What “Money” Means
A practical use case for my theory of motivation is in categorizing my values. This is especially helpful to forming opinions on highly polarizing topics (I’ll get to the theory later).
Take Universal Basic Income (UBI), for example. One of the many topics that comes down, more or less, to which side of the aisle you stand on. I’m not interested in bogging down the conversation with topics like economics and technology, so I’ll be specific. The aisle that divides us on this topic is the question:
Will our citizens be better off if we give them free money every month?
On one side of the line are standard liberals. They believe that UBI, in the pockets of those who are struggling, will empower them to sustainably improve their lives. The money fulfills basic needs that a country like ours is obligated to provide — at least, in their view. Liberals think that those in poverty are held back viciously by America’s rising costs. For those making minimum wage, without much education, every ounce of physical and mental energy must be focused on putting food on the table — and it’s unfair that those with greater privilege have enough security to invest in long term strategies, just due to circumstance.
On the other side are conservatives, who understand the dangers of complacency. Their opinion is primarily motivated by their understanding that humans, when given the opportunity to relax, will undoubtedly do so. Perhaps many conservatives observe that all an extra $1000 would do is undermine the value of their hard work. Those with self-made success in this country’s economic battlefield detest the idea that some citizens, without putting any effort into the system, would be provided for.
The opinions are predictable on each side. They fit the standard narrative. It’s clear to the poor that they have to work 5x as hard to earn a fraction of what the middle class makes. Conversely, much of the middle class — often surrounded by people in the same economic situation — can see that the system works as intended. Their studious friend who buries his head in books and work makes 6-figures within a couple years of entering the workforce. As the saying goes, you get what you put in.
How can we consolidate these ideas, without just accepting that your vote will depend on the context you grew up in?
One possibility is to reconceptualize what money is.
A dollar doesn’t have the same value for everybody. It may sound silly depending on how you interpret the word ‘value’ — but either way, $1000 per month in the pocket of a homeless person has a much different impact than $1000 per month in bank of a suburbian. $1000 — to those struggling to get by — could represent a month of food, water, and housing for an entire family. I call these things Basic Maintenance. The homeless man would undoubtedly spend his UBI on Basic Maintenance because, quite frankly, he would die otherwise.
Most people stop here, where it seems cut and dry: $1000/month UBI is obviously beneficial because it gives poor communities a fighting chance. The public conversation rarely gets past this, but there’s still another line of argument that often goes implied yet unexplored. If we’re to move forward, the conservative mindset needs to be taken seriously.
Allowing the conversation to end there leaves an awkward sort of implication that $1000 is nothing to these privileged white folk. I mean, why else would they be against receiving free money? The pessimistic take on it is that they want to keep the poor communities fighting for scraps — let them carry the burden so that those with the right status may enjoy the luxuries of our modern society. But I have white friends, and that’s not what they think.
Let’s ignore UBI for a second. $1000 of regular monthly income to a suburbian teen is more complicated than just a status symbol or a buffer to their pedestal of privilege. That’s hard-earned cash. I don’t care how much you or your parents make, everybody resents that popular, stuck-up chick in high school. The one who carries around her dad’s credit card and acts like she owns the world.
When all your basic needs are met, money no longer symbolizes one’s Basic Maintenance (food, water, shelter), it represents the amount of effort you put in. That’s why we resent the kids who can spend whatever they want from their parents’ bank account. The playing field of the middle class is relatively level. Those who fell behind generally did because they relied too heavily on their privilege. They deserve what they got. Those who made a living for themselves are folks who didn’t succumb to the temptations of complacency, which are all too real. They’re citizens who, despite having all they could possibly need, decided they would still take Action and build a better life for themselves.
Building a Framework
Hopefully, we’re now reaching a common understanding. There’s two concepts here both relating to money, and they’re fundamentally different.
- Maintenance — The goods and processes you need in order to stay alive and healthy.
- Action — The work you put in and actions you take to get ahead, creating a better life for yourself and those around you.
Note: Experience is the third component of my theory of motivation. It’s unrelated to this discussion, but I’ll mention it for the sake of completion. Experience encompasses the world around us, the perspectives it brings, and the wisdom we have to gain from it.
Now that we’ve reconceptualized money, we have a framework where we can map our values.
UBI supporters see money primarily as their source of Maintenance. Sympathetic to the views of Socialism, they believe our government has an obligation to meet each citizen’s needs of Maintenance.
Those who oppose UBI see money largely as the well-earned reward for taking Action (and doing it well). This perspective is of vital importance to the Capitalist system, and the reason why free markets can lead to incredible advancements in society.
I believe equal opportunity for everybody. I’m inclined to think that everybody reasonable does. From there, I see two places to stand on the issue if you want solid ground.
The first, which you may not expect, is to oppose UBI. But that, by itself, is inconsistent. Let’s say you oppose UBI because it’s only fair that everybody works for their money — even the money that covers Basic Maintenance. It’s only reasonable to believe that if you reject the concept of inheritance.
It sure sounds ridiculous, but what’s the problem? Plenty of people have built their lives from nothing. Inheritance is just an unfair advantage in this country, where free markets are the perfect solution to incompetence. If your son isn’t everything that you hoped he would be, well fear not! Our economics will be sure to weed him out of the gene pool. So, if you want to play the game in hardcore-mode — where the losers risk starvation and homelessness and family values are undermined — well… at least it’s consistent.
The second position to hold is in support of UBI. This, in theory, brings every citizen to the same point: The point where their needs of Maintenance are provided for. From there, those who want to idealize America as a merit-based economy can do so without turning a blind eye to the hypocrisy of our current situation.