Two big recent stories. One concerns the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak. The other concerns the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos. This month, parts of the world learned of Razak's "excessive collection" of luxury goods: handbags, watches, jewelry, clothes, and 1,000 pairs of shoes. Those shoes, of course, recalled the "crazy" former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos, who famously owned nearly 3,000 shoes. The reporter for one article on Razak, "Just like the case of Imelda Marcos," even interviewed a psychiatrist, Dr. Abdul Kadir Abu Baka. The doctor described Razak's condition as a form of depression; people like him must accumulate expensive things or they "get distressed." The doctor also pointed out that the condition "is something similar to narcissistic behaviour;" meaning, "it is about flaunting wealth" with the idea that one "can get away with it." So, the accumulation of things is clearly seen as a form of mental imbalance, if not illness. But what about Jeff Bezos? This week, the whole world learned that his fortune had grown to $150 billion.
Bloomberg called Bezos the richest man on earth and in earth's history. To use words from "Rapper's Delight," he now had "more money than a sucker could ever spend." But the reporter of the Bloomberg story did not consult a psychiatrist about Bezos and his super-excessive wealth. In fact, it is not even considered excessive. 3,000 shoes, and you are nuts and bats. $150 billion, and there is some talk about maybe doing some philanthropy, and maybe some talk about how some of this money might soon be lost because Prime Day got off to a rocky start. What is going on here? Why do we not see the excessive pursuit and accumulation of money as a form of madness? I think I have the answer.
Or at least I know where to find it. It's in a book called What Money Wants: An Economy of Desire by Noam Yuran.
The explanation is this:
A desire for things is limited by its object, whereas money is an object that allows infinite desire. For ordinary things, there is the possibility of satisfaction or even a limit beyond which the pleasure of use or possession turns into an annoyance, but money can be incessantly acquired; in other words, there is never too much money.What this means: Because the things of the world are not infinite, a person in the world should at some reasonable point reach a stage of total material satisfaction. Therefore, it's insane to own 1,000 watches, or 3,000 shoes, or what have you. Money, on the other hand, has no such limit. It can grow as fast and as endlessly as the expansion of the universe itself. And if you must know, it is possible that Bezos has more dollars to his name than there are stars in our galaxy.
But here is the thing. Our economy is structured in this way: You have money, you produce things with that money, and you sell the things you produce with the expectation of making more money than you began with. This is called capitalism. Now, can you see the problem? Money is infinite. There can always be more money. But there can only be so much stuff. But stuff is how, at a fundamental level, you make more money. If the stuff Bezos's company sells did not make more money than it cost to make, then the financial system would collapse, and a lot of Bezos's billions would vanish. And there you have what is known as "metabolic rift" and its terrible environmental consequences. The real world (or economy of things) must grow forever like the no-thing of money. But the real world is not without end.
And this brings me to something mentioned in the third lecture of Patrick Allitt's Rise and Fall of the British Empire, "African Slavery and West Indies." (This post one of my 104 posts on Allitt's 104 lectures on the birth, life, and death of this empire—you can download the lectures on Audible.) After discussing how indentured slaves where first used on Caribbean sugar plantations and factories, but had to be replaced with black African labor because it was cheaper and, for reasons relating to the climate, stronger, Allitt explains that the competition for land and wealth among European states was seen as a zero-sum game. States actually thought there were only a certain number of things in the world: only so many slaves, only so much sugar, and, of course, only so much gold. There was no production as we understand it. There was only robbery. Piracy was the name of the game. You got rich by making other places poorer. This was mercantilism, claims Allit.
Though the economic doctrine might sound harsh to modern ears, it does have the virtue of seeing the world as not endless. If you read the literature of current orthodox economics, you will not find on a single page a notion of a natural limit, a world with only so much stuff (or stoff, as the Germans call matter). This is economics from the perceptive of money—an infinity that was discovered by the Bank of England. More about that in another post.