Curses! Dollars and hours are both fungible.

June 29, 2006 | By | 3 Replies More

I’ve previously written that dollars are fungible (See “The Curse of Fungible Dollars”). In that article I pointed out that dollars are completely interchangeable.  I noted that there is actually only one kind of dollar and that dollars don’t come pre-labeled as “Christmas ornament dollars,” “pedicure dollars,” “Xbox dollars” or “charitable cause dollars.” I further suggested that we work hard to brainwash ourselves that non-fungible dollars exist and that we are free to spend any dollar we haven’t chosen to label a “charity dollar” on anything at all, conscience free.  To see the absurdity of that mindset, try to imagine a charity refusing your donation because the money you offered came out of your “vacation” fund.

Many Americans would consider my fungible dollars article to be a curse because it has the effect of moralizing every dollar we spend.  That every dollar is potentially a dollar we could (and possibly should) spend to help desperate human beings thus becomes a toxic thought that we prevent ourselves from considering.  It causes too much cognitive dissonance.  .  If you doubt the toxicity of such a thought, imagine speaking freely of the fungibility of dollars at a Las Vegas casino or at any other entertainment mecca where those “entertainment” dollars flow freely. The mere mention that all dollars are fungible will trigger the rapid and painful collapse of elaborate mental worlds constructed by everyone within hearing range. 

With the same dollars we spend to buy tickets to concerts or sports events, we could literally be saving lives. I often curse this thought too.  How could I not?  This idea invades every aspect of my life.  This thought has the capacity to obliterate all of my conscience-free spending zones.

As much as I have tried, though, I see no hole in my logic: whenever we spend a dollar on a luxury, we are choosing to not spend that dollar in a way that it is highly likely to relieve suffering or save lives.  We “solve” this problem by compartmentalizing our dollars as if they were not fungible, by erecting artificial mental fences.  In an ad hoc manner, we designate some of our dollars to be “entertainment dollars” or “vacation dollars.” We rationalize that we are allowed to hemorrhage substantial dollars on luxuries because we “deserve it.”

It gets worse, though. Just as dollars are fungible, so are hours.  Because we can use our limited time on earth to accomplish a wide variety of activities, the choice to spend an hour of time on something frivolous is necessarily and simultaneously a choice to not spend that hour on something that could be life-enhancing or even lifesaving to ourselves, to our community or to our world. 

About fifteen years ago, I finally realized just how ill-informed I was about many aspects of my world. For instance, I was (and am) poorly acquainted with much classic literature, including the works of Shakespeare.  I had (and continue to have) a shaky understanding of many scientific fields, including quantum physics and relativity.  Same problem with history, anthropology and many other fields. I concluded that I needed to become better acquainted with these fields in order to be a better writer and a better-informed citizen.  All I had to do was to make room in my schedule for such studies.  There are only 24 hours a day, however.  Therefore, I had to remove something from my schedule in order to make room.  I fretted about what to do as I sat on the couch watching a baseball game.

A bit of background: the Cardinals are huge in St. Louis (my home town).  In St. Louis, every respectable citizen knows the name of every starting player, the name of the most promising minor league prospect and the current standings.  People who dare to admit that they don’t follow the Cardinals are looked upon as untrustworthy outsiders. 

On the other hand, watching baseball games takes more than three hours and I was watching (or attending) several games each week.  I also read the sports page. Nor is baseball the only game in town.  A true St. Louis sports fan also keeps up with professional football and hockey, as well as other sports. 

A few simple calculations shed major light on what initially seemed to be a dilemma. Watching three sporting events each week burned more than 10 hours of my time.  Over the course of the year, then, I was spending 520 hours watching sports.  This is the equivalent of one-fourth of a full-time job.  520 hours (divided by 40 hours per week) equals 13 weeks.  By watching three sporting events per week, I was spending the equivalent of 13 weeks each year not doing things that I considered much more important than being a sports fan. 

If my employer had come into my office and asked me whether I would like thirteen extra weeks of vacation each year I would have jumped up and said yes.  In this hypothetical, the employer would advise me to simply stop being a sports spectator.  It’s that simple. 

It’s not that I never go to sporting events, but I now follow what I consider the “circus rule.”  I go to professional sporting events only as often as I might go to any other spectacle (such as a circus).  I ask myself what I would think about a family that annually purchased a ticket package to go to the circus several times each week.  Don’t laugh at the comparison! Just like sports teams, circuses also have highly talented performers who do extraordinary feats.  Circuses simply lack the slick marketing prowess of sports franchises.

It was a panicky thought to go cold turkey on sports, but I did it.  I eventually learned that I was a slow learner of an obvious lesson.  I found out that dedicating many hours to being a sports fan was no more important than dedicating many hours going to the circus. In other words, neither of these things had any real importance to me, yet I was investing lots of time being a sports fan.  I was one of the many humans who had fallen prey to all that slick sports marketing. 

By making my deal to stop being a sports fan, I gave myself the opportunity to spend thirteen weeks every year to become better informed in numerous fascinating fields of study. Here’s the general point: I had been allowing subconscious emotional trigger points to dictate where I was spending huge chunks of my discretionary time.  By failing to stay conscious that the allocation of my time was a zero-sum game, I was keeping myself from attending to matters I deemed highly important whenever I burned time on things I did not consider important.  In retrospect it’s hard to believe that I ever wasted so much time on being a sports fan. 

