4 Lenses on Money, Its Economic, Political, Cultural, and Social History — Recommended Readings

Dodd, Nigel, The Social Life of Money, 2014, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.  See introduction here.

Graeber, David, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Ideas, 2002, New York: Palgrave.  See online here.

Martin, Felix, Money: The Unauthorized Biography, 2013, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.  Read an excerpt here.

Simmel, Georg, The Philosophy of Money, 2004, New York: Routledge.  See online here.

In my continuing deep dive into the Ecosynomics of money, I highly recommend these four huge sweeps through the broad and deep literature of money, from the perspective of economists, political philosophers, cultural anthropologists, and sociologists.  They represent four very different, seldom overlapping explorations of millennia of thinking and practice with money across hundreds of groupings of people.  Not a single one of these is a quick read, rather authoritative, deeply mesmerizing journeys through thousands of minds, with clear frameworks, disciplinary perspectives, and excellent writing.

Given the massive sweep, both broad and deep, each author takes in these four tomes, I will not attempt to summarize or synthesize their work here, rather acknowledge the perspective they bring, showing you the invitation they offer you, if you choose to dive into their waters.

In The Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel, a German philosopher and sociologist writing in the late 1800s, takes the philosopher’s stance, specifying what value is, how money is a symbol for value, how this symbol plays out in the consequences of money as a substance in social processes, and its impact on social values, such as individual freedom, and on specific institutions, such as marriage, work, manual labor, and life style.  Very dense and full of extraordinary insights.

Oxford-trained economist Felix Martin takes a historical dive into a wide range of stories in Money, taking the reader into the deeper stories and context in which political-economic innovations played important roles in the evolution of money, from shifts in its form to the expansion of markets, political and economic actors, and levers of monies use, such as interest rates and success metrics.  A very entertaining read, diving into the rich stories along the way of money’s evolution.

David Graeber, a Chicago-trained anthropologist, provides a beautifully articulated exploration of what hundreds of anthropologists have learned about how peoples around the world have evolved their own understanding of and application of systems of value.  Typical to Graeber’s writing, like his book Debt, he shows how the economist’s assumptions about how money evolved out of barter run completely against the hundreds of deep, long-term anthropological studies of the very societies economists claim to represent.  There have been many nuanced perspectives of what people value and how they reflect those values in the currencies they use.  This is a deeper, nuanced read for the more academically inclined.

Sociology professor at the London School of Economics, Nigel Dodd explores the development of many streams of sociological research into money systems, diving into what the original authors meant, contemporary interpretations, and how these various streams have evolved.  This deep literature review covers sociological perspectives that see money as capital, as debt, as guilt,  as waste, as territory, as culture, and as a variety of monetary utopian visions.  If you can’t see the forest through the trees or the terrain through the forests, this broad scholarly journey through dozens of thick journals, shows the patterns of forests, highlighting the dimensions for a synthesis of the sociology of money, as seen from different cultures on the planet and different points in time.

Four perspectives on money and what hundreds of deep-thinking, often very practical, philosophers have observed across the planet for millennia.



Money’s Nature, Big History, and Tools of the Richest — Recommended Readings

A few colleagues and I are working on cracking the Ecosynomics of money.  What is money, from a scientific, abundance-based perspective?  What money agreements would Ecosynomics suggest?  What are we learning from high vibrancy groups working with money agreements?  That is our exploration.  We will be sharing what we are seeing over the next months.

Building on our earlier exploration of money agreements and dynamics, I have been reading a wide variety of perspectives on money, from different social sciences.  For a broad bibliography on money from my earlier readings, click here, and for a movie on money that brings many thought leaders together, click here for a conventional view and here for an unconventional view.  From my recent readings, here is an initial list I highly recommend (with links to the book on Amazon.com and GoogleBooks).

  • The Nature of Money 2004 by Geoffrey Ingham. A Cambridge U sociologist scans the sociological and political history of insights into money.  Amazon Google
  • Money: Master the Game 2014 by Tony Robbins.  The best-selling author highlights how 50 legendary financial experts alive today think about money.  Amazon Google
  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years 2011 by David Graeber.  A cultural anthropologist synthesizes the vast field of ethnographic field research on money and credit systems.  Amazon Google

I am looking for a wide variety of perspectives on what money is.  From economics, political science, cultural anthropology, sociology, and philosophy and any other perspective you can think of.  Are there any well written reflections on money that you would recommend?

Money, Power, and a 3rd Metric for Thriving — Recommended Reading

Huffington, Arianna, Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-being, Wisdom, and Wonder. 2014, New York: Harmony Books.  

[You can see a reader’s guide to the book here.]

