Guest Post: Net Worth Vs. Net Value

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by Charles Hugh-Smith of OfTwoMinds blog,

To what degree is Net Worth a phantom, a ghost, a cipher? We only discover its emptiness when we sense mortality's hand on our left shoulder.

Longtime correspondent Yoni F. recently posed a profound question: what if our Net Value was measured as diligently as our Net Worth?

On what categories/areas would you rate a person's contribution/value to the world?In the absence of an alternative, we seem to value money as a proxy for value. However, as you note, wealth is not equally valuable (e.g. Steve Jobs vs. Jamie Dimon). So outside of cash, how else should we think about evaluating people? Charity, time spent with family, time spent creating goods/values, time spent employing others, power over others, etc. 

As I think about it, we all divide our time among various activities and it may make sense to segment us by how we spend it. In the end, the scarcest resource of all is time and how we choose to use it says a lot about who we are. What if there was a way to make our "Net Value" to society be as well known as our "Net Worth", maybe that would lead to a change in mentality/perspective.

Thank you, Yoni, for asking questions that are completely out of the mainstream. Yoni has raised a number of core issues about our lifestyle, the human experience, and the way we spend our lives. As he wisely notes, "the scarcest resource of all is time", and how we spend our limited time not only defines who we are but also expresses our core values and shapes our legacy. 
I will start my response with this general observation:
1. The key characteristic of activities that create financial Net Worth and "meaning" in the Status Quo is that they generate sale and profits for corporations/cartels and tax revenues for the State.
The aspirations shared by almost all center around external signifiers of status: a large, beautifully decorated home in a desirable neighborhood, a luxury vehicle (or working-class equivalent, a monster pickup or SUV), a costly watch or bauble, designer clothing, blah, blah, blah.
Higher up the scale, an advanced degree, foreign travel (collecting "places visited" like kids collect marbles--"I have more!"), membership in exclusive clubs and other behavioral signifiers of status are sought, all to show the world "I have value, I'm exceptional, I'm important," i.e. markers of self-worth.
The same can be said for the majority of items on "bucket lists," the lists of experiences one is supposed to check off in a last-minute frenzy to add meaning to one's life once mortality can no longer be staved off: 
Skydiving, $500
Midnight in Paris, $5,000
And so on: most bucket lists I've seen are simply checklists of profit-generating tourist destinations or adventures. The bucket list invites us to spend whatever cash/credit we might have on a checklist of what (heavily marketed) conventional wisdom has pinpointed as markers of "worth" and "meaning."
The basic idea is: self-worth and meaning are created by profit/tax-generating acquisition of status signifiers. This is just as you'd expect in a State-cartel debt-based consumerist economy: this definition of self-worth and meaning has been marketed to us non-stop since the day we entered this world, because the State/ corporate partnership profits from our belief in their profit/tax machine's self-serving definition of meaning and self-worth.
How much profit is generated by falling in love? I don't mean all the sappy adverts pushing the purchase of trinkets--once again, signifiers being sold as substitutes for the real thing. I mean the experience of falling in love is absolutely free.
How much profit is there in nurturing a garden? A few cents of profit for the seeds, perhaps, but hardly enough to keep the State/corporate machine going.
What if we reverse the conventional belief system and state that self-worth and meaning can only arise where there is no profit/tax generated? If a profit or tax is generated, then the most powerful institutions in the land have a keen self-interest in your choice to spend time/money on something that generates profits/taxes for them. As a result, we can hardly expect their marketing to be neutral in the matter.
Let's start our list of categories that rate a person's contribution/value to the world with friendship. What if one's Net Value were based on the number of close friends one has nurtured in this life, friends that one trust enough and that know you well enough that you can unburden your darkest secrets to them and know they will not betray your trust?
A close friend (in my view) is someone who is welcomed into your home, regardless of circumstance, as you are welcomed in his. A close friend has spent so many years in friendship with you that he/she knows you better, in some ways, than your parents or siblings.
A close friend is not lost when you change jobs or locales. A close friend's kids can rely on you to act as an uncle or aunt, doing anything to aid them that you would do for your own family. A close friend is someone you want to see in your last days in this life, to savor your many adventures and experiences and to see them one last time.
I have known far too many people who owned all the signifiers of conventional worth and meaning, the big fancy house with maids and gardeners in attendance  the luxury auto, the membership in some exclusive club, etc., but they did not have even one friend-- not just no close friend, no real friends at all.
Measured in close friends, their Net Value was zero. Were these people happy and fulfilled? No, they were closet addicts, suffering from a gnawing fear that all their signifiers of value were indeed worthless and superficial.
Friendship takes time, energy, and some element of selflessness: the person who follows the mindless edict of "looking out for Number One" cannot have any real friends, for everyone in his world is a stepping stone to be used in the relentless climb toward a higher Net Worth or as a mirror reflecting his own self-glorification.
Interestingly, both Yoni and I thought of Bhutan's guiding national policy, Gross Domestic Happiness, as a reference point for Net Value. Yoni forwarded this excerpt:

