The Legend of El Dorado, the mythical town of legend where the streets and buildings are made from solid gold, has captured the imaginations of greedy, poor bastards like myself for centuries. The idea that somewhere there’s a place of unimaginable wealth has leaked its way from legend and into faiths and religious beliefs. The Bible describes heaven as being a place where the streets are paved with gold (begging the question, of course, as to whether or not heaven is a hidden town somewhere in South America). The writers of the Bible likely used that description to capture the wholeness and totality that heaven represented, a place where there was no material wants.
The deep irony, of course, is that if streets were paved with gold (be it in El Dorado or the afterlife), the value of gold would drop instantly. Gold is, after all, valuable in part because of its rarity. It does have other valuable properties (ranging from aesthetics to conductivity), but gold is first and foremost a useful commodity for exchange because it is rare. Gold served as the primary unit of exchange throughout most of time, as it was fairly stable, had known value, and could be easily transported, safeguarded, and molded into various coins and other instruments of exchange.
The inherent scarcity of gold caused many people to behave in devious and dastardly ways to get their hands on it, as they still do to this day. Vikings would loot it, pirates would steal it, Kings would debase it, and the rest of us would desperately crave it. There is, after all, only so much gold to go around. Either you have it or I do. And I can’t exactly go mine or find more of it (technically, I could, but it might be a bit impractical).
The thing that provides gold its value (its scarcity) is also the very same thing that has created one of the most destructive mindsets in the world: the belief that wealth itself is a zero-sum game and is scarce itself. While the fact that wealth is a zero-sum game is seemingly self-evident (as indicated by the finite supply of gold and the fact that economics is known as the “dismal science”), this belief is simply not true. But yet it is precisely this belief that has created so much destruction in our world today and, quite possibly, is the thing that’s keeping you poor.
To illustrate this point, let’s make up a fairytale/parable for a moment.
Imagine I was a caveman and living on some mountain somewhere. Somehow, I had figured out smelting and managed to create five bars of solid 24 karat gold (the type that would make Bruno Mars’ falsetto sing for joy). Then, imagine there was absolutely nothing I wanted. I wasn’t interested in trading my gold for my neighbor’s fancy new wooden club he’d spent the previous two weeks carving. I wasn’t interested in trading my gold for a bigger cave or for having a few other cavemen over for some pre-historic beers and burgers. I didn’t want to hire someone to do work for me (such as straightening the rocks around my cave or stacking the skulls in neat rows on my shelf). Imagine, if you can, that I wanted and needed absolutely nothing from anyone else. Then, imagine that my self-sufficiency was replicated by everyone else in the neighboring community. So, not only did I not want anything, but nobody else wanted anything either. We were all perfectly content and happy with what we had and didn’t need anything more and had little likelihood of needing anything in the future.
In such a scenario, how much is my gold worth?
Well, we’ve already established that nobody wants anything that anyone else has. So, my gold has a market value of zero–because no one would exchange anything for it. Sure, it may be personally valuable to me. I may like the way it shines or its coloration. And, perhaps if I was an extremely enterprising caveman, I could fashion this gold into a sweet necklace or something similar.
After having made this sweet necklace and strutting around, I begin to pick up the attention of the local cavewomen. The other cavemen instantly recognize the enhanced reproductive opportunities I now have thanks to my gold chain. And they, in turn, start to want one of their own. But, alas, I am the only one who has figured out how to make this and the only one with gold. They now have two options: they could either club me to death and steal my necklace or they could trade me for it. Assuming our fellow cavemen are gentlemen, let’s say the choose the latter course of option.
The first caveman, named Urtuk, comes to me with an offer. He’s going to give me a chicken in exchange for my gold necklace.
My gold necklace is now worth exactly one chicken.
The second caveman, named Jorash, comes to me with another offer. He’ll give me a chicken and vacuum my cave.
My gold necklace is now worth exactly one chicken and a vacuuming of my cave.
The third caveman, named Kevin, comes along, and he’ll give me 100 pounds of potatoes and a sheep for my gold necklace.
