Sunday, May 28, 2006

Culture: for the Price of Admission

Ever wonder what exactly you are buying when you purchase a ticket to the symphony (or any other cultural event)? What appears as a very simple transaction is complicated by exploring what you get for that “purchase.” When you buy a car, there is a clear exchange of value—money for goods; for the lawyer, the exchange is for a service. This holds true for the symphony as well. It is a service. But, the motivation, the real value is in the ephemeral experience, transcendent or otherwise.

When you buy the ticket, you are purchasing the right to be in a particular seat on a particular day to hear a published program. That same ticket provides no other rights, unless, for example, there is a rain rescheduling. The ticket does not provide a right to expect or hear a brilliant performance, only the right to be present for it.

From an economic standpoint, the cost of the ticket is your share of the financial support needed to allow the philharmonic service to continue to be provided to the wider community. After all, the conductor and musicians need to be paid in order to be able to bring their considerable gifts to rehearsals and performances. The hall needs to be built and maintained. Your ticket purchase provides for the physical (earthly) needs of the orchestra as your need to attend for aesthetic pleasure is being met.

It is fair to assume that expectations come with the purchase, especially if the orchestra has a great reputation. Given the right to be there for the performance, given that the musicians are there to perform, it is a sure bet that you will have an experience. The ticket purchase cannot guaranty the quality of the experience. Instead, the terms, value, and meaning are determined solely by you. How you absorb the music and carry it in memory into the future is particular to your biography. The quality of the experience, that which happens performa, is in the nature of a gift. It is certainly not a thing; it is the result of a transpersonal (performers-audience) event. It defies any conventional economic measurement since the performance is simultaneous and nearly congruent in space for the whole audience, yet its effects operate outside of time and space for each individual present.

The price of admission to a cultural event is complex since the end of the transaction is not really economic, but rather experiential or spiritual if you will. One test of this is to observe how much gift money has to be raised to meet the true cost of operating the symphony orchestra. If the true cost were reflected in the price of admission, very few people would be able to afford to attend, and thus, lame the broader cultural value of the performance and the mission of the music. However much one winces at the cost of attending a performance, the ticket at least guarantees you the right to attend, provides for both your and the orchestra’s economic needs, and is to be celebrated not as a charge against your income but rather as a gift in support of music and culture.

John Bloom © 2006

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Exploring Money and Spirit: Excerpts from an Interview with Jacob Needleman

Excerpts from Exploring Money and Spirit
An Interview with Jacob Needleman

By John Bloom

John Bloom: What is America’s particular mission in relation to money and economics?

Jacob Needleman: America’s mission in relation to business goes back to the Enlightenment era, to the idea—which, in the light of modern history, may seem mere fantasy—that the money motive could be a force that could blunt some of the really violent and destructive passions of mankind. Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson, David Hume, Adam Smith and others made a distinction between what could generally be termed the passions and the interests. The passions were those violent egoistic impulses that tended to result in physical and social destruction. The interests were often selfish certainly, but they had to do with stability, property, possessions, and bourgeois values. To put it simply: war and killing were very bad for business! Although Enlightenment thinkers were certainly realistic about the flaws of human nature, they posited a theory that the money impulse, as reflected in the emerging system of capitalism, could become a moderating force in human life. Money-making was sometimes spoken of as a “calm passion.” That was an idealistic view of money, which formed part of the economic background in the founding and early development of capitalism in the United States.

Another comparable, but historically more efficacious idea, has to do with the play of forces affecting a culture (much in the way that forces operate in the Newtonian universe). This is our principle of the separation of powers in the United States government. You have a benign mutual interference of opposing forces that blunts any particular wolf-like aggrandizement or attack from one part of society on another part of society. Having three powers, the legislative, executive, and judicial, was a brilliant conceptual framework. It is the opposite of having a monarch, a single force that can do things very efficiently, including killing everybody.

Another idea was property. Jefferson and other people of that time wanted property to be the fundamental element in the country, rather than money. It was Alexander Hamilton who really monetized America, who felt that the power of money as an instrument was the more important part.

