Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Hidden Assumptions in the Ability to Save

The idea we have, that we can save wealth, builds upon assumptions that we should examine.  Notably we take it for granted that we can save our wealth in the form of money.  We take it for granted that we can put money in a bank and then go back later and recover our money.  This is true, or true enough, in modern civilization.  But in fact this idea builds upon many expectations which are not necessarily true at all.  Compare life in uncivilized nature.

Probably you have seen a group of birds on the ground in a park where a person has just thrown out a handful of bread crumbs.  One of these birds may walk to where it stands over a cluster of crumbs.  In this moment this bird is quite wealthy.  It can choose to eat any of the crumbs.  But wait!  Another bird just darted in and ate one of the crumbs.  If the first bird spends more time reflecting upon its wealth, it will have no wealth.  Biology has given the bird a way to store food energy as fat.  But the bird does not have a purse, cache, or savings bank.

I propose that life among humans started in primitive circumstances, similar to life among these birds.  We had to live hand-to-mouth.  We had no way to save food except to get it into our bellies while we had the chance.

So, let us see if we can list the differences between hand-to-mouth living, such as our ancestors probably experienced, and the abilities we have to save in modern civilization.

  • We can stand over our food, or otherwise signal our ownership of our food, generally without fear that someone else will come and snatch it away.
  • We can convert food into money, a tradable commodity, through exchange.
  • We can deposit money in a bank with confidence that we can withdraw a like amount of money later.
  • We can expect that we will be able to trade our money in the future for food, of roughly comparable quantity and quality, which we might have had with today's money.

My list is surely incomplete.  I hope to develop a better list with the help of commenters.

My purpose in developing this wealth-in-institutions thesis is, again, to call into clear view all of the crucial things which we have taken for granted for so long that we have lost sight of them.

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