What’s Real Wealth Anyway? Philosophy Plus Edgar Cahn in a 2018 Forbes’ Podcast Lend Insight

By Grace Maselli


In the words of British-American philosopher Alan Watts, “Thoughts and words are conventions…and it is fatal to take conventions too seriously.” He used money as a case in point in his 1951 book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, A Message for an Age of Anxiety. “Money gets rid of the inconveniences of barter,” Watts offers. “But it is absurd to take money too seriously, to confuse it with real wealth, because it will do you no good to eat it or wear it for clothing. Money is more or less static, for gold, silver, strong paper, or a bank balance can ‘stay put’ for a long time. But real wealth, such as food, is perishable. Thus a community may possess all the gold in the world, but if it does not farm its crops it will starve.” A relatable point. And the last time I tried to make stew out of $5 bills, it was lousy.

Watts’ caveats beg additional questions:

• Have you ever known anyone who takes money too seriously?
• Have you yourself been anxious about money?
• Have you thought about this recently, as we immerse ourselves in the holiday season and dreams of a magnetic floating bed for $1.6 million? (Yes, it’s true. Such a thing exists.)
• What is real wealth anyway?
• Is it more than moolah?
• Has your view of it changed over the past 10 years?
• The past 20?
• How do you think about children, teenagers, mothers, and seniors in the context of money-making and “wealth?”
• Do you have wealth in health? In a support system? As a way in which you express and exchange usefulness in society, and in your local community?

A Baby Gets Birthed at the London School of Economics

Edgar Cahn, Timebank founder who is now 82 years old, was interviewed earlier this year by Forbes magazine and has long thought outside the polyhedron when it comes to the issue of money and its power, if left unchecked, to define worth. “All sorts of things don’t get valued in our current economic system, despite having tremendous value. Notably, the unpaid work of mothers to care for, educate, and otherwise support their children.” A podcast with Edgar and Forbes’ Devin Thorpe explores timebanking, an economic model that Edgar initially took to the London School of Economics for feedback and legitimacy (read: a reality check) when he was first birthing his brainchild.

These days the baby is all grown up. “There are over 500 timebanks in the U.S. and at least an equal number spread out over 38 countries,” Edgar says in the podcast. “In Wales, [timebanking] is recognized formally by the national government. Scotland just had a two-week celebration of timebanking and ‘co-production’,” he adds.

Three things undergird timebanking, Edgar says:

  1. Core Economy: There’s an economy we undervalue and take for granted known as “unpaid labor”: This economy raises children, makes strong families, makes neighborhoods safe, makes Democracy work, and keeps the planet sustainable. It’s the ecosystem that’s as basic as the ozone layer we took for granted,” he adds. “We need this ecosystem as human beings,” and, There is a larger economic system than that which is driven and counted by money.”
  2. Currency: “Money does some good things and some strange things,” Edgar says. “Money defines value by price. So if it’s scarce, it’s valuable [think a magnetic floating bed]. If it’s more abundant…it’s dirt cheap or worthless. [This translates to mean] that being a human being is worthless,” given the abundance of humans on the planet, he says. When we “listen to each other, care for each other, come to each other’s rescue, stand up for what is right, oppose what is wrong,” we are coming together as the social animals we are, and timebanking is a system that honors and valuesassigns worth to all this. And therefore assigns worth to all people by designing a different type of currency where one skill hour is worth exactly the same as another skill hour and gets exchanged equally within the timebank system. In other words, an hour of childcare is worth the same as an hour of work on an architectural plan.
  3. Co-Production: “We must enlist the persons whom we’re trying to help as our partners or we can’t succeed,” says Edgar about a core timebanking principle. Timebanking is based on this give-and-take, a partnership of skills exchanges to benefit everyone who’s bought into (no pun intended) the model. People in timebanks have partnered with others to help them in their life “processes.” This can extend to health recovery, lowered rates of recidivism in drug addiction and mental illness relapse, creation of civic patrols in neighborhoods to help make them safer, among countless other examples. Timebanks can be used to “build and meld” community, Edgar says, “and as a stream to generate specific programs.”

Listen to the podcast and keep an ear open for “homecomers.” Consider what it might mean in the context of real wealth, and if you believe there are some things that exist beyond quantification in dollars and cents. The takeaway from Edgar: “We have what we need if we use what we have.”