Money Is Time

I think I can fairly assume that everyone is familiar with that old chestnut, “time is money”. But I think that phrase’s usage in the vernacular has lost the property of equality. That is, when people say, “time is money,” they mean it in the sense that “the sky is blue”. However, to truly understand wealth and economics, I believe it’s critical to think of the terms as identical. If time is money, then money is time.

We certainly tend to think of the phrase in the former way, but when we do so, we’re doing it from a very egocentric perspective. “You’re wasting my time, and I could be spending my time to earn more money.” Worse than egocentric, that usage is narcissistic, myopic, and exploitative. When viewed from the other direction — that money is time — we begin to understand the true power of capitalism, and our eyes open to the myriad possibilities.

Consider the dawn of time. At some point, the entirety of our waking hours were devoted to survival — to finding food, finding shelter, and reproducing. But along the path, some people, somewhere gathered some wealth; that is to say, some time. They became wealthy enough in terms of food and shelter that some of them had the free time to invent basket weaving. And that invention enabled the people gathering the food to cary more food in fewer trips, which in turn freed up more time, and made them a wealthier society. A little farther along and they had managed to become wealthy enough that they were no longer just using their free time to improve their ability to collect the necessities; they were using it to invent dies and start weaving pretty patterns into their baskets and painting pictures on cave walls. They had enough time/wealth that they were improving their society through art!

Ultimately, the wealth of that society and of its neighbours grew. They had so much free time that they could create more pretty baskets than they could ever use, while their neighbours were creating pretty beads. Excess beads were exchanged for excess baskets, and trade began. As more and more wealth was created, society grew to the point where there was enough free-time to have people did nothing directly related with the gathering of food. And with that free time, those free people were able to further advance society. They became priests and cobblers, scholars and coopers, bankers and candle-stick makers. And the more free time there was, the wealthier the society was, the better off, more comfortable, and safer everyone was. But moreover, the more free they were.

As trading and wealth grew, ultimately, there was so much wealth that direct trading became difficult. You have an extra cow. I have some extra chickens. That took a whole lot of free time/wealth on both sides to get those extras, but how many chickens is a cow worth? Whence money. Money, at its basis, is a way of taking the free time associated with the creation of a thing, and dividing it back down into its inherent time. It, effectively, is an abstraction of the time that the society has saved. There’s a temptation in the modern world (and particularly in capitalistic systems) to think of it as the individual’s time (e.g., the time that the cooper invested in making his barrel was <em>his</em> time), but really it’s the society’s time. If the society hadn’t the free time, that individual wouldn’t be making barrels, and certainly wouldn’t have spent the years required to learn to be a master cooper. That time was the saved wealth of the society. And money is an abstraction of that societal time.

In the modern world, we have taken the abstraction even farther. Now, through various economic mechanisms, we use money to make more money — our wealth of time is so great that it, in and of itself, creates more time on a global basis.

Fundamentally, I think this is the right way, or at least a more interesting way, to think about wealth and money. Don’t get mad at bankers. Bankers are just a natural result of our wealth; and funny Wall Street derivatives are just an abstraction of an abstraction of an abstraction of time. If you possess wealth (in money), keep in mind that you are holding on to vast amounts of societal time. Use that time well — whether that’s through starting a company, investing in someone, funding an artist, or whatnot. If you borrow money, imagine that you’re taking some of your society’s stored up time against the collateral of your future ability to contribute free time back to the society. Use it wisely as well. When you pay your taxes, recognise that this is your society’s way of accessing its wealth (of time). If your society is not using its time well, exercise whatever political outlets are available to you in your country to improve on that situation.

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