A long-con ponzi scheme: How money rules the world

How does money stay valuable? It just keeps growing. But is that healthy?

Vicki Robin: We all know: it’s like everything from “Money is status,” “Money is power,” “Money is sex appeal.”

I just read that “The more beautiful the woman the bigger the diamond and the uglier the man who gave it to her,” you know, so it’s—why is that? That has nothing to do with the daily transactions! That is something emotional. That’s how the man believes he’s going to feel with a beautiful wife, how the woman feels when she’s got an expensive rock on her hand. These are all feelings, they’re status, like, “I made it,” proving yourself to your third-grade teacher or your nemesis in high school or your parents.

There’s so many ways in which we project onto money the ability to not only make us happy but to make us “better” or better than other people or safe, or—so many deep gut level emotional feelings are playing themselves out in our relationship with money. And, you know, fine. I’m not saying it shouldn’t happen. “We will all be very conscious and we will not have any emotions in our relationship with money.” I’m not saying that. I’m just saying the more aware you are of what you’re projecting onto money in terms of meeting emotional and psychological and even spiritual needs the clearer you’re going to be in those daily transactions. In fact that’s part of why once you start to become conscious of money and stuff in your life this way, you stop spending so much money.

But around that is another level: there is the cultural narrative, the rules of the game of our economy, of the financial system which in so many ways governs not just our daily lives but who wins and who loses, who has power and who does not have power, who gets to say what the game is, who gets to play by the rules and break the rules. I mean this is a cultural context. It has nothing to do particularly with what’s going on in our individual traumas and histories, it has to do with a longer historical moment in time, and the basic meme of the financial system is growth.

I mean it’s really—in a way it’s sort of a very long-con Ponzi scheme, because it has to keep growing in order to keep meeting its obligations. Money is produced—I mean the actual pieces of paper and metal, the credit that you have isn’t just like you go to a job and somebody gives you some pieces of paper, it’s—money is loaned into being by banks. Banks have the authorization to create money but it’s not like they have to have $1,000 in the vault in order to lend you $1,000. No, they have to have $100 in the vault to lend you $1,000, and then they lend you the $1,000 with interest. So in the world of money everything has to grow. Everything has to keep growing or it’s Game Over, which is a difficulty for us now because of the capacity of the planet to support this ideology.

So that’s that construct of money, which is fascinating. People study economics and financial systems were mesmerized by how people have played this system to the detriment of many people except for themselves. And then but what we say is that outside of that whole thing, those are all stories.

What we actually know for sure as individual human beings we know that we have a body, that we know that we’re alive, and that we invest some of the minutes of our lives, some of the vital force of our lives in a process that produces money for us. However it produces it, whether it’s a job, whether it’s investments, whether it’s dog sitting, whatever it is whether it’s stealing the Topkapi diamond.

It’s like whatever it is, we invest some of our precious life energy in this thing called getting money. So money for us is your life energy. The value of money to you is how much of “you” you invested in getting it. And once you understand that, once you understand that money is something that’s abstract and seems unlimited, like, “if I go into debt it doesn’t matter, I’ll just keep having jobs and I’ll keep paying it off.” I mean it’s just an endless sort of stumbling process. But you understand that your life is limited, you know. We’ve got—I’m going to say 85 years on the planet because now I’m 73 so I don’t say 75 anymore.

So we’ve got a certain limited time on the planet. We’re going to spend a third of it sleeping. We’re going to spend another third of it commuting and showering and sitting at a desk and doing somebody else’s bidding. That’s not a lot of life.

So you think, I’ve got a third, I have a third of my waking hours, are mine to do whatever I want.

Who am I? So it’s like it then sends it into an existential question. Who am I? What do I care about? What do I want my little dent in time or scratch in eternity to be? What do I want the impact of my actions to be? What do I want to learn? What do I want to understand? What do I want to feel, taste, touch? What do I want, in what Mary Oliver calls “my one wild and precious life”?

So that once you do that tip and then you go like okay, so what am I earning?
I’m earning let’s say $36 an hour. And I’m not going to do the whole shaggy dog story of like you’ve got to add onto that hour the extra time you spend getting trained and commuting, and the vacation where the first three days of your vacation where you’re inert and you’re just staring. That’s all time associated with that hour. The commute expense and the training and you’re a consultant and you think you make a lot of money but you spend hours and hours to get the business for that one hour of time.

On average I will say—just run the experiment in your own life—that $36 for an hour will whittle down to about a quarter of that. So call that $9. Now we have a figure. An hour of my life is worth $9.

That’s interesting. Okay, you’re going out for coffee and a muffin? That’s an hour. So then you have to ask value questions around that, like, “Am I really glad that I spent an hour of my one wild and precious life on this coffee and muffin?” How do I actually even engage with that question? The way we suggest you engage with it is this: Did it make me happy commensurate with the value that I convey, I put on this one hour of my life?

“Yes! You know, like without that coffee and muffin every day my life would be like, you know, sort of at a 50 rather than at a 90.”

Is it in alignment with my values, with what I say is important? And what I think my purpose in life is?

And these are not easy questions to ask but you might as well ask it when you’re buying your coffee and muffin. When else are you going to ask it?! To what am I dedicating this, my existence?

And somehow or another you sort of get a vague sense purchase by purchase. It’s really the most amazing meditation on how do I invest my life to create the maximal value for myself and other people in the world?

"Money, it's a gas," wrote Pink Floyd's Roger Waters for their hit 'Money'. Author, speaker, and social innovator Vicki Robin would probably agree: she posits that most people don't understand the true, human, working value of money. Because when she breaks it down like she does here in this video, you might be tempted to reevaluate your own spending habits. Vicki's latest book is Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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