Expense or Investment?

It all depends on how you look at things. Two people can observe the same event, but because of their default mental models about that happenstance, conclude that two entirely different and irreconcilable consequences have resulted. What you think happened depends on what you believe about what you observed. In other words, it’s a narrative you create inside your own head. It doesn’t have an objective reality. It is no more than a story you tell yourself about it.

That story isn’t of your own invention, either. It’s derived from the stories you were told, by people you trusted, about events like the one you have just observed, throughout your entire life. Your internal monologue about the event is highly derivative. You don’t work it out from first principles; you adapt a previously heard narrative, which you believed, to fit the current circumstance. The stories you believe, to explain what you see, are not your own. IF the people you trusted kept you ignorant, your conclusion is equally ignorant. Most people rarely authentically think for themselves.

As an example, let’s talk about the sorts of things we classify as expenses, or costs. The same monetary transaction can be seen two different ways. On the one hand, if you pay for somebody’s time, you can view this as an expense. What you have forgone is the opportunity to spend your money in some other way. Instead, you spent it hiring a person. The money is gone. You feel poorer. Paying for their time, skill or expertise is viewed as a sunk cost. You can’t get a refund easily and you won’t see that money again.

Another way to see this same transaction is that your money, instead of being wasted frivolously on self-gratification of some other item of ephemeral consumption, has enabled a talented and brilliant person to keep honing their skills. That feels like a worthwhile investment. You have contributed to the betterment of this individual and the consequences of doing so has raised the quality of their thought. The returns that might one day accrue from this small act of paying money to somebody might be vast. They could be the next Einstein or Mozart, still in development. Even if they aren’t, they’re certainly a better version of themselves than they were before your money enabled them to learn and become better. The more you do this, the better the overall quality of thought in the society you share. This time, your financial transaction is seen as an investment not an expense.

Same transaction; different interpretations.

We customarily refuse to see the investment aspect, but that’s an arbitrary choice. There’s nothing inherently legitimate, valid or more worthy in counting costs and expenses, or reducing unique individuals to fungible Human Resources. We’ve been conditioned to count costs, but never to appreciate the benefits, as they geometrically accumulate. We are blind to the fact that paying people is an investment in them, our community, our society and our civilisation. Hoping that somebody else will view what we regard as an expense as their investment is magical thinking. Why should anybody view it differently to how we insist on viewing it?

You get this with training expenses. Every company wishes to hire highly trained and qualified individuals, but nobody wants to be the organisation that funds the training. The argument goes that if you invest in people, other firms will simply poach them, so better to keep everybody ignorant. That’s like saying we don’t stock that item anymore, because we kept selling out of it. While they express clear preferences for trained personnel, because they can see the value in that, they don’t see the value in creating such people. It’s illogical in the extreme.

We’re only fixated on costs and expenses because we’re stuck in a Dickensian mind set. This is the normalised narrative of our times and those that control the narrative have spent literally billions of dollars to control it. We only default to regarding investments as expenses because that’s what we’ve been taught since childhood. It’s a bizarre distortion overlaid on human nature.

Ask yourself some of these questions: What would be the value to you, personally, of becoming a great artist, writer or musician? What’s the value to you of living in a supportive community that cares, a clean environment, having the freedom and time to become your best self, while everybody else you live among is doing the same? Speaking entirely selfishly, what would be the benefit to you of eliminating corruption and tyrants (even the local, petty variety)? Would you experience less stress and greater well-being? Would you be less anxious and happier? What value do you place on improved mental health?

How life-enhancing would you find living without predatory, surveillance capitalism? Is it worth paying to contain and constrain the excesses of celebrity idols and oligarchs? Why do you hanker for a life lived vicariously through the gossip pages, about the rich and famous, when your own life could be so much better than it is, under austerity and extreme inequality? How do you even put a value on not living among stupid, ignorant, bigoted people? How would you value not living under the constant threat of random, indiscriminate gun violence?

These are all things you can invest in. You can organise so that the population, as a whole, invests in them. Today, our collective wealth is squandered on opulence, warfare, corporate subsidisation and tax breaks for the wealthiest. You can choose to spend that money more wisely, investing in people, rather than wasting it on death and destruction.