While most people seem to be quite clear on what it means to experience a life well lived, how to achieve it seems to elude the great majority.  The gap between the what and the how of a good life is wide.  Why?  The emerging science of abundance, Ecosynomics, suggests that much of the gap can be explained by the agreements most people unconsciously accept.  By not being aware of the deeply embedded assumptions we all accept in our daily interactions, we unconsciously live in to a “how” of achieving a life well lived that is misaligned with our intentions.  We accept a means that does not get us to the ends we want.  We accept this means because it seems to make sense.  Yet, the means we accept is incomplete, describing only part of the path towards a full life.  This incompleteness is hidden in the economic, political, cultural, and social assumptions we unknowingly accept.  Author and founder of Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, suggests a more complete set of metrics for success.

“The way we’ve defined success is not enough.  And it’s no longer sustainable: It’s no longer sustainable for human beings or for societies.  To live the lives we truly want and deserve, and not just the lives we settle for, we need a Third Metric, a third measure of success that goes beyond the two metrics of money and power, and consists of four pillars: well-being, wisdom, wonder, and giving.” (pages 3-4 of book)

Arianna describes and illustrates these four pillars of the third metric with vivid examples from her own life, from a wide breadth of recent research, and from many examples of people making more conscious choices about these critical assumptions.  I highly recommend this practical look at a life well lived.

The Dynamics of Our Relationship with Money

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James L., and Ned Hulbert. 2009. The Dynamics of Our Relationship with Money, White Paper, Belchertown, MA: Institute for Strategic Clarity, March.

We have been studying newly emerging agreements about money that are shifting human behavior in fundamental ways at a societal level. Based on our study of a number of authors on the topic of money, this paper seeks to synthesize their perspectives and to explore the dynamics of newly emerging systems of societal relationships at economic, political and cultural levels. By mapping these new relationships and behaviors, we hope to integrate and present them as helpful social insights.

The new ways of understanding and working with money have not yet been presented in a whole system picture. The presentation of a larger societal systems picture, along with analysis of the archetypal patterns behind it, can further dialogue among those concerned to understand and support a shift to a healthier social order.

Strings of Agreements with Money

Past-cast Series — Seeing relevance in earlier publications

Ritchie-Dunham, James L., and Ned Hulbert. 2009. Strings of Agreements with Money, White Paper, Belchertown, MA: Institute for Strategic Clarity, February.

The breakdown in September 2008 of the world’s financial and money systems has created a crisis that endangers the stability and vitality of societies world-wide. We must reshape our now broken systems with new, healthy agreements for working with money and one another. We can restore a social balance and enable the basic needs of individuals and society to be met. Organizations and the larger systems within which they function can benefit from articulating and working with the new agreements. The financial crisis shows us very clearly what is unhealthy.

To Be or Not to Be, Happy with Money, That Is the Question

Dunn, Elizabeth, & Norton, Michael. (2013). Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Most experiences of money do not increase happiness.  Some do.  So say 2002 Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues (Kahneman & Deaton, 2010; Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2006).  In their new book Happy Money (2013), professors Dunn and Norton show us the research that explains why.  From an Ecosynomics perspective, this research shows that happiness comes from the experience of potential and development and things, light and motion and matterthe interweaving experience of all three levels of perceived reality.  The lack of happiness comes from valuing only the things level of reality.  Dunn and Norton say it so well, that I use quotes from their book to explain the observation.

Only the Things Level.  What happens when people experience money only at the things-matter level? “Material purchases offer clear, concrete benefits, explaining their appeal.  We can see them in front of us and hold them in our hands” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 22).  And the value we experience, in terms of increased happiness, fades quickly with material purchases.  In many cases, we derive more happiness from the anticipation of the purchase than the actual purchase.  “Why do we fail to recognize that consuming later can enhance enjoyment?  Research shows that when something nice is available immediately, the “power of now” dwarfs all else” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 90).  “It’s difficult to overcome the power of now, but it’s possible to harness this force” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, pp. 102-103).

Both the Development and Things Levels.  What happens in experiential purchases (over time) versus material-transaction purchases, when both the development and things levels of reality are perceived?  “Research shows that satisfaction with experiential purchases tends to increase with the passage of time, while satisfaction with material purchases tends to decrease” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, pp. 23-24).  “Because the benefits of experiences are often more abstract than the benefits of material goods, it’s easier to appreciate the value of experiential purchases with the psychological distance that time provides”  (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 23).

And the Possibility Level. “The ability to generate pleasant thoughts about the future is a hallmark of psychological health…Anticipating good things produces a distinct pattern of neural activation in the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain linked to the experience of pleasure and reward” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 82; Knutson & Peterson, 2005, p. 310).  “The same region of the brain that responds when we anticipate something good (the nucleus accumbens) loses interest once we’ve gotten it” (Dunn & Norton, 2013, p. 86; Knutson & Peterson, 2005, p. 310).

