Finergy: What Money Isn’t
“Money isn’t important. It’s getting what you need that matters.
Money is just one way of getting it.”
We’re all wrong in how we think about money. Luckily for 50 years that hasn’t mattered much. But over the last few years it’s begun to matter, and I suspect it will come to matter a lot more in future too. Then we’ll end up knowing more about what money really is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. But by then it’ll be too late.
This is one of a few pieces aimed at giving you a different perspective on money, all with the underlying theme of: There’s too much money today compared to what it could realistically be spent on. This is the uberproblem that, as I wrestle with my day-to-day investment job, all roads lead back to. It’s a problem you really don’t want to end up the wrong side of.
Our wrongness about money stems from seeing it as its own thing. Whereas money really needs to be considered as part of a far bigger system. In that way, it’s like we’re obsessing over coal, when coal is just one factor that sometimes plays a bit-part in the working of the bigger, more important, thing that is energy.
So, in respect of money, what is the bigger, more important thing?
It’s Financial Energy, which we’ll call “Finergy” from here.
Finergy has a lot in common with energy: Just as energy is a dominant concept in physics, finergy is a dominant concept in economics (or at least it should be*). It’s important to know not just what finergy is, but that it exists at all, because most of us don’t appreciate it’s even a thing. Yet only by understanding finergy can we begin to get what money truly is: A small — but still important — part of a far larger whole.
So what is finergy?
Again, it’s similar to the physics definition of energy. But I’m on shaky ground here because most of us don’t really know what energy is either.** But the simplest definition is that “energy is the capacity for doing work”.
If you need a boulder moved to the top of a hill, you can use the energy stored in your muscles to push it there yourself, or the energy stored in the petrol in your car to drag it there too. There are other ways, but they all require energy in some form or other: If there’s no energy, it’s not going anywhere.
Once the boulder’s on top of the hill, it now contains the energy that was once stored in your muscles or your fuel tank. With one small push, it will turn its potential energy into kinetic energy as it rolls back down the hill.
We can handily extend this example to define finergy. Another way of getting that boulder to the top of the hill is to get someone else to do it. You could pay a friend £20 to use their own muscle-stored energy to push it, or you could charm a passer-by into pulling it with their car.
In this sense, we can define finergy simply as: “the capacity for getting what you want”.
Thus defined, you can see that money is to finergy as petrol is to energy: Money is one of many stores of finergy, and it’s useful for carrying it around, but it’s not actually finergy (put differently; using money is one way of getting what you want, but it’s not the only way).
Now, this is important, because the big misconception is that money is finergy. Or even if it isn’t finergy, that money is the only way of harnessing finergy in order to get what you want (or, as the appropriately named Rolling Stones might qualify; to get what you need).
But it’s not: There are other sources of finergy. And, more importantly, money is a very leaky store of finergy that, from time to time, stops storing it at all (i.e. it becomes useless for getting what you want). You can see that understanding why and how your money might become useless, and what you can do to protect yourself against that, could be a useful thing to know.
Some examples of finergy stores, and how to tap into them, then: Let’s say you have a plot of land and want to build a house. What are your options for getting this thing that you want?
- Personal Finergy: Do it yourself. And I mean completely yourself. So it’s not just laying the bricks, tiles and planks on your own, it’s also foraging the raw materials to make the bricks, tiles and planks yourself, then turning them — with your bare hands — into bricks, tiles and planks, which you then personally construct into a house. All the while eating food you have grown yourself (to harvest much of the energy needed to construct a house).
It is theoretically possible to build a house this way, but it will probably be shit. It certainly would be if I was doing it.
- Community Finergy: If you belong to a close-knit community, you could let it be known that you need a house, then rely on members of that community to use their varied skills and raw materials to build you one. In this sense, you are tapping into the finergy that is stored in your local community.
