The Almighty Dollar

@luqui – Buy the change you wish to see in the world.

This Gandhi rip-off tweet is a summary of an idea that I would like to share in more detail. Last week I got sniped and swindled by a street peddler of Children International, a charity organization, largely due to a weakness of boundaries I had at the time. I wasn’t really feeling charitable, and I just wanted him to stop talking at me without being rude. The most immediate way out to my uncreative brain was to sign up and cancel later. I may have felt more charitable if it wasn’t so much money — $30 per month — but I was sure that I was going to cancel, and put it on my immediate to do list.

When I had a moment to clear off some items on the list, as I was looking up the number to call, I pictured the phone call. Having already done research and found that the organization was legitimate and even efficient, there was no excuse there. Then I was going to say “I just can’t afford it right now”… which would be a lie. I am a poor college student, but I am still privileged by college, and I spend about $300 per month on food. Saying I couldn’t afford $30 per month is just outright wrong. Lying to a charitable organization is beyond my (comparatively flexible) morals.

I couldn’t find a way out that was consistent with my self-image. Thus, I haven’t canceled, and I don’t think I’m going to. Faced with the inability to prove that I shouldn’t spend this money, I began to search for reasons why I should. And the above twitter quote is the one I found, in a nutshell.

America is a severely capitalist nation. It has a fair amount of socialism mixed in, but it is still one of the most money-driven countries on this planet. We criticize big corporations in general for being immoral, corrupt, greedy entities that are ruining the world. They have great power, and they wield it in offensive ways. Damn them! Clearly pure capitalism can’t support a humanitarian world.

I used to believe this. But let’s think about it: from where is their power derived? From the economy of their country, of the world. They have tons of money and power because we give it to them. They provide us with valuable services, and we in turn compensate them with money, which is essentially equal to power in a capitalist society. And then we complain when they use that power in a way that offends us. So we are not really unconditionally giving them power: we wish to say “you can have the power to do things we agree with”. Not really power at all. We want to use their services without compensating them.

A dollar is a vote! It is a unit not only of trade, but of trust. But we routinely buy products from companies we do not trust. And no wonder they do evil things… we gave them a symbol of our trust without actually trusting them. We “the proletariat” are the ones who are ultimately producing the value in this nation, and we are collectively being compensated for it. Taken as a whole, we have enough power to match or exceed any corporation (I haven’t done the research, but I think the principle is pretty easy to agree with). We are being very irresponsible with our money — our tokens of trust — giving it to people who we know are evil. We are creating the evil in the world, simply by being fast and loose with our money.

It is widespread knowledge at this point that Monsanto is a profoundly evil corporation. They produce genetically modified plants, and then claim ownership of any plant that crossbreeds with it (using their money to out-lawyer any farmer who disagrees). With the chaotic nature of seeds in the wind, left unchecked they could eventually claim ownership of every plant in the world by seeding a single field on every continent. They buy out politicians to allow them to pollute acres and acres of United States land. The world would be a better place without them — their technology is great, but their behavior as an entity is abhorrent.

A conversation comes up in a grocery store about the evil of Monsanto, and while complaining and loathing the evil in the world, they pick up the cheapest loaf of bread and put it in their basket, thereby handing the evil in the world another token of their trust. If the world refused to buy any Monsanto-derived food, Monsanto would die. Poof, evil extinguished! The choice in what food you buy is asking you a question — do you prefer cheap food, or a moral world? If you buy Monsanto-derived food, you are saying you prefer cheap food. And the world really does listen.

I want to live in a world in which every person has an equal shot at equal lives (if you want more, you get less of a shot). But that hardly describes the Earth. Is my desire for this ideal Earth greater than my desire for three SubWay sandwiches per month? Could I put up with putting in a little more effort to make my food in exchange for helping the world to achieve this goal? Would it be worth it to you? If you say yes but don’t pay for it, you are lying. This isn’t hyperbole. I consider failing to “put your money where your mouth is” an outright lie.

How many proud Americans lie every day? Are you one of them? I still am. I am working to change that in myself.

