only when people’s basic needs are met – when they cease to worry about jobs, education, healthcare, transportation – can they truly be free

I was thinking about money today, mostly because I made a costly mistake. It made me remember a quote from a Chinese TV series that was along the lines of — if the problem is something that can be solved by money, consider yourself lucky; there are so many greater problems that money can’t solve, like the death of a loved one, illness, or lost time.

I think most of what people say about money is generically true but in the process of being both generic and true, these sayings are also easily forgettable. Hopefully in this post, I can put out something that is more specific and true and along the way we can figure out the edges of things, to better see the shapes of things.

Firstly, a quick aside on capitalism — what I value about capitalism is that it is currently the best way we can make human behavior easily predictable and in so doing, predictably changeable.

Specifically on money, I want to break down the dilemma of choosing between making a lot of money and then donating it to causes vs making less money but doing something that starts impacting a cause on day 1. The edges of the spectrum are, on one end, making a ton of money with no cause-related impact (in here, you can substitute in for “cause” whatever you want to achieve) or negative cause-related impact (say, selling drugs, if your cause is to lower homelessness), and, on the other end, volunteering for that cause for free. Of course, there are choices in between, and the decision will fall somewhere along the spectrum.

First, people say money is freedom. I think what money brings can be broken into two categories. The first part is security, which is what’s in the title of this post – a broad definition of security for yourself and your loved ones (which is its own sort of messed up in the US, but we can discuss that another day). To me personally, after security is fulfilled, money has no incremental value because most of my pride derives from intangible things. That is the second category – pride derived from money and what money buys. Therefore, one extreme of the spectrum is people who value money only up until the point that it fulfills security and the other extreme is people who value money for security and who also derive all of their pride from money and what money can buy.

With these building blocks, I therefore think the way to think about the dilemma is this: In the case of making money and then donating it — money itself doesn’t solve a big problem; the hard part is the time, the attention, the empathy, and the will. Instead, money buys others’ security (+ amount of money that is needed to satisfy their pride) so they can devote their full time / attention / empathy / etc.

The choice of starting on day 1 versus making money and then donating it to solve problems requires merely enough money to satisfy your own security + pride, and then you can go devote your time / attention / empathy / etc.

Thus, I think the questions to ask to determine which path to go down gets simpler and more targeted. In rough order of importance, they are:

1) what is the expected “units” of people’s security + pride that I think I can buy by going down the make money route?,

2) what is the cost of unhappiness to me to get to that expected value? (usually underestimated),

3) what is the cost of the passage of time for the cause(s) I’m interested in?,

4) do I think my time / attention / empathy / etc for some reason or other has more value for my cause than that of the average person’s?, and

5) do I think the average person requires more or less money for pride than me?

But as you might notice, really, it all rests on the first three questions, especially number 2, because the magnitude is so much bigger for those than can ever be the case for 4 and 5 (cases of extreme ability or extreme selflessness / greed).

I’m not positing that this is the best way to consider the decision, just something interesting to think about re the role of money in this decision.

only when people’s basic needs are met – when they cease to worry about jobs, education, healthcare, transportation – can they truly be free