- On-Tick Finergy: You could persuade local trades people and resource owners you know to build you a house. In return, you will imply a vague, but serious, intention to return the favour to them — in whatever way you can — at some unspecified time in the future. Or perhaps you have already done them a similar favour, which you can now call in.
- Coercive Finergy: Perhaps you are physically strong and intimidating? Or have an unscrupulous and cunning ability to force, cajole, or blackmail people into doing your bidding? You could use this to bind people who are less powerful or fortunate than you into building your house, under threat of some terrible retribution if they don’t.
- Tribute Finergy: Perhaps you have done great things for your community in the past? Maybe you’ve made huge sacrifices, or risked your life, or been a source of immense joy. Your community may then marshall its own reserves of finergy to build you a house as a tribute.
- Asset-Trade Finergy: Do you have a specific thing that a housebuilder wants or needs? Perhaps it’s a first-generation Pontiac Firebird, or a chipped away section of wall containing a Banksy. You may be able to swap this thing for the building of your house.
- Service-Trade Finergy: Like 6, but you have a specific intangible service the builder wants. Maybe you’re an expert tax accountant, or a beguiling musician. Either way, they’re happy to swap building a house for a defined amount of that thing you do.
- Stolen Finergy: You could promise, or maybe just imply, that a housebuilder might get something they value in return for building you a house. Once the house is built, you do not deliver the implied reward, perhaps with the suggestion they imagined it all along (this is obviously risky, not least because they know where you live).
- Finergy Tokens: If you have access to sufficient finergy tokens (aka “money”, in whatever form is locally acceptable), you can swap these with a housebuilder, who will build you a house.
You may have these tokens because you worked for someone in return for a monthly supply of them, or because you swapped an item (like a previous house) for some. Or perhaps you were given/inherited some tokens by your parents or a doting grandma.
Or you may not own enough tokens yourself, but can borrow some. In return you promise to pay them back — and more on top — over the next 25 years.
Or you may use any of the methods outlined in point 2 to 8 above to obtain tokens, which you then give to the builder in return for building your house.
Clearly we — particularly in the West — think no further than Method 9: Using Finergy Tokens (money), be they owned or borrowed, to pay someone else to build a house. Perhaps, at a stretch, you might consider mixing tokens with using your own stocks of Personal Finergy to co-ordinate and build the house itself. But none of us seriously expects to do it without using money for some, most likely all, of the process.
Which can make points 1 to 8 seem like silly flippancies: Mere flights of fancy I dreamt up to provide amusing alternatives to the only real option: Pay for it.
But that’s not true.
Money: the new kid on the block
Throughout most of human history, options 1 to 8 were the only ways of converting finergy into what you wanted. In fact, you could argue (but not prove) that they remain more commonly used forms of finergy than money today too.
Money (as a token) is a relatively recent evolution, dating back only a few thousand years. But humans go back further. Were we doing nothing before we could measure it with money? Not building shelters? Not consuming food? Not playing games?
These are things that can be paid for with money today, and therefore measured by economists, but they didn’t start happening just because we invented money. They were happening anyway. Then money came along, giving us a different method of getting what we want. And measuring it too. In other words; economies existed long before money did, just as energy existed long before we started burning fossil fuels.
The Tyranny of Metrics
The measuring bit might be the cause of our own short-sightedness on the wider subject of finergy. With money/tokens now our dominant form of finergy, we have somehow concluded that, if we can’t measure it — because a monetary transaction hasn’t occurred — then it hasn’t happened.
The non-money forms of finergy aren’t just relics from the past either. In other parts of the world, and even within our own societies, the first eight forms of finergy are regularly tapped by people to get what they want, without any involvement of money (and therefore no impact on GDP figures or tax revenue). Here are examples:
- Forest monks in Thailand aren’t allowed to handle money. Yet they gain enough food and shelter to survive a lifetime. They do this by tapping into Community Finergy, as locals like having a monastery in their hood, so provide them with food and other help.
