness would mean for each of us.  Not only would contentedness be a blessing to the person who has it, but it would also empower giving.

  4. And it appears to only be getting worse, particularly to D Miner's point below, the dehumanization of people as a labor commodity. It's all I can think about when we hear politicians debating outsourcing/foreign labor, i.e., GM plants in Mexico, Apple plants in China, etc., and their working and living conditions. Western society has chosen their king and it is the Almighty Dollar.

  5. Why are Americans special, why are they entitled to there high paying jobs? This should be considered a blessing, less hoarding by American workers?

  6. Perhaps I worded my post poorly. I am saying their working conditions are bad. Their wages are bad. Their quality of life is bad and they suffer oppression, injustice and abuse and this is not okay and we as the people should speak out and boycott. Just because it is legal does not make it right...most mega, global corporations exist for profit, period. Their objective is in no way to make the Earth a better place...they aren't charities. And Americans aren't special. Or entitled to better jobs. We are just lucky, by no merit of our own, and that is all. 

  7. I might add that the growing separation between how we spend our time (TV, sitting at a desk, etc.) and the actual tasks/ work required for sustaining life (growing food, raising animals, building shelter/homes, minor repairs) we have lost our ability to have a use-based value system. We don't know what is useful. I am not advocating for self sufficiency but most people I know are unable to do any of the tasks necessary for living. Thank you to Wendell Berry and Joel Salatin for helping me see the insanity of this way of life.

  8. Seems like the issue has been around forever.  After all, who wants to pray every day, "Give me today my daily bread"?  Wouldn't it be nice to not have to pray that for, say, oh, the rest of our lives?
    13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

  9. As a follower of the teachings of Jesus I understand the tenant of free will as being somewhat vital to the quality of our existence. If I deem an owner of 1 million forks to be clearly insane, I too run the risk of being deemed insane for believing in the magical teachings of an unseen spirit. I think it is vital for a free society to not judge how much is enough as long as it is not gotten in a manner that violates other's free will. Warren Buffett has too many 'forks' but will do a tremendous amount of God's work unbeknownst him.

    One of the principles that has allowed our society to bring so many more millions out of poverty is the Adam Smith taught, division of labor. My family and I are grateful thrice daily that the farmer is greedy enough to want to make more money than he currently possesses and is willing to take my money rather than my shotty labor in exchange for the food that allows my family to live. Thank God for liquidity.

  10. The rise of liquid, fiat currencies such as our American dollar, to replace land-value and bartering, was a huge game-changer economically. Suddenly, for the haves, the potential to satisfy material desires was a shopping trip away. This practically heralded a new consumerist age.

    I am very much a minimalist. Occasionally I'll spend money on an item of clothing if it's a decent value, a book, or a music album (to be played on a CD player, because having the latest iPod or whatever doesn't concern me). I indulge in a few sorts of things, sometimes, but I happily limit it. I like for there to be nothing I don't use.

    This middle path between typical American consumerism on the one hand, and complete self-effacement on the other, keeps me grounded.

    May you be blessed.

  11. Great insight. The extreme example of this contemporary problem is the compulsive hoarder. Such people, to fill the void within, hold onto nearly any material THING until they've mountains of it. It doesn't matter how useless the stuff is or how ugly and miserable is the resulting living space ... as long as they have more stuff around than they can possibly keep track of.

  12. Just as I expected, the comments thus far do not seem to recognize that a person who has 1,000,000 forks cannot easily deploy those forks to create a couple of jobs for a couple of neighbors who need them.  The dude with $1,000,000 most certainly can.  So if we wish to expand wealth - if only to ensure that a growing population has the same material standard of living next year that it has this year - we're far better off economy-wide with dollar-"hoarders" (!) than fork-hoarders, and we're also better off with dollar-"hoarders" than someone who decides four forks is quite enough, thank you.

    The fungibility of currency may have its downsides, but it has some inescapable upsides in relation to...JOBS.

    qb

  13. As long as we have need or at least think we do we will never be satisfied. It doesn't matter what it is we will have more. We must serve a master over our life. Ourselves or our creator. 

  14.  As far as minimalism is concerned, what's the difference between owning a CD player or an iPod? Sounds more like technophobia than minimalism. I don't mean to be uncharitable. But if you're buying an iPod for its functionality (as opposed to some sort of consumerist mania) I don't see the problem.

  15. I believe that when you reduce your music to something that's just on an mp3 player's drive, with nothing more tangible than a tiny thumbnail graphic, and always take it on the go, that does cheapen the music. The ascendance of the iPod over the CD is part of the mindset of haste and expecting something for nothing (and is living proof that most people are lives and thieves by inclination, because statistically, how many pay for their mp3s?). But that is beside the point.

    Of course, we both know that many people feel they need to not only have Apple's products, but always have the latest iterations of them. That's techno-fetishism and it's self-consciousness.

    Reading Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings again, I am captivated by the "hobbit ideal", that comfortable, technology-oblivious middle way between abstinence and greed.

  16.  "Of course, we both know that many people feel they need to not only have
    Apple's products, but always have the latest iterations of them. That's
    techno-fetishism and it's self-consciousness."

    True, but what about the person who says, "My CD player doesn't work--I think I'll buy an MP3 player and rip all my CDs to it?"  That's what I did.

    I do agree that, while it's nice to have fancy devices, it's wrong to be constantly hunting for The Newest And Bestest Devices Ever.  That's just horrifyingly wasteful.