Most of us invest substantial time honoring equally absurd time-investments that we never consciously considered.  To the extent that we now force ourselves to consider the relative merits of our various time investments, we might be incredibly surprised at the bad time-investments we are currently making.  But what is a “bad” time-investment?  How about this: we make “bad” time-investments whenever we spend lots of time doing things that we consciously designate to be relatively unimportant.  Consider the classic disconnect of the half-drunk guy in a bar who is complaining about his rocky marital relationship with the woman waiting for him back home.

The sun quickly goes down each day.  We are thus forced to prioritize if we want to spend time doing those things that we truly consider important.  Each hour spent watching professional sports, each hour hanging around at the mall or each hour playing video games is an hour not spent doing those things we carefully considered and found to be more important, e.g.,  tutoring a child born into a dysfunctional family or assisting an organization that is taking real-life steps to improve our community. 

Just imagine what would happen if they shortened one baseball game by three innings, handed out pads of paper and pens and invited each spectators to each write a short letter to a political representative  (during what would have been innings 4, 5 and 6) expressing his or her position on an important issue of the day.  The team could promote this event as “Take Back Your Government Day” at the ole’ ball park.  Perhaps, with this tiny bit of prodding, tens of thousands of people who have never written such a letter might take the time to articulate and communicate an important thought. Perhaps they might tell their representatives about their outrage at our nationally despised current system of campaign financing, a disgusting system of legalized corporate bribery, rampant corruption and utterly dysfunctional communication.  What would our leaders think that so many thousands of people took the time to carefully focus their thoughts and communicate their opinions on such important issues? They would be shocked.

The trick, then, is to take that limited resource, hours, and to reallocate it to those activities we sincerely characterize to be important.  But are we ever entitled to take time off from the seemingly intractable urgencies of our world in order to “take care of ourselves”?  I find this to be a loaded question.  Instead of answering it directly, I would ask another question: what are the true priorities of a person who spends 500 hours attending professional amusements each year, when that person fails to spend any real effort to stay active in his or her government?  What is the real priority of a person who spends 500 hours every year strolling around opulent malls, even if that person regularly laments the plight of the poor?

Therefore, just like dollars are fungible, hours are fungible.  Choosing to spend a dollar (or an hour) on an activity that we can’t justify is choosing to not spend a dollar (or an hour) on a cause that we claim is important.  This recognition that dollars and hours are fungible has the effect of moralizing every single choice each of us makes on this planet.  Curse this thought if you want but, for honest people, there is no way around it.  

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Category: American Culture, Campaign Finance Reform, Good and Evil, Meaning of Life, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    As a non-fan of spectator sports, I've never understood why people who have "no time" to exercise nevertheless appear to have plenty of time to watch other people exercise. Most puzzling of all are those who appear to believe they cannot or should not participate in sports, because they are not "athletes," as if God deemed only a few select people with "athletic ability" to be physically fit, while everyone else should be glued to their sofas, clogging their arteries with buffalo wings and 'training' for a triple-bypass cardiac surgery. Fans of so-called "professional" sports are likewise strange: buying over-priced team-logo merchandise and $4 hot dogs just to watch millionaires play baseball or football. It reminds me of Erich's essay about "A Martian anthropologist goes to church" (http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=161): what about the Martian anthropologis who goes to Wimbleton (to see two players hit a small yellow ball back and forth while hundreds of observers nervously watch), or to the British Open (to see a few dozen players hit small white balls around a large manicured field while thousands of observers silently watch), or to the Indy 500 (to see dozens of drivers waste gasoline by driving in circles while thousands of observers excitedly watch (and secretly hope for a crash)), or to the Superbowl (to see abnormally large-muscled male players fight over a deformed ball while abnormally large-chested women jump around in tiny costumes), etc.? And need I even mention things like "professional" wrestling, demolition derbies or — God forbid — weekday game shows?

    Here is something else to consider: a football game (for example) consists of four 15-minute quarters. That's *one* hour of game time; however, a typical football game occupies *three* hours of air time, and that doesn't even include the "pre-game" show, which is typically one hour long (except for games such as the Superbowl, where the "pre-game" show actually occupies more air time than the game itself). What fills all this extra time? Advertisements, of course, plus what can only be called the most utterly banal commentary to ever pollute the public airwaves: "He's the best (fill in the blank) in the league…She has shown such great courage by (fill in the blank)…You can't coach this stuff."

    We need to stop thinking of these activities as sports and start thinking of them as entertainment, as Erich's analogy to the circus aptly illustrates. Indeed, the reason why so many "professional" players receive multi-million dollar salaries is because THEY stopped thinking of themselves as athletes long ago and began thinking of themselves as entertainers. When they realized that the service they provided to their audience was the same service provided by singers, musicians, comedians, etc., they realized they could make a LOT more money; i.e., celebrity money.

    And it doesn't even stop there. Consider the time and money people "waste" trading in sports memorabilia, where a worn-out baseball with a dead player's signature on it that can fetch thousands (if not millions) of dollars — and where some people "waste" their careers doing nothing else. And what about all the time (and lost productivity) people "waste" discussing sports around the watercooler at work, and the time that is devoted to sports during local news programming? Today, one team is on top; next season, it will be someone else — but the "waste" of time marches on, not caring which team people "waste" their lives following. All while homeless people are starving to death in Africa…or even on the sidewalks right outside the stadium.

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