Do your research! Pay for things made by companies whose behavior is agreeable to you. Don’t just look at the price. Tell the truth about your vision for the rest of the world, the future, even just a little bit. We, the hard-working, moral people of this planet wield most of the power. Let’s use it responsibly.

Buy the change you wish to see in the world.

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11 thoughts on “The Almighty Dollar

  1. It’s true that money isn’t the only form of power. It’s also true that the Sun isn’t the only star illuminating the Earth.

  2. 1) You jumped from America being the most “severely capitalist” nation to Americans defining themselves by what they buy. Non sequitur.

    2) If indeed your issues are with consumption-as-self-identification then your “buy the change” slogan only reinforces the status quo, no? How else have people historically defined themselves?

  3. Hi Luke,

    I truly appreciate your blog, it is a good reading.

    Regarding this one, I think this perspective might shadow some things. See, considering a dollar a vote does cause some problems: by stating this you are necessarily excluding people, which by definition is excluded already. The powerful guys [=those who have great deal of money] effectively control things [which is precisely the problem we are trying to solve]. I understand though that you haven’t suggest this as a democracy model. The thing is the word vote lead to think about democracy.

    We may choose! I agree with you and this is legitimate. Enabling them is our choice after all and our responsibility to do the right thing.

    That said, this tweet might be essentially wrong: buying the change is continuing asking for the elites to choose the world’s destiny, which is no change at all. I don’t want that. I also don’t want the world where the oppressed turn into the oppressor, which is what often happens, and is again no change. [...] I’m sure there is a fairer model.

  4. Monsanto would be evil only if they forced their customers to buy and plant their stuff. I don’t know if they do. If the customers voluntarily chose to buy Monsanto then how is Monsanto evil. If the contract they made with Monsanto states that they take ownership of the crossbreeds that you might do, then how is it wrong when the customers knowingly agreed to the contract. If the contract didn’t state that, then the customers can definitely claim that is not part of the contract and oppose it. Buying cheaper stuff by itself is not necessarily evil. If you are earning the money its perfectly fine for you to choose how you want to spend it.

  5. Pradeep, your response seems rather knee-jerk and misplaced, both in letter and in spirit.

    Regarding Monsanto, you appear unfamiliar with the issue. Here’s how it works: Farmer A buys and plants Monsanto seed. Seeds tend to spread (that is basically what they evolved to do), so now Farmer B has patented Monsanto seed growing on their property without a contract. Monsanto then sues Farmer B for seed piracy.

    This is just a particularly severe example of an externality. By externalizing its costs (or in Monsanto’s case, its revenue!), a business can gain an “unfair” price advantage. Buying cheaper stuff isn’t *necessarily* evil, but the lowest prices will tend to correlate with undesirable extra-market activity, and should therefore serve as something of a warning flag.

    Certainly you’re free to spend your money as you please, but don’t tell me it’s “perfectly fine” to save money at others’ expense by blindly worshipping at the Altar of Efficient Markets. There is more to an informed and responsible purchase than bargain-hunting and wishful thinking.

  6. @Pradeep, Dan addressed most of your reply. I’d like to address your last two sentences: “Buying cheaper stuff by itself is not necessarily evil. If you are earning the money it’s perfectly fine for you to choose how you want to spend it.”

    This almost summarizes my argument. We earn the money, we choose how to spend it — that is the definition of owning it. But in our choices are reflected our values. The market finds the optimal solution that satisfies all our values. Someone who always buys the cheapest product communicates their values: “low price is the most important thing!” Thus the market optimizes for that, and you get companies like Monsanto that create their own cities for their refineries to avoid environmental restrictions, because it creates lower prices, which is what people have said they want more than anything else.

    My call to action is this: most of us would like to think that we care about more than just price. We must spend our money accordingly, because that’s the only way the market hears us.

  7. @dsouza, I think we are in disagreement about whether we can decide that a dollar is a vote. Any society which has trade will tend toward capitalism by mathematical nature, and a society’s principal purpose is to enable trade: we trade our service to society in exchange for protection, optimization, and the services of others. So every society tends toward capitalism.