  17.  Yes, but how many millionaires actually do use that accumulated wealth to create jobs?

    In practice, when taxes were cut on the wealthy, so that the wealthy could then use that money to hire more people and pay them better, the wealthy, by and large, turned around and said, "Hey, I have more money now.  I think I'll buy more stuff with it" instead of "Hey, I have more money now.  I could pay a lot more people, and pay them better wages, with this money."

  18. After reading the article and comments so far, I notice one issue that seems to be overlooked: money as safety. Let's consider the horrific problems of getting sick in the United States: basically, unless you have very good health insurance, you'll be bankrupt in short order. That hoarded million dollars? One significant illness or accident, with time in the hospital, will make it melt like snow in August. Now, it's obvious - or it seems obvious to me - that a better solution is to find a way to even out the risks among everyone. But that's not where we are today, and depending on the vagaries of politics, we may never get there.

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the way CEO salaries have skyrocketed in the US over the past few decades, especially as compared to salaries in other prosperous countries that have stronger health safety nets?

  19. This verse is often used as a blunt weapon in religious circles with deep roots in blue-collar environments. I grew up hearing "money is the root of all evil."

    Class-based demonization was possible in a value-based economy just as it is an exchange-based economy. Dehumanization has happened and continues to happen in all economies. "Enough" also assumes a scarcity-based economic approach (there's only so much money to go around). It is possible, in fact it's a value to be pursued IMO, that those who are excel at leveraging the exchange-based economy to gather currency can do so for the common good--jobs, charity, etc.

    Perhaps a modern reading of this passage would be, "the love of ones economic status is a root of all kinds of evil." Those with little currency have wandered from faith just as those who have much currency.

  20. Let's reject this facile notion that the only organizations that exist to make the Earth a better place are "charities."  The profit motive makes tremendous amounts of good available to many.  Hell, even these days if you posit (which qb does not, but for the sake of argument) that so-called organic foods are "good," then you must concede that so-called organic farmers are, through their profit motives, making the world a better place, even if they don't give their produce away at cost.  Mercy.

  21. And just who was it who MANUFACTURED the increment of "stuff" that that greedy miser decided to buy instead?  You, sir/madam, need a nice, long soak in the "pencil parable."

  22. Nearly ALL of them use their accumulated wealth to create jobs, in fact.  That's precisely what investment does, among other things:  it puts capital at the disposal of someone who is willing to take a risk, generate demand (or respond to demand) for a product or service, and then hire people to provide that product or service.

  23. One last thing.  It is by now well documented (and publicly lamented by the very ones responsible for it) that there exists a LOT of capital on the sidelines right now, in the form of enormous cash reserves and the like, that in the ordinary course of events would be deployed as investment capital.  Now why do you suppose that is?  If you said, "because business people who would otherwise be interested in deploying that capital to create more jobs to generate more wealth are plagued with uncertainty and fear about their future tax exposure," then go to the head of the class.  This president, such as he is, either has no clue about this elementary dynamic, or he is actively trying to defy it.  Either way, capital is on the sidelines that would otherwise be in play and creating jobs, and THIS PRESIDENT's administration shows no interest in reversing the trend.

  24.  One way or another, care is going to be rationed. The question is how the decisions are going to be made. What we've had for a long time is care that gets rationed by insurance companies, who are out to maximize profit by minimizing the number of justified claims that they pay. We KNOW they can't be trusted. No system is perfect, but the US has slipped behind most other prosperous countries in measures as simple as average life span. We're doing something wrong, and I think one reason for today's intense greed is that we all expect to be abandoned by everything but our money when we need help most.

  25. It's exactly the same movement, yeah. Not so much that labor is another currency, but it is reduced to exchange value measurable by money ONLY, which means that it can be made nearly worthless in the market regardless of the cost and effect it has on the person who performs it. And that's how we get to the point where employers pay their laborers less than the "cost of reproduction", as Marx would have it - when in a market economy labor can be exchanged for $7.50/hr, but it actually costs $12/hr to keep the laborer alive and sheltered, it's just wilfull blindness to anything but exchange value that allows people to say the work is only "worth" $7.50. Quite dehumanizing.

  26. You're right. I don't know if we can even try to talk without money at this point. Even nonprofits and academic researchers have to measure their capability and sustainability in terms of operating budgets, grants, and donors, so social goods wind up being translated into value relations.

  27. Nearly all of those very wealthy people created jobs-- for bankers. Wealthy people gave their money to investment bankers and demanded greater and greater returns on their investments.

    Rather than investing that money in manufacturing or other productive jobs, investment bankers created more and more arcane financial instruments to make $100 look like $1000.

    Why invest in a factory that may or may not turn a profit-- that takes research and work to figure out which industries to invest in. It's much easier to invest in an AAA tranche of mortgages. Why create jobs when you can create Collateralized Debt Obligations and then turn around and sell them to the next sucker for a profit? Something is wrong in an economy when the most in-demand "product" is DEBT.

    That's the bubble that burst in 2008. THAT is what accumulated wealth created. A black hole that sucked $1,000,000,000,000 in value out of the economy.But certainly, do go on explaining how beneficial it is to concentrate wealth in the hands of a few.

  28. Capital is on the sidelines because four years ago, the people we trusted to guide our investments drove the economy off a cliff!

    Tax exposure? Business people are fools with short memories indeed if they're more worried about tax exposure than they are about entrusting their money to the financial system that sucked a trillion dollars of value out of the economy.

  29. I have to agree with Guest's point.  We have seen money create more money without anything useful being generated in the process.  You can do it in Vegas or day trading on Wall Street. We have seen the underbelly of capitalism and it is just as disgusting as any other economic system when it is misused.  

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