Neither the poor man nor the rich man can get enough of me.
What am I?
Throughout human history, we've molded the material world around us to provide for our material needs. We’ve denoted the value of the things we’ve created in a standard currency, or money, and have shared and traded in everything from coffee to tablet computers. For thousands of years our world has kept spinning as goods are exchanged for money, and money is exchanged for goods.
Our world has stopped spinning. It is easily observable that most people, even the richest and wealthiest men and women on this planet, have stopped chasing after what is valuable, and now spend their days reaching for the next dollar. Many say that we’re living beyond our means, but think of all the knowledge and technology we’ve come up with, as a species, over the course of our evolution -- are we really short of means? No, we’re living beyond our needs.
In fact, most of us have no clue anymore what our needs even are. Money itself isn't the issue here; it's that the money we exchange today has no meaningful value associated with it. Most of the things money represents in modern society (like status) or allows us to buy (like food products, as opposed to just food) are not, in practice, gratifying or satisfying for us as human beings; they are an offense to nature, which we too often forget that we're a part of.
When we seek value as defined by anything other than our true nature, it tends to disappoint. A smartphone can bring joy when parents use it to video chat with their kids who’ve left the nest, but it can also bring misery -- think scrolling through Facebook on a smartphone while crossing a busy street (I'll leave the rest up to imagination). In either use case, the smartphone carries the same price tag -- why?
If our definition of value rests entirely on the molded pieces of plastic and metal that make up iPhones and shiny cars, which require already limited resources to produce and maintain, then we've created scarcity of value. When value is scarce, we are forced to keep the money supply scarce as well, because money is merely a numeric representation of value -- without this there would be no functioning economy, and the world would not spin. There is only one outcome when value and money are scarce: poverty.
The flip-side of scarce value and scarce money (i.e. poverty) is an abundance of value and money supply, or prosperity. With the proliferation of information technology, ideas today can finally travel freely, as they were always meant to do. Intellectual property, which is to say scarcity of information, is making way to a true renaissance of knowledge. There is a revolution happening; the human race is relearning how to produce real value -- value that has nothing to do with scarcity, and has everything to do with abundance.
Gary Chapman wrote a bestselling book on love and relationships called, "The 5 Love Languages." His simple yet genius analysis of the human condition is this: Just as cars are built with engines and run on gasoline, people are built with hearts and brains, and run on emotional energy (not on Dunkin’ Donuts, as some might argue). The more energy we absorb, the more we can accomplish.
Of course, despite what mobile phone companies try to sell us, more isn't always better. There are two primary forms that human fuel can take: love and fear. Both love and fear propel us into motion. When people fill up on fear, they are either dangerously destructive (when fear is paired with anger), or dangerously conservative and greedy (when fear is channeled into apathy). Conversely, when human emotional tanks are filled with sustainable love energy, we achieve personal freedom, and begin devoting our time to thriving. Love and fear are, interestingly, directly correlated with activity in distinct regions of the brain.
People may not need much of either energy -- love or fear -- to survive, but they would then only be surviving. Unfortunately, we are often so desperately low on any kind of emotional energy (often this correlates with low physical energy) that we'll take whatever comes to hand. At best what we consume is short-lived and fake love -- think Coca Cola and heroin. At worst, it's fear in the form of hate -- think Fox News. The rest of the time we use hope to fill the void -- hope that the next purchase will finally make us happy and whole, hope that we'll find life on another planet, hope that somebody will love us.
The source for all this emotional energy is our environment, namely our interaction with other people and with the rest of nature. Chapman elegantly categorizes five ways, or five languages, with which we can generate and share constructive human fuel amongst ourselves. These are a) spending quality time, b) receiving gifts, c) physical touch, d) words of affirmation, and e) acts of service.
Often, we engage in these types of interaction with others for free, especially with whom we are directly interdependent, like our spouse, child, parent, or even pet. These are people (or animals) who we know want and will love us back in one way or another, one time or another. We are secure in our belief that the more we fill their tank, the more they will fill ours. Not everybody, though, produces and accumulates human fuel in the same way, or needs it at the same time. How do we, then, facilitate the efficient distribution of energy so that it reaches the right person at the right time in our globally interconnected world?
If we can buy gas for our cars, surely it’s not a stretch to think that we can pay for emotional energy. In fact, we’re already all very willing to pay for goods and media that propel us towards misery, war, and environmental destruction; we might be quite ok with paying for something that motivates us to achieve greatness. If fear is a choice, then love is a choice we can make too.
The beauty of love as a commodity is that there will always be a market for it. Just like when we burn and deplete gasoline in our cars, there will always be things that drain some (or all) of our energy. This is the natural ebb and flow of the universe, and is not up to us to tinker with. Further, the market for positive emotional fuel wouldn't carry the problem of scarcity. There may be a limited amount of value at any given moment in time, but if you examine Chapman's list of love languages, you will realize that anybody, by definition of being human, is capable of doing or making something that provides an other with good fuel in their tank. Age, income, and social status need not matter when it comes to doing things that benefit others emotionally. Love can be as simple as it is sophisticated; it can come in the form of a flower or a beautifully designed phone app.
The point of all this is NOT to say that we all trade and feed on love, literally. We all need nutritious food, clean water, and safe and sanitary shelter. These are fundamental human needs, and probably shouldn't be left up to the market (unless we figure out ways to eliminate their scarcity).
What we can do, however, is value commodities more reasonably, by the positive (or negative) emotional experience derived from them. More specifically, prices of goods and services could be determined by how good and motivated they made someone feel and for how long, minus the energy put into making them and all other costs (e.g. environmental). This way, a standalone iPhone would presumably be valued less than teaching grandma how to call her son on a new iPhone, for example. Perhaps only Apple can make an iPhone, but anybody (including Apple themselves) can provide the added value for Grandma and her family. Nobody has to lose here -- it's simply a different way of defining value.
We've created the world we live in, and we can change it; a definition we made can just as well be redefined by us. In quantum physics, any given system is said to be in a quantum state -- a state independent of the way we try to understand and measure it with our human mind. Our measurements merely provide bits and pieces of information; it's virtually never the entire picture, not to mention that the scientific method is by design non-definitive. Earth will always be just earth; only through our eyes does it become our "world." Changing how we measure something as fundamental as value has the potential to change our world.
The scarcity of value and money in our current economy is a product of choice. Oil conglomerates and the auto industry spend billions of dollars making sure we keep driving gasoline-powered cars, because the scarcity of oil translates into scarcity of transportation means, and, in turn, higher prices. A virtually unlimited source of energy like the sun is understandably scary for them, and so they choose scarcity, gambling on their ability to hold onto more money than others can in this race to the bottom.
The choices people can make in a scarcity-free, barrier-less market like that of emotional fuel, on the other hand, are real, sovereign choices. Some will decide to purchase their energy from strangers, while others rely on free support systems like family. Unlike in scarcity-driven consumer goods and services markets today, these are at least equally effective, and they represent an empowering, win-win choice for anyone and everyone.
Pope Francis has urged humanity to “reject [...] that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals." As much as I admire this man, his focus is on the wrong half of this money equation. To reject money is to reject trade and to reject choice -- especially in a world of billions of interconnected people. True, higher profits in themselves do not mean more problems are being solved. What if we chose to only pay for things that actually solved our problems, or better yet -- for things that gave us the energy and motivation to go solve those problems ourselves?
There's value in energy that moves us; there’s value in spaces and colors and shapes that let our imagination run free; there’s value in love, joy, and happiness. If there's value, there is money.
So go, love and grow rich.