Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Scrooge McDuck and Conceptions of Money: A Page-Turning Attempt at an Synthetic Understanding

It's the Pits.

I think that people’s conceptions of money are very important. I say this not as some groundbreaking understanding, but it seems to have some sort of play on the political visions you have of what is good and moral and proper. I can’t argue for causation here, but I think it matters.

To think about how it matters, I go back to the first time I knew a rich person. He was on my cartoons, and spoke in a Scottish accent and literally swam in money. Now, knowing what I know now, that was an incredibly inefficient store of wealth for Mr. McDuck, but I thought that was how all rich people stored their money. The gold in the money pit was strictly valuable as gold, and McDuck measured his wealth by tic-marks on the side of the money pit, right by the ladder.

In a way, when I was a kid, I knew we weren’t rich in part because my parents didn’t have a money pit. There was the shopping at Walmart thing and wearing non-name-branded shoes (the horror), but the lack of a money pit was a big.

Not that were were poor at all, in hindsight. My parents have been together my whole life and my father is a doctor. But the thing is that he is an ER doctor (I think the term of art now is an ED doctor, but that feels euphemistic about so many other things). So as an ER doc he was always an hourly employee for much of my life - he did a stint in the Army which is what deprived me of Reebok Pumps. As an hourly employee, your pay is dependent on the hour you work. And from what I gather from my father’s stories, it is a stressful job with a lot of responsibility and horrible hours.
So what I got from my father was a very distinct conception of money as part of an exchange mechanism. His labor was worth so much money, ergo anything purchased was a fraction of his time. Not that he was cheap, he has always been very generous with my family, but he didn’t let me forget that the bike or the computer was because of his labor.

This is a conception I took myself as I started in the wage labor force. I got my first job, must have been about 1997 or so, and the minimum wage had just been set at $5.15 an hour (I think it was still that in 2007, the last time I worked straight hourly, but I was making a kingly $8.50).  This meant that as my money was funneled away, I could count the time by the pizza ovens or the wood fire grills that I would need to replenish that money. It also meant that I hated to go to bars with covers. A five dollar cover! That’s an hour on my feet! With such a conception, you would think I wouldn’t have smoked as much as I did. But heck, back then I could my two-pack-a-day ration for about an hour’s work. What a deal.

The difference between working at a hospital (ok, one of the differences) is that there is a menu up above your head or in the diner’s hand that tells the costs of what you’re producing. There’s less direct interaction with regards to pricing at the ER (as of yet). So you have the money you’re paid and you see what you’re making and you see the amount of food you’re putting out, and you go, “Hey, there’s a disparity.” I remember one of my first jobs, as a cook at Burger King. They had a pie chart up to show where the money went and how narrow the profit margin was and this is why you can be fired for eating the trash. But not having an accounting class to learn about variable and fixed costs, it is easy to think to yourself: “If we sell a slice of pepperoni and two of cheese every hour, they cover my salary.” Start thinking like that and you begin to wonder where all the money’s going if you’re the one doing all the sweating. Then they move you up to management and you can see the labor costs are on the floor because what you sell is high margin. So you have self-worth and then what you’re paid, and you get angry at the guy making nine dollars an hour who’s not any better than you at the job but you feel ok because at least you have some ambition for your life. In the end though, no matter what literature you read, you’re still being valued at that rate they pay you and the only way to make more is to work more (or expropriate it for yourself, though that is not recommended).

As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve gotten away from conceptions of money in terms of straight material stuff or even direct labor. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing, actually. It gives me a level of freedom that all my bills are paid for. They’re all on recurring, and the money comes in and the money comes out and I almost never touch money. I don’t have to be hustling for extra shifts or arguing why I shouldn’t be the one to be cut early today because I was cut early on Sunday and I really need the money. I have a level of material success that means that I can afford to do what I want and buy name brand soda (gone whenever we have kids). But there’s a trade-off. Because I have that success in this country, it means that work is measured differently. It’s not work more to make more money, but work more because you’re a team player and you want the company to succeed. Work more because you want to keep working in the future. It may not be something that is conceptualized on a daily basis as you go about the work, but it is there for many people who have moved from wage labor to salaried labor. I’m not going to hunt the citation but there has been a turn in society recently. It used to be that the higher uo the socioeconomic scale you were, the fewer hours you worked. The working class was putting in the hours at the factory and the upper classes were taking long lunches and meetings on the golf course. This has reversed, and there’s the hint of precariousness that makes the exempt employees put in the time if it's necessary or not.  

I think all three conceptions are about how the social relations of your job and your social role shape your political persuasion. I started thinking about this issue reading the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page like I know I shouldn’t. They were complaining about Clinton’s proposed capital gains taxing plan. They were arguing that capital gains taxes should all go away because corporations that issue dividends are subject to the HIGHEST TAX RATES known to man in the history of ever. Then to tax dividends is unjust because that money was already taxed.

And I hate it when people complain about the double taxation. I mean, most financial transactions are taxed. That’s the reality of our system. It pays for society. It could be a little more simple and fair (more progressive, that is - people don’t seem to realize that money has diminishing value). But I’ve been trying to be fair. So I was thinking about this and trying to figure out how someone making that argument conceives money.

One of the fun things about money is that it is fungible. You might come across this idea, that one dollar is equal to another. A different Journal editorial arguing that Planned Parenthood should be defunded was based on just this - you have to take all their money away because giving them money to support women’s health care frees up funds for more abortions, and you know how much we hate abortions. I think that people that worry about double taxation have a completely different conception of their liquid assets than I do, one where money isn’t fungible. I was imagining a guy who thinks that he went alone to a virgin land, and dug up a bunch of gold. In my imagination, he’s walking around with a ball of hold about the size of a beach ball. Every market exchange he makes, he shaves off a bit for payment but there’s always Old Big Government wanting his slice too. In that framework, then it makes sense to shoo away the second representative of the government wanting another slice. But this only holds true if you conceive as the corporation’s assets and earnings part of your ball of gold. If not, then it was part of their ball, and then added to your ball of gold. (Many, corporations are a weird legal fiction, but we’ll leave that be.)

So there I was thinking about this guy holding this ball of gold, and I realized it was the same conception of money that McDuck has. As the owner of capital, money is just a thing for itself and the exchange mechanism is almost secondary. It is not that the other conceptions are better than the others. I think all three I looked at create an alienation from work and from the system in itself. Basically it comes down to ownership, direct labor, and indirect labor. For the time I’ve been around, the ownership conception has led the economic and political process, and for me that is the problem. I might be over-simplifying things, but I am glad to see direct labor fight for their own perceived value with the fight for 15. What I worry about is the alienation of indirect labor from the political process. In the teachers and social workers and all the office workers, you have a large mass of people who are well-educated but maybe only will have a voice if they’re part of the diminishing labor movement. I hate to be cynical, but how much of this was planned and shaped by the winners of the process?

But it seems that all three classes of labor have their feelings of helplessness.  If all three conceptions of labor create an alienation, maybe there’s something larger going on