    We may have other mechanisms of voting, but a society in which there is capital, capital will be pervasive. You can always buy some people’s votes. Maybe some will stick to their morals, but we all would like more money, and if we care more about that than the information communicated through our vote (in a large society, not that much) then our vote can rationally be sold. My argument is that money is power by nature; that is not something we decide, that is something that just happens.

    The other side of it, again considering the limiting case (you can see the mathematician in me coming out), is that the proletariat is the most powerful class. We produce most of the value in society. Individually we do not have much wealth, but together we have the power to impose our will upon the entire society. The reason the rich and powerful are rich and powerful is because, throughout the course of our daily lives, we have gradually given riches and power to those people. You can think about inheritance and other factors, but in comparison to the amount of wealth created yearly, those forces will be negligible.

    Thus is the justification for the quote. By the dynamics of capitalism, our spending habits ultimately determine the shape of society. Again, I mean to argue this as a truth, not as an ideal. A disagreement should find an error in my reasoning, not the consequences of the conclusion.

  8. re: “the proletariat is the most powerful class. We produce most of the value in society. Individually we do not have much wealth, but together we have the power to impose our will upon the entire society.”

    Stirrings of a neo-Marxist revolutionary? Who coulda thunk?

    Keyword here is “together.” There is no *one*, there is no “we.” Your mission, should you wish to take it up, is to unify the pluribus without sucking up to the lowest protoplasmic denominator.

    Your mission, should you wish to take it up, is to judo flip the “strategy [of] split[ting] the vast middle and working class — pitting unionized workers against nonunionized, public-sector workers against nonpublic, older workers within sight of Medicare and Social Security against younger workers who don’t believe these programs will be there for them” (Robert Reich).

    And curiously, your mission, should you wish to take it up, is to frag your psyche into its individual but continuous parts even as you perceive the higher consciousness of your soul and those of your comrades. For if Many can be Synthesized into One, can not One be Analyzed into Many? What governs the direction of the isomorphism?

    In any case, wait till you earn your billions. There’s no reason why a talented hacker like you couldn’t make it big in the next next tech bubble. You’d be singing a radically opposite tune in your 50s, Mr Sell-Out-Hippie-Turned-Anti-Tax-Libertarian.

  9. @Dan Haffey, yes I didn’t know much about the issue. This article gave a idea. http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805

    However still, in a market if there are negative aspects of the product, then its demand will lower.

    In the case of seeds spreading and monsanto claiming piracy.. they have to prove their piracy claims by proving that the farmers explicitly went and took seeds from a neighbouring farm. I am sure its possible with a product of this nature the neighbours can assert that the wind did it (which maybe true) making it very difficult to prove piracy claims. The above article indicates that they are finding it difficult already to prove their claims. From a legal point there is another possibility, i.e a farmer who illegally did take seeds intentionally or unintentionally.

    Answering to one of the implicit claims in the above article. Seeds have been so far been harvested, surplus stored and reused for next season. If Monsanto or someone is bringing in an alternate model its upto the market to determine whether it will be successful. It is quite possible a new model with better returns might present in the future.

    BTW I don’t *worship* at any altars.

    @Luke, If you wish to devalue a product in the market, you can also try to develop or promote a competing product that doesn’t have the undesirable qualities of the ones its replacing but still has the desirable qualities like cheap cost, weed resistant etc. That would be another way of encouraging alternative products to come into the market and displace the undesirable one.

  10. Hi Luke,

    thanks for replying sorry taking this long to write again.

    The problem I found with your post was not about your moralist perspective of society, but with your premises which from my point of view are false.

    The problem is that I don’t believe in auto-regulation of the market. Neither the power you state consumers have. There is simply no enough information to make people act. Even if they do, it is just local and shouldn’t promote a big change: it is simply transition to a different state in the same machine.

    The power relations in society has more dimensions than money.

    The fact that many societies towards capitalism (without considering that are different types of capitalism) says nothing about the future.

    Again, Thanks a lot,
    ~dsouza

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