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The physics of money

posted Jan 30, 2013, 10:32 AM by Ignacio Mas

 [From IMTFI blog, 30 January 2013, with Kim Wilson] 

The book Metaphors We Live By makes a compelling case that metaphors are much more than mere linguistic artifacts or literary flourishes: they are conceptual devices through which we structure our understanding of the world around us. They permit us to relate fuzzier concepts which cannot be sharply defined (things such as love and peace) in terms of physical notions which we can experience more directly through our senses.


We thought we’d try their logic on the concept of money. Specifically: what does how we talk about money tell us about how we conceive it?

In the first instance we tend to look at money as a resource, and as such it can be earned, spent, set aside, used. We can even make it. We think of the money resource in very physical terms. It is measurable because it can have mass (as in he has a ton of money), volume (buckets of money), or extension (raising or putting up money). It is appreciable through our full sensory range: he touches money dailyhe reeks of wealthshow me the moneymoney talks. Wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of his female protagonist in The Great Gatsby, “Her voice is full of money (...) – that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it.” Because of its importance in daily life, the money resource is often analogized in terms of basic foodstuffs, as in dough or bacon. Who said money is no object?

Conceptualizing money as a resource emphasizes the quantity of money. But sometimes we need to think of money in more probabilistic terms, in which case the money as a container metaphor seems more appropriate. Your bet may be in the money when it is likely to go into your container: it’s potential money. You’re out a dollar when you lose it or waste it.

But the more interesting metaphors relate to money as a substance, where it’s the condition of the substance rather than its quantity that matters. We can associate money with temperature: readily-available cash burns a hole in your pocket. In international finance, speculative, short-term capital flows are hot money. In West African community finance, l’argent chaud (hot money) are funds constituted from clients’ resources, while l’argent froid (cold money) is pumped in as credit from the government or a bank. Hot money is closer to the heart, and thus hot money loans are always the first to be repaid.

We also think of money in terms of the states of matter. We like to think of our monetary wealth as being solid: we freeze money, we name our currencies after weights (pounds in the UK, pesos in Latin America), we think of people as being loaded. Easily available or spendable money we tend to see as being liquid: we speak of regular cash flows, of pouring or hemorrhaging money, of pooling it into a slush fund. If you manage your money well you will stay afloat, you will remain solvent, and you can avoid going under and having to be bailed out. The act of spending money is akin to vaporizing it: your account dries up, you burn money.

Money can also have a tempo. Dubious traders can be out to make a fast buck, while economists will tell you that more readily convertible forms of money have higher velocity.

Isn’t it remarkable how consistent the metaphors of money are with elementary physics. The temperature of a substance, its physical state and the speed of motion of its particles are all manifestations of the same thing: the amount of energy embedded in the substance. Long-term or ‘locked-up’ savings we think of as low-energy (cold, slow, solid) whereas ‘available’ money is higher energy (hot, fast, liquid). 

Could this implicit notion of energy refer to the psychological effort we need to expend daily to maintain the money, i.e. to not spend it? The process of freezing or slowing down money is about getting it out of our mind (and our grip) as much as we can.
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