If the alternative view were to prevail, then commercial arts, like the music industry, would be investing in the sorts of things humans ought to be able to say and feel (through music), without fear or restriction. That would make a big change from the industry’s current behaviour, which is all about cost containment, one-sided deals and profit extraction. Artists wouldn’t be disposable and exploitable. Instead, they’d be assets to nurture.

I’ve never seen a job ad looking for somebody with unique talents, skills, curiosities and abilities. They all want you to be like somebody else, so that they can control the creative agenda. So much so, that recruiters routinely screen résumés with text matching software, which inflexibly matches on expected keywords. You have to fit into a predefined pigeon hole, or you aren’t even interviewed, let alone considered for the role. This effectively screens out the unique and non-obvious candidates. How is that investing in people?

Well, it isn’t, is it? No wonder human beings are treated as an expense, rather than an unlimited wellspring of unknown creative potential. If you try to dictate what gets innovated, you miss the much more valuable innovations that would inevitably arise, if you genuinely invested in people. Mission statements limit pure possibilities. The founder’s vision tramples all over everybody else’s. Why should this be, if the only purpose of the business is to flourish? Limiting the firm to the founder’s vision alone stifles spontaneous value creation. Yet, dissent is nowhere welcomed. This is another of those irrational, illogical behaviours, despite what they claim to be doing.

Here’s a case in point: A random sampling of Product Management roles advertised recently reveals that they are predominantly extractive in nature, not edifying. The prevailing ethos is one of farming – milking and corralling compliant developers and customers, like so many head of cattle, so that the maximum value is extracted from them in the most efficient way possible. These jobs and products are not about empowering people, investing them with agency, giving them meaningful choice and ensuring they thrive. None of that is on the agenda, except as a thinly veneered mask to sanitise and conceal the organisation’s true motives. Even Google has finally jettisoned their “don’t be evil” directive from their code of conduct. The fiction couldn’t be maintained any longer. Think, however, what additional value could be created if organisations invested in empowerment, agency, real choice and the well being of their people and customers. It’s not an expense; it generates an abundant return.

Investments in people, community, infrastructure, environment, libraries, health, education and other public goods are not altruistic. Not in the least. Ayn Rand would have never understood this, being the high priestess of parasitically accumulating personal wealth at everybody else’s expense. In fact, these investments are examples of enlightened self-interest. You’re paying for guarantees of future civilised, comfortable, amenable living. Seeing these expenditures as costs to be reduced, rather than investments in a better future, is simply perverse, yet the UK government’s ongoing and elongated austerity programme is precisely this wrong-headed.

If you’re an artist, you probably feel a certain amount of guilt (or guilty pleasure) when you buy art materials. After all, that money could be feeding a family, paying bills or reducing your debt. Art materials, though, are really an investment in yourself, as an artist; not an expense. They can help you become a better artist, provided you also make the time investment to actually use them. Even investing your time in pursuing your art can induce feelings of guilt. Most of us feel we have other obligations, particularly to employers, partners and family, that take precedence. Without spending the time on your art, though, you’ll never become the person you know, deep inside, you must become. If you don’t become that person, which so urgently asserts itself in your personality, you’ll wind up frustrated, unfulfilled, angry and resentful. That’s no use to any employer, partner or family member.

If you want to live in a world filled with beauty and tranquillity, with songs, art and something interesting to read, investing in artists and makers makes a lot of sense. Similarly, if you wish the community you live in to invest in you, then you should vote against austerity and social spending cuts. Tax evasion and avoidance is a deeply hostile act, not the act of a lone genius hero. Taxation has many egregious faults, as a system of accumulating and spending common wealth, but investing in a better future isn’t one of them. That’s arguably one of the few things that is right about taxation. There are other forms of investment organisation that would perform the function better than compulsory taxation, of course, but a profit-seeking motive (i.e. leaving it to privatisation) simply reduces the amount of investment available, without creating new value.

Some people object to taxation on the grounds of inefficiency. A hierarchical system takes the money and spends it in ways that most people don’t like. People who believe in public investment are horrified when they witness the waste and inefficiency that the hierarchy imposes, squandering a lot of the wealth in unconscionable ways. In fact, we don’t need traditional hierarchies to organise and administer the proceeds of taxation. We certainly don’t need the majority (if not all) of the tax collected to go straight into the pockets of landlords, via housing benefit and to further enrich bankers/investors, to cover the interest owed on government borrowing, as is the case today. There are many other network topologies of governance that do a far better job. The Internet is a working example of one such topology, but there are many others.