The authors suggest five principles of happy money, making choices about how we spend money on experiences we have in all three levels of perceived reality (possibility, development, things), and not just the things level.  They provide the research that shows these five principles will increase the happiness we derive from the use of our money.  I highly recommend Happy Money as a very accessible journey through the research that shows how to get the most value of one’s experiences around money.


Kahneman, Daniel, & Deaton, Angus. (2010). High Income Improves Evaluation of Life But Not Emotional Well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(38), 16489-16493.

Kahneman, Daniel, Krueger, Alan B, Schkade, David, Schwarz, Norbert, & Stone, Arthur A. (2006). Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer?  A Focusing Illusion. Science, 312(5782), 1908-1910.

Knutson, Brian, & Peterson, Richard. (2005). Neurally Reconstructing Expected Utility. Games and Economic Behavior, 52(2), 305-315.

Money — The Agreements We Seldom See — A New Movie

A movie that will change your perception of money, @moneylifemovie, available for anyone to view or to host a screening. http://bit.ly/ZYoQhk

The Mode of Exchange of Value

How do we exchange value?  You enter an exchange, bringing something with you to exchange for the thing that you want.  There are basically two ways that you can do this.  You can either bring a needs-satisfier with you or a symbol for needs-satisfiers.  The direct needs-satisfier is something you can exchange with the other person, if they want this specific needs-satisfier here and now, in the conditions that you provide it in.  As this is very restrictive for most exchange – what if they only want 1/5 of your cow? – you can also exchange symbols for need-satisfiers.  Today these symbols are called money.  They are the currency that flows through the value exchange network.

Today you use three basic kinds of money: purchase money; loan money; and gift money.  You use purchase money in a direct exchange with someone else, right here and now.  Purchase money makes the exchange complete.  You enter the agreement about something you both want now, and you complete the agreement.  Loan money is a bit different.  With loan money, you are looking backward and forward in time.  You look backward to see what capacities you have going forward to utilize the loan well.  You look forward to see if you will be able to pay back the loan, with interest, in the agreed-upon time.  So, while purchase money looks at needs, right here and now, loan money looks forward and backward.  Another dimension also comes in here.  With purchase money, you only look at the immediate exchange.  What do you have to exchange with me?  With loan money, you are also looking at your proven capacity in the past to generate future money, and pay back the loan, with interest, with something extra to thank them for letting your use their money.  With gift money, you enter a different space-time.  Gift money looks only forward and comes with no conditions.

What becomes confusing in every-day language is the mixing of the terms purchase, loan, and gift.  You might call it a gift, yet it comes with strings or expectations.  This makes it a loan, not a gift.  You gave it to me, with expectations for future repayment.  This is a loan, disguised as a gift.  Likewise, with credit, you might think you are purchasing something, but you are really getting a loan to make a purchase, which you must repay in the future with interest.  While this might sound like semantics, you will see in later posts that misunderstanding and misnaming money types leads to very poor agreements, which can have a huge influence on your ability to achieve the harmonic vibrancy you desire.

I will also explore some big questions around the mode of exchange, such as who determines how much there is, how it is exchanged, and how its value is known.  These questions of the design of the mode of exchange and the exchange system directly influence who has it and who does not.

Money as a Flow in Value Exchange

I was interviewed this past summer, for a documentary, on the subject of money and value exchange, by Katie Teague, an independent documentary filmmaker working in the growing field of transformational media.  For her movie “Money & Life,” Katie has interviewed a wide group of deeply engaged global citizens on their perspectives on money.  Segments of these interviews are available at the “Money & Life” website.

Relating to Value Exchange

The third application of the four-step harmonic vibrancy move is to how people exchange value in networks of human interaction.

Gap Description
The harmonic vibrancy aspiration for value exchange is the daily experience of prosperity through the exchanging and sustaining of value – everyone experiences abundance of what she values, a value-full life.  The harmonic vibrancy reality is that people report that they do not, in general, experience abundance in everything they value, and they do experience abundance in some things they value.  While what is of value to people is a question as old as humanity, industrial-based economics has defined a narrower set of values, suggesting that money is a value-neutral mode of wealth assessment.[1] While highly contested, within economics, as the key metric for value, money is a strong driver of value-driving behavior today.  Money stores value as a medium of exchange.  Currently money is scarce, because it is defined as scarce, with specific banks chartered with creating a limited supply of money, at their discretion.

