As promised, here is the first followup to my consideration of profit as a series of asymmetries. The first (“best”) reference point in our model is when transactions are motivated by an imbalance of interest - not the percentage charged on a loan, but the “excitement of feeling, whether pleasant or painful, accompanying special attention to some object.”
I find it interesting that Webster’s definition allows for both pleasant and painful possibilities. But regardless of source, interest entails an agent having an intrinsic preference or desire that may impact their behavior.
And so, if a monetary exchange occurs simply because the seller is personally interested in providing the good/service, and the buyer is both satisfied with the terms and is purchasing for their own interest as well, that is perhaps capitalism working at its best.
Or is it? How cleanly does this model actually correspond with reality? To critically evaluate the above claims, I am going to engage in a (meta-ish) case study - I am going to start a free email newsletter.
Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter
Social media has made marketers of us all, but newsletters have been lampooned long before the first tweet. The idea that words you create deserve to be serialized and shared, and via delivery thrust into the lives of others, enables a particular flavor of hubris and self-aggrandizement.
Newsletters are not discussions - readers may occasionally “write in”, but the newsletter proprietor has editorial oversight and selects what they acknowledge in their future work. Similarly, newsletters are generally not critically reviewed or crafted works - they are a step above tweets, but are still meant as a transient document and not a durable artifact of record.
At their worst, newsletters are a brand contrivance - a clever semi-classy way to get some of your ideas into the heads of others. They’re framed just enough to exude authorial legitimacy, but kept simple enough for casual consumption.
Drop some letters, and much of the above can be applied to swathes of the news ecosystem (which is having its own reckoning with capitalism). Words are broadcast from a pedestal, responses are filtered by the broadcasters themselves, and content balances being legitimate and easy, or even “fun.”
Of course, this doesn’t really describe journalism - and nor does it describe all newsletters. Both can have craft, and be a part of a larger discussion that involves critical review, consideration, and iteration. These things sound as worthy of capitalistic support as anything, and since newsletters democratize the process by opening it up to anyone with a computer, they can be particularly noble.
But what qualities actually make news(letters) good? A good place to start is mitigating their weaknesses - peer review, sources, contrasting perspectives, and expression of confidence (or lack thereof) as appropriate. Good writing shares thoughts, in all their unkempt and uncertain glory (after all, they reflect our experiences - and data).
Learning by any other name
That’s starting to sound like the academic process, and I would suggest that is no accident. The idealized form of “profit from interest” is arguably education - learning and sharing knowledge, and truly creating mutually beneficial growth as opposed to the zero sum trading that is much of our economy.
There is a long philosophical tradition describing and extolling wisdom, and plenty of complementary religious perspectives. Whether or not it is the “highest virtue”, most folks who’ve thought about it would agree that it’s up there.
Of course, quibbles remain - enumerating “profit” monetarily as opposed to holistically neglects both internalities (e.g. sense of self-worth) and externalities (e.g. pollution, literal or metaphorical). Learning is hard, and teaching doubly so - and even defining successful outcomes is subjective, much less achieving them.
So, does “profit from interest” hold up?
In this first step on our capitalistic journey I’ve explored both pros and cons and considered historical and psychological perspectives. This may leave you with the impression that I am straddling a fence, avoiding hard problems and simply waffling about with words.
However, I am not avoiding hard problems but instead hard statements - to conclude something with generality is exceedingly challenging, as the available signal does not rise above the noise except in particularly pure problems. Society is many things, but it is not pure.
And so I cannot say whether profit from interest is good or bad in all cases. But I hold nonetheless that massaging novel and occasionally beautiful patterns into our brain folds is valuable, and the main way we can really distinguish ourselves. That we do so in a capitalistic system makes capitalism just a means to an end, but at least in itself doesn’t reflect poorly on it.
And so, though as any academic would I withold final judgment (pending more data), I invite you to join me on this journey of mental growth and subscribe to my newsletter:
N.B., it’s really just another way to “follow” - I won’t be monetizing it with exclusive content (unless it takes off unexpectedly 😀). So if you prefer your feeds in RSS or Atom (or @GallantIdeas on Twitter) that’s cool too.
And that caveat also adds a twist to my conclusion - doing things for interest is all well and good, and making a buck from it here or there doesn’t hurt. But actually pinning your survival (“day job”) on it is a different matter, and usually requires both compromises and luck. To do it on your own terms requires fame (an accumulation of past compromises and luck).
So I (and most of us) really only reap personal and reputational benefits from these sorts of pursuits. If something “goes viral” (is promoted by the right vertices in the social graph) it is possible to pivot towards real profitability, but outside of that it is too much of a grind and not dependable enough if you want stability in your life.
Ultimately interest-focused creative pursuits may get you “beer money”, and help you network and land a “day job”, but it usually won’t replace one. Merely pursuing creative outlets like this is in fact a mark of luxury, as it means you don’t have to scramble all the time for the basics. Perhaps this would be different in a world with a broader social safety net (“universal basic income”) - or perhaps not.
Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for more considerations of capitalism (and other things). The next reference point in our continuum is asymmetries of effort (“I’ll pay you $20 to help move my couch”) - direct exchanges of value and generally transparent/obvious work.
And of course, I welcome your thoughts and feedback, and will use my own munificent editorial oversight to incorporate it into my future writing.