A second-generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. The metric measures socioeconomic development by tracking seven development areas including the nation's mental and emotional health. GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures: 

1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

Here in the U.S., we give lip-service to all these values, but ask yourself: where do we spend most of our time? Serving our masters in the State/market economy, creating Net Worth for ourselves or someone else.
As an alternative to Net Worth, let's start a list of attributes of Net Value:
1. The number of close friendships you have nurtured.
2. The number of people you have mentored.
3. The number of children you've given abundant time to.
4. The number of trees and gardens you've nurtured with your own time and handiwork.
5. The number of practical skills you've acquired and freely shared with others.
6. The time you have spent alone, not in pursuit of work or pleasure but of solitude.
7. The self-directed mastery of difficult disciplines.
8. The number of strangers (foreign visitors, etc.) you have aided or invited into your home without any financial compensation or recognition.
You can probably add eight or more additional attributes of Net Value.
Yes, we all still need to earn a livelihood, but imagine a society constructed around generating Net Value and Gross Domestic Happiness instead of Net Worth. The power structure would collapse because none of these activities or accomplishments generate enough profits or taxes to keep the Machine operational.
A brush with mortality has a way of stripping away the superficial and the false. I think of the film Ikiru (1952) by director Akira Kurosawa, in which the middle-aged protagonist discovers he has a terminal illness. With nothing to show for a career spent behind a desk, he sets out to build a children's playground before he dies.
It is a sad statement that we often only awaken to value and meaning when we've run out of time to change the way we "invest" our time.
I also think of the film Ugetsu (1954) by director Kenji Mizoguchi, in which two brothers leave their families in search of wealth and recognition. One brother ends up living with a phantom woman while his abandoned wife suffers a cruel fate.
How many ghosts are we living with while our real lives have been abandoned as insufficiently ambitious and net-worthy?
Lastly, I think of the film I Hate But Love (1962) by Koreyoshi Kurahara (one of five films by Kurahara in the Eclipse Series 28), in which the two young protagonists seem to have it all--media spotlight, fame, fortune and love--but come to realize there is something deeply inauthentic and unrewarding about their lives.
These happen to be Japanese films, but three similar films could be drawn from any number of filmic traditions.
To what degree is Net Worth a phantom, a ghost, a cipher? We only discover its emptiness when we sense mortality's hand on our left shoulder.

Gordon T. Long and CHS discuss The Global Endgame (25 minutes, 30 slides)


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DJ Happy Ending's picture

This article was written by a hippie and Thoreau was a hypocrite who harassed his neighbor's livestock when he was drunk & bored and sent his dirty laundry to his mother's house for washing.

Live a balanced life and a lot of the stuff mentioned in this article takes care of itself.

TruthInSunshine's picture

Article? Hippie? Thoreau?

I just thought it was cool sign, brah. Man, you must not KNOW...the shit is gettin' REAL.

rotagen's picture

Yeah.  You see, that's the whole problem, there's just too damn many hippies in the world.  A real man get's a real man's haircut, and get's a good job...dammit.....uhhh.....dammit....


Here's what I mean, good lord, are you still talkin' !!?

Spacemoose's picture

as was said about communism, "nice theory, wrong species".  i would recommend daniel gilbert's book, "stumbling on happiness". natural selection has not designed us to be happy, as there is a greater survival advantage that accrues to you and your offspring, if you are perpetually dissatisfied.  i'm certain that an enlightened few can find a constant level of happiness but for most of us, there is (ironically) simply no fun in that. 

Ferrari's picture

That's pretty good. I don't think I quite agree with you, but you've got a nice angle on the question.

