Alan Watts, Does It Matter? (Money vs. Wealth)

Civilization, comprising all the achievements of art and science, technology and industry, is the result of man’s invention and manipulation of symbols of words, letters, numbers, formulas and concepts, and of such social institutions as universally accepted clocks and rulers, scales and timetables, schedules and laws. By these means, we measure, predict, and control the behavior of the human and natural worlds and with such startling apparent success that the trick goes to our heads. All too easily, we confuse the world as we symbolize it with the world as it is…

Let me illustrate this point… by dwelling on the fundamental confusion between money and wealth, Remember the Great Depression of the Thirties? One day there was a flourishing consumer economy, with everyone on the up-and-up; and the next, unemployment, poverty, and bread lines, What happened? The physical resources of the country the brain, brawn, and raw materials were in no way depleted, but there was a sudden absence of money, a so-called financial slump.

Complex reasons for this kind of disaster can be elaborated at length by experts on banking and high finance who cannot see the forest for the trees. But it was just as if someone had come to work on building a house and, on the morning of the Depression, the boss had said, “Sorry, baby, but we can’t build today. No inches.” “Whaddya mean, no inches? We got wood, We got metal. We even got tape measures.’ “Yeah, but you don’t understand business. We been using too many inches and there’s just no more to go around.”

…What wasn’t understood then, and still isn’t really understood today, is that the reality of money is of the same type as the reality of centimeters, grams, hours, or lines of longitude. Money is a way of measuring wealth but is not wealth in itself. A chest of gold coins or a fat wallet of bills is of no use whatsoever to a wrecked sailor alone on a raft. He needs real wealth, in the form of a fishing rod, a compass, an outboard motor with gas, and a female companion.


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