A theory of money

Have you heard the parable of the island?

A bloody conqueror invades an island. He forces everyone to mine for iron (the iron is irrelevant. They could be mining for dirt clods for all we care here. The point is that they do work).

At first, his army physically forces everyone into the mines in the morning, and lets them out in the afternoon, confiscating all their iron. That’s really exhausting. For the army, that is. They don’t really care about the islanders.

Then, they switch to taking a fixed amount of iron from people as they leave the mine. It’s much easier than searching them, and has more benefits. No more overseers making sure people are working down there. No more squinting and guessing about people’s ability to product — if someone doesn’t have enough iron, they are caged and beaten until their fellow islander ponies up the iron to free them. Things are now easier (for the army).

This is still very hard, though. How to keep track of who paid up and who didn’t? The army writes out receipts as people unload their iron as they leave the mine. Every week, the army sweeps through the island and makes everyone show their receipts to prove that they’re up to date with their iron duties. The vast majority of soldiers are freed up from guarding the mine entrance.

Parsing through receipts, manning a mine opening, that’s all still too hard. So now the army just has a depot in the middle of the town. Trade your iron for receipts. But the receipts are different. They no longer bother with writing dates or words on the receipts. Receipts are just little plastic tokens. Every week, the army sweeps through and collects 10 tokens from every islander. As long as you have the tokens, they don’t care where you got it from.

Eventually, the army gets even lazier. They sweep through every year instead of every week. They don’t bother manning many “iron for token” booths. They set up one, and let islanders set up smaller booths and do their dirty work for them. As they get lazier, they get softer. They set up a “coconuts for tokens” booth (because occupying an island is hard work, and their supplies are running low), and a “give us a massage for tokens” booth. Life is good.

Those plastic tokens are money. They have value because they’re needed to pay for those yearly sweeps. Those sweeps are taxes. The army is the state. The islanders are us. We’ve just invented money, feudalism, the state, and the transition to capitalism. Ta-dah!

(I didn’t come up with this parable. I am sure I read a version of it before. I can’t find it through casual searching, though, so I’m repeating it from memory for posterity)


Where to donate

Please give between 18 to 180 dollars a month to the Movement Voter Project (if you are able).

MVP directs money to some of the best community organizations in the country, in a way that will have great effects on this election, but also build long-term institutional capacity for years to come.

It’s good for America. It’s good for reducing suffering. And it’s good for the soul.

Things have been bad, for a long time. And they’re rapidly getting worse. The police state, the deaths, the callous looting of the country, the abuse of power both in politics and in corporations. At the same time, we have a strong antidote that has worked throughout human history: people power.

People power is a funny old thing. Many people say they want it. It’s hard to actually come by. America was supposedly the land of free because of “the art of association“, the tendency of people to form groups as easily as breathing.

People power can beat money power via elections, and that’s very important. People power can also do other things. It can build connections between neighbors. It can organize relief to the poor People power can build a union of workers holding their employer ethically accountable. People power can topple unjust regimes.

Speaking of unjust regimes — an election is happening soon.

The Movement Voter Project is the best way to both build short-term and longer-term political power for people who are not fans of the conservative movement and Trumpism.

The staff of MVP has made partnerships with quality community organizations around the country. Then they take 100% of our donations, and disperse them to those organizations. The money is meant to go to building organizational capacity, especially to registering new voters.

Why is voter registration such a big deal? Well, imagine a particular town in a swing presidential state. There’s also a key house race happening there. The state senate might switch control between parties, and tipping point senate district covers the town, too. Any marginal straight-ticket voter becomes very valuable! Whereas any marginal ad might convince an existing voter to switch votes in one race, but not all.

So, that’s the plan. Find key races and geographies. Find the community organizations covering those places. Give them money to do good work. You have an outsized short-term electoral impact, and also, crucially, help grow an organization that will outlast one election. That organization will be pushing for legislation in 2021, or organizing tenant unions, or who knows what else?

Giving money on the regular (weekly, monthly) is also important. Consistent money can be budgeted and planned for. Recurring donations mean that organizations can invest in longer-term projects. Big spikes in donations, on the other hand, can (almost by definition) only be used for one-off projects.

The founders and staff of movement voter project are really nice, good, people. They’ve been running this since at least 2016 (with the motto of “let’s move money in elections away from ads and towards organizing”). In a few states I can name, MVP has become one of the top 3 funders of important, I can’t believe that they have funding problems, oh shit, I’m glad someone is filling in the gap, organizations.

Unlike many foundations, MVP doesn’t throw a ton of paperwork at its grantees. It builds relationships of trust, it asks for some minimal verification that the money is going to the right projects, but mostly, it tries not to burden its grantees with an expensive and useless need for reports.

You can donate to the MVP fund (they take no cut of the money — they’re separately funded to pay their staff), or look on their website to browse their directory of partners and donate to them directly.

This feels much more strategic than donating to campaigns (which I also do some of). Campaigns, even if brilliant, by definition end after election day. I want to build something longer-lasting. Campaigns try to optimize votes for one candidate — I want to optimize voters over many candidates. Campaigns are not accountable to anyone — community organizations are accountable to their members.

We aren’t just facing a life-or-death moment for a form of american democracy vis a vis the presidency. This election is also special because the state houses of 2021 will determine gerrymandering for the next 10 years (this is tied to the census). Gains made right now will persist for 10 years — and we need to win those races.

As the news has gotten worse, I’ve spent more and more time worrying. But worrying doesn’t feel healthy. In part, I’ve been feeling a disconnect between So, instead, I’m increasing my monthly giving to MVP.

So — donating to MVP:

  • Good For America
  • Good For Reducing Suffering
  • Good For The Soul

Please consider hefty donations, monthly, to Movement Voter Project You can think of it as doing me a birthday favor, if you like.