From an ecosynomic axioms perspective, on the X-axis, the current monetary system gives people a greater freedom, independent of their heritage or relationships – anyone can have unit of currency: however, it is left to the individual to step into her own potential.  On the Y-axis, mutuality makes currency available to anyone, but bares no witness to the other’s gifts or potential.  On the Z-axis, money promotes movement within the collective, but it does not take, pay attention to, or care for the collective or the individuals.  On the A-axis, money removed the direct relationship to the divine.  There is no relationship with money and nature.

Other’s Experience
Another understanding of value exchange is emerging, where money is the symbol of the flow of vibrancy through humanity, as it manifests in our agreements.  The word money comes from the Latin word monére for warning or reminder – a reminder that money is not a noun, rather a verb, the flowing vibrancy.[2] Money reminds us, in each interaction, that we are presencing the flow of vibrancy through one person towards another, whether through what they produce or the service they provide.  This presencing is an agreement, a human agreement.

Ecosynomics proposes that the human experience of harmonic vibrancy is described by a rich set of values, greatly reflected in human relationships to one’s self, another, collective, spirit, and nature.  Ecosynomics suggests that value exchange facilitates the flow of resources that sustain and generate these dimensions of human experience that people value.  There are certain values that the individual or collective can readily nurture and sustain, while other values depend more on the gifts of others.  For those gifts, there is the reminder, money.

Ecosynomics also shows that intention matters.  In a string of agreements, how the value exchange enters the agreement influences what is done with it and what is possible to do with it.  Tens of thousands of collectives across the globe are experimenting with different definitions of what they value and how they exchange value.   Asset-based community development is identifying the assets the community values, those they have, and those they can develop further without sacrificing those they have.  Complementary currencies are experimenting with: (1) the agreements about how money works (i.e., whether it is interest-bearing, scarce, and has an asset basis); and (2) the culture within which the money works.  Sarkozy, the President of France, commissioned leading economists to develop metrics that move beyond GDP to include well-being.[3]

Axial Description
A collective’s ability to work with and shift its agreements around what is valued and how to exchange value depends to a great part on their level of harmonic vibrancy, as reflected in the different axes.  Some agreements function well in low levels of vibrancy, on any axis, such as bartering.  A need is exchanged for an offer.  Higher levels of vibrancy work best with subtler forms of value exchange, supporting each other to take on more significant contributions to one’s own development as well as that of the collective.  A collective’s capacity to see and step into value-exchange agreements that nurture prosperity is influenced by its current position in the harmonic vibrancy zone and its capacity to move towards greater vibrancy.

Harmonic-Vibrancy Move
Clearly there are many implications of this shift from value exchange as a scarce monetary system to value exchange as a reminder of the infinite capacity residing within the emergent system.  The industrially developed world is based primarily on an assumption of value exchange as scarce.  If value is in fact abundant, and not scarce, then how people exchange value would change in significant ways.[4]

The first observation is that even within existing agreements, different possibilities show up in conversations that are based on scarcity than those based on assumptions of abundance. For example, in a small textile US-based company, a conversation about value exchange for an employee can focus solely on the perceived scarcity around financial compensation, leading necessarily to a request for greater pay to alleviate the scarcity.  Leadership has also experimented with a broader conversation encompassing a rich set of values generated for the person by being in relationship with the community of the company.

A second observation, from the perspective of value exchange in harmonic vibrancy moves, is that the individual or the collective cannot be satisfied by a partial value set.  For example, people do not make most decisions based only on how much they make.  They also decide whether the work is satisfying, the people they work with are nice or not.  Now, some jobs are so awful that wage is the only determinant, but this is not so for most ways that people engage with others to create value.

Finally, seeing money as a reminder of flow opens people to seeing what manifests for them externally as a reflection of an infinite potential of an internal flow of creativity.  A counter view is that one’s inner sense of wealth is a reflection of the amount of scarce, finite money to which a person has access (see Figure 1).[5]

Figure 1: Projections of Money and Value


[1] Elsewhere we distinguish between value-neutral and value-ignoring, suggesting that money is not neutral, devoid of intention, rather it drives values, and that this is a residual effect of scarcity agreements around money.
[2] The etymology of “money” is uncertain, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, with possible connections to the Latin monere, which means “to warn, remind,” see (“money, n” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press. 4 Apr. 2000 .).
[3] For more on complementary currencies, see (Lietaer, 2001).  For more on Sarkozy’s well-being commission, see (Stiglitz, et al., 2008).
[4] For a perspective on the corporation as value creator versus value appropriator, see (Ghoshal, Bartlett, & Moran, 1999).
[5] For deeper insights into the effects of perceptions of money, see papers on the dynamics of money (Ritchie-Dunham, 2009) and the impact of intentions on strings of agreements around money (Ritchie-Dunham & Hulbert, 2009).