My gold necklace is now worth exactly 100 pounds of potatoes and a sheep.
And this process will continue with people offering a varying amount of goods and services to me in exchange for my necklace until, at some point, I execute the trade. This assumes that the demand for my necklace persists and that others continue to find it valuable.
Now, the exact same thing happens with our fiat currencies today. People are continually trading and buying and selling currencies and listing those currencies relative to the goods and services they can acquire. Inflation is popularly defined as too many dollars chasing too few goods. So, this begs the question of what happens when you have too many goods chasing too few dollar?
Money, as a currency, is simply a symbolic representation of real-world goods and services. Those real world goods and services are, quite literally, endless.
Imagine for a moment that there were only $100 USD ever created and that there would never be more dollars printed. If people decided to use this as the predominant currency, then the value of USD would continue to rise and rise and rise, as people put more and more goods and services behind each dollar transaction. That is, as the supply of goods and services increases (assuming demand rises accordingly), the value of each dollar itself (in terms of its purchasing power) will continue to rise and rise and rise. Now, each dollar would (assuming no other currencies exist), still hold the same face value ($1 would still be $1), but your dollar would buy unfathomable amounts of wealth. In this imaginary example, having $1 means you own 1% of all of the wealth and could thus buy planes, mansions, and other unbelievable luxuries to satisfy yourself.
So, when I say that wealth is unlimited, it is. The money supply is limited (depending on the Fed’s monetary policy)–that’s true. But wealth (those goods and services you trade for with that money) is not limited by anything.
If you produce things, experiences, products, and services people want and are willing to pay you for, you can literally create unlimited amounts of new wealth. Wealth creation is not a zero-sum game. For each contribution of value to the economy, you increase the value of the currency you’re using to exchange goods. And then when people trade you that currency for your goods and services, you participate in a virtuous cycle of value creation and receive these tokens of value as a symbol of that.
The reason this idea is so important is that so often we think that wealth is scarce when, in fact, it’s not. There’s wealth opportunity everywhere. It’s simply a matter of going and getting it.
Part of the problem is that our modern setup of employers and employees makes disconnects us significantly from value creation. We often don’t get compensated proportionately to the value we create and don’t see how our value-creation translates directly into wealth–new wealth that didn’t exist before we made it.
It is thus that a lot of discussions surrounding wealth inequality are based on an invalid assumption, which is the assumption that wealth is finite and scarce and either I have it or you do. This is false. It actually is possible for us to all be wealthy.
If you don’t believe me, I would simply point to the USA as a perfect example of this. By historical standards, virtually everyone in the United States is unfathomably wealthy. Our poor die from the traditional “diseases of the affluent.” This increased wealth benefited everyone and, by the way, had little to do with the number of dollars in circulation and had everything to do with the activity and productivity those dollars represented. Of course, there were a few lucky geopolitical factors that broke in our favor (not the least of which was WWII), but the wealth experienced in the United States today is beyond the pale of anything anyone could have imagined a few hundred years ago.
Of course, we’re so normalized to this reality, we don’t even see or appreciate it anymore. But it remains true.
When we view wealth as a zero-sum game, it quickly becomes us versus “them.” The “them” can be our companies and bosses or the wealthy people with their shiny Rolex watches. It’s important to remember that the wealthy, when creating their wealth, didn’t do so by stealing from us (with a few rare and notable exceptions). Instead, they did so by going out and producing value. That value comes from meeting the desires of others.
Trying to make more money, whether as a company or an individual, shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should always be to create value. And the best way to create value is by giving other people the things they want and need. There is a nearly unlimited amount of desires in the universe, as people will continue to want more things. Because desire is unlimited, value is unlimited. The fact that value is unlimited means that there’s no end to the people who will pay you for something you’re willing to provide them with. So, the only question remaining is what sort of value you are going to create and give to others, and then how fabulously wealthy you will become as a result.
There’s unlimited wealth to be made. It’s time you went and got you some.