TBT or not TBT's picture

Well try this, not even our genes have our interests at heart. They have their own at heart, first. Behaviors that make us get our genes into children that themselves get their genes into children and so on, are selected for. Working our asses off to make children and get them set up to make children, is the mainline activity of most existing, observable humans, and so for most civilisations. When civilisations get away from helping with that, then they fail, pace Jared Diamond and many other useful ideologues. Rome is a great example of a civilisation that died out by failing to embrace life sufficiently. Christianity bred of judaism replaced what existed because it holds life as sacred. Europe, post-christian, hedonistic, materialist Europe whose only gods are the state and enjoyment, has abysmal birth rates and lots of abortion, eugenicism, and simple failure to reproduce, and so is vanishing before our eyes. The replacement culture will have faith in making babies. Oddly, the source civilisations of the replacement people are also in catastrophic demographic implosion. David Goldman is excellent on this, tying the values that killed Rome to those that have destroyed(it is baked in the demographic cake) most of the Islamic world. Being pro-life is not about being happy so much as it is the only viable path forward for our genes. It is how we got here, and particular instantiations of humanity too prone to pleasure and leisure as prime pursuits won't pass their genes to posterity if those traits are also passed to any children they'll manage to have.

reader2010's picture

The simply truth is that a capitalistic economic/social/political setup has only one goal, that is the accumulation of capital. If there are things in conflict with that goal, the goal takes precedence everytime. And they don't give a shit to the rest.  Do you happen to know most of our modern social institutions, such as marriage, childhood, motherhood as we understand them, were set up articifically to satisify that goal?

Stackers's picture

selfishness, ambition, greed and apathy are conditions of human nature, not conditions of a capitalistic economic/social/political setup. This is why socialism/marxism always fails in the end, they work under the asumption that human nature can be controlled and directed with just the right governmental controls.

reader2010's picture

Yes, selfishness, ambition, greed, and apathy are part of being human. Why capitalism didn't come to existence 1000 years ago? The fundamental requirement for capitalism is for everything, that is required to be associated with accumulation of capital,  to be commoditized first.

e-recep's picture

the bankers and the usurers were very well in existence 1000 years ago. they had capital and they had returns or losses.

reader2010's picture

According to Economics, capital in capitalism is defined as the relation between labor and means of production. 

Stackers's picture

You're mistaking crony corporatism for capitalism. Capitalism at its core is nothing but allowing individuals to negoiate and set the price finding structure naturally. Not with government regulation, not with corpate monopolies that pay off the government regulators to reinforce their monoplies


The true goal of capitalism is the allocation of resorces and capital into the most "efficient" and "beneficial" place and way. Misallocation through governement reinforced monopolies and the government itself is the problem.

reader2010's picture

You've been misled to believe the ideology. Read and think for yourself, 


Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization



Poor Grogman's picture

If I think your ideas are worthless, does that make me a capitalist or not?

I'm confused....


Totentänzerlied's picture

Well if that ain't the most milquetoast Marxian thing I've ever heard on ZH. Backward causation to lead us FORWARD!

Bam_Man's picture

Now imagine how "happy" that country would be if 30% of THEIR population was on prescription anti-depressants....

Be MOAR happy!

TBT or not TBT's picture

They get sunshine!    Oh, and opiates.

Buckaroo Banzai's picture

Bhutan is a very difficult (and expensive) place to visit. Only 150,000 tourists in 2012.

idea_hamster's picture

I was fortunate enough to go in 2005.

It was a trip that changed both my perspective and myself.


Bryan's picture

Very nice trip blog.  I think more people should visit other cultures to get a wider perspective on what "human" means.  Hint: It's not all American Idol, spray-on tans and texting.

Buckaroo Banzai's picture

Thank you for sharing that. Fascinating.

natronic's picture

Let's sit around the campfire and sing Kumbaya and hit the peace pipe.

onelight's picture

...with a big spleef...a big Bob Marley that, to paraphrase Carl Spackler, you'll have that going for you...gunga galunga!

idea_hamster's picture

Unfortunately, Bhutan is Buddhist.  And Buddhists generally believe that your mind is your only true tool on the path to enlightenment -- so you shouldn't wreck it.

If you were on a desert island, would you spend your time hitting your only knife blade against a stone to watch the pretty sparks?  (Me neither.)


onelight's picture

True's some context on the Carl Spackler remark:

ebear's picture

"Unfortunately, Bhutan is Buddhist."

Got that right.  There's two versions of