Historically, common land wasn’t left the ravages of a selfish free-for-all. Local people organised themselves, voluntarily, without hierarchy, to ensure that illicit enclosures were forcibly removed and abusers of the common resource brought into line. It wasn’t a committee, but more an example of comity. Comity is all about mutual benefit, through courtesy and considerate behaviour towards others. Committee is usually pointlessly bureaucratic, serving as an impediment to husbanding common wealth, rather than enhancing community property. Committees get bogged down in budgets and penny pinching cuts. They see everything as expenses. Comity seeks to enhance what is ours. It’s all about investment. We could actually fix the roads this way, filling the pot-holes and doing the necessary maintenance according to a system of comity. We don’t and that’s because people worry about the cost of their local government services, not about how to invest in their communities.

Maintenance is a bargain, compared to replacement or rebuilding. Some public investments are much better value than others. Maintenance is never an expense. It preserves and retains value that has already been realised. It’s an investment in retaining the value of some public good over the long term. Today, our governments scrimp on maintenance, cutting budgets annually, squeezing the ability for things to be kept in good order out of the system entirely. Consequently, our public infrastructure continues to degrade, due to the ravages of time and continuous wear, losing utility and value in the process. At some point, the infrastructure will become unfit for purpose and will either need to be replaced and rebuilt, or else taken away from the community forever. No sane accounting would fail to invest in maintenance, yet everybody thinks it’s an expense.

In the final analysis, debt financing encumbers every productive investment with a parasitic, value-destroying component, which compounds (exponentially), until the value destroyed overwhelms the value created by the creative investment. Other ways of financing are possible. Debt is not a law of nature – it’s a convention. We can change it. There are ways of issuing new money (e.g. sovereign money) and funding communities (e.g. universal basic incomes) that could transform how we invested in ourselves, each other and the places we live. No God decreed that for every issue of currency, you need to repay a banker some percentage of its face value. In fact, most Gods are strictly against usury. We’ve had our prevailing narrative controlled by usurers for hundreds of years and this is why we cannot imagine any alternative. Historically, there were numerous alternatives.

Regrettably, the majority of people think of artists as a burden on the economy – a pure expense. They’re thought of as scroungers and wasters, contributing nothing. The barriers to entry to being a full time artist are very high, especially in academic incarnations of the arts. Artists are paid very little, because they love making art, so ought to be prepared to bear the costs of being artists on their own, without adequate reward, or so the twisted, petty, jealous “logic” goes. Society doesn’t value artists as an investment in cumulative beauty and aesthetic pleasure for all. We’d rather live in dull, unstimulating, austere surroundings, thinking equally barren ideas, it seems. If we were to recognise how much better our lives would be, if we had an abundance of justly rewarded artists working tirelessly to surround us with interesting, attractive things and pleasant surroundings; filling our heads with new, exciting and engaging ideas or perspectives, then we might see paying for art and artists as more of a sensible investment than we do today.

The failure to invest in people reveals itself in bullshit jobs. According to the controlled narrative, which we all buy into, everybody has to work full time to earn the right to continue existing, even if the only jobs available for them are pointless and soul-destroying. Author and anthropologist David Graeber says: “If we just gave people the money to do what they like, even if a million came up with crazy theories, all you need is one to invent the teleportation device and it makes up for that million… Same with anything else.”

Here is a link to David’s article. It’s a jolly refreshing read: https://www.thedailybeast.com/nearly-half-of-you-reading-this-have-bullshit-jobs

In this article, he concludes that as many as one in two of us fall into pointless, useless jobs, such as being flunkies, goons, duct-tapers, box-tickers or taskmasters providing unnecessary supervision. That’s a tremendous waste of human potential and we’re all the poorer for it. Our insistence on treating these people as an expense, instead of investing in their precious, rare and individual curiosities and interests, means we never reap the unexpected windfall of genius. No wonder Millennials are so hard to please in the workplace, with their fancy notions of wanting to do something meaningful and purposeful with their short, precious lives. They happen to be right. Here are Richard Buckminster Fuller’s thoughts on the subject:

It’s time to stop worrying about expenses and to start thinking about investing. Under-investment has gone on for too long.


About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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