- For a visual cue see the classic amish barn-building scene from Witness: Basically a massive Community Finergy splurge (supported by tools and materials sourced using Asset- and Service-Trade Finergy).
- Striking miners in 1980s Britain were money-poor people who went for months without being paid. They survived because they had reserves of Community Finergy stored with family, friends and the local community, who provided them with what they needed to survive and keep fighting their corner.
- The crucial services that are still mostly carried out by women, such as child rearing, food preparation, caring, and hygiene, largely involve no finergy tokens/money changing hands. They are therefore ignored by economists and, as a result, are woefully underappreciated by politicians and wider society. It is a matter of opinion and personal circumstances how much of this finergy is released through Personal Finergy, Community Finergy, Exploitation Finergy or Stolen Finergy.
- Famous, rich and influential people are frequently given valuable goods and services without having to spend a cent (galling as they could easily get these things using their ample supply of finergy tokens). This is because they also have large supplies of Tribute Finergy and/or Service-Trade Finergy, so people either gift them stuff as a form of tribute, or try to grab some of their stored finergy by associating themself, or their product, with an influential person.
- Loads of activity happens every day on Planet Earth, including potentially taxable stuff like eating, drinking, travelling, building, communicating, and socialising, that’s completely missed by GDP and tax data (I can feel a thousand politicians reaching for their pencils). This is because it’s carried out by animals, insects and plants. And we haven’t yet figured out a way to get them to swap money with each other so we can profit from, and also measure, what they’re up to. The idea’s out there now though, so watch out for the first Silicon Valley start-up aimed at monetising this rich source of activity.
- Slavery (Coercive Finergy) has been a way of getting stuff without paying money for it since forever. But much as we might assume it’s history, the weak and vulnerable are often still enslaved today. Sometimes literally (people trafficking happens), but more commonly by loading them with unpayable debts which forces them to work on an effectively permanent basis (at some point charging rent/interest on a limited supply of property switches from Asset-Trade Finergy to Coercive Finergy).
- Smaller sole-trader entrepreneurs increasingly get things they want from each other without using money: You do my tax return and I’ll help fix your plumbing next time you need it. This calls on sources of On-Tick Finergy*** or, if it’s more precise than a vague commitment, on Service-Trade Finergy.
Once you start looking for these alternative sources of finergy, you’ll see they’re everywhere. And as they’re everywhere, it stands to reason that economics is, or at least should be, the study of so much more than just the stuff we do that involves money.
I have plenty more to say on finergy. Partly because it’s fascinating and unexplored, but also because understanding it will help protect me and my family from economic shocks, whatever shape they take (and from financial entropy, aka fintropy, which I’ll also cover later). I’ll be posting more in the coming weeks and months. Keep ’em peeled…
*Economics tends to talk about wealth, because it’s intentionally broader than money. But wealth is also just a smaller part of the wider subject of finergy.
**Me included. Despite showing some limited, early promise with my A in GCSE Physics (gained against all expectations, not least my own), I subsequently abandoned it in favour of other subjects, one of which was economics (regrets? I have a few). I’m busily trying to read and learn more about it today, as I’m belatedly finding it fascinating. But my old brain isn’t built for it, making it slow going. So, Physicists — I’m sorry if I’m mangling your subject as I write this — I mean it no harm.
**David Graeber suggests in his excellent book “Debt: The First 5,000 Years” that this (On-Tick Finergy) was the dominant form of economic activity well before money came on the scene. And that, in fact, money only evolved as a means of keeping better track of who owes who what. This was eye opening to me, especially as it suggests what we’re taught in Economics 101 about why money exists (as a tool for bartering) is wrong. I greatly enjoy anything about economists being wrong (of which, happily, there is no shortage of content), so he had me at chapter one.
Graebar, an anthropologist by training, is a great thinker on the subject of finergy. His Bullshit Jobs is also relevant on the topic, and I’ve just ordered his other books to run more deeply down this particular rabbit hole.