Property is a very interesting and sophisticated concept. The interaction of mind and nature creates property. You have a mind that makes something happen—you do something, and then there is property. This view of individual ownership, of property, had to do with the support of individual development and well-being. Ownership of property could provide a base of material security necessary for the pursuit of more spiritual goals. And, of course, property ownership was understood to be an effective counterforce to the tendency of the state to assume too much authority and political control. These ideas are among the most important elements constituting America’s mission and challenge around money.

Consider now the negative aspect of this mission, which has perhaps resulted in the power of money crowding out essential human values. Once the spiritual goal, or the moral or aesthetic element of life is diminished, then everything gets seen in terms of money. The means become the ends and money becomes equated with wealth. But money is not wealth; money is a means for wealth in the human sense of the term.

Money is a means, a necessary means, and a useful means. Money is a really brilliant piece of social technology. It enables people to share and exchange even in a very large community, and to recognize the reality of interdependence. So it is, and is meant to be, an instrument of community. Our aim should be to restore it to that noble function.

So, if it’s not wealth, what does money represent?

What is money? It’s nothing and it's everything at the same time. It’s a social promise, a representation of work. It represents the desire part of human nature which is so strong. In one sense, money is nothing, and in another sense it’s the bottom line. Money makes things real in human life. One has to acknowledge that money has this power. People tend not to want to see it that way, or else they give it too much power.

Is that because they haven’t worked on their own inner relationship to it?

It’s very hard for most of us. I don’t know anybody who is normal about money. I don’t even know what it would mean to be normal about money. You would not know how a person is about money until you’re dealing with him or her. You and I are both filled with contradictions about money. I know I am. In this sense, money in our society is a golden key to self-knowledge. If you want to become aware of your contradictions, study how you think, feel and behave in relation to money.

[For the full text see]
© 2006

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Emerson on The Weight of Money

Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay on "Wealth" wrote:

Money is representative, and follows the nature and fortunes of the owner. The coin is a delicate meter of civil, social, and moral changes. The farmer is covetous of his dollar, and with reason. It is no waif to him. He knows how many strokes of labor it represents. His bones ache with the day’s work that earned it. He knows how much land it represents;—how much rain, frost, and sunshine. He knows that, in the dollar, he gives you so much discretion and patience, so much hoeing and threshing. Try to lift his dollar; you must lift all that weight. In the city, where money follows the skit of a pen, or a lucky rise in exchange, it comes to be looked at as light. I wish the farmer held it dearer, and would spend it only for real bread; force for force.

The farmer’s dollar is heavy, and the clerk’s is light and nimble; leaps out of his pocket; jumps on to cards and farotables; but still more curious is its susceptibility to metaphysical changes. It is the finest barometer of social storms, and announces revolutions.

What an extraordinary concept Emerson was articulating. Money has relative weight depending on what it is measuring. Clearly the dollar the farmer earns and spends is the same dollar with which that city clerk is gambling. So, on what basis would Emerson make his claim? First I must state the assumption that Emerson was imagining what we call purchase money (rather than loan or gift). The money is nothing more than a physical expression of value, but value does not really exist except at the moment of a transaction. What we normally call value is determined as a result of the pattern of multiple transactions in circulation or currency--a virtual mean created of fluctuating values. Real value is establish by the parties to the purchase transaction based upon a constellation of personal feelings, perceived needs or desires, and the environmental context of the transaction. Consciousness brought to this aspect of the transaction, the sympathy of one party to the transaction to the condition of the other, is what I believe Emerson was referencing in his estimate of the relative weight of the farmer's money. The point is that if we enter into a purchase transaction from a position of empathy (we are engaged in meeting each other's needs) rather than antipathy (I am meeting my needs) that other metaphysical world to which Emerson refers will be more present, as will real value. Emerson was a visionary in many realms. In his view of wealth, he was arguing for an altruistic rather than egoistic economy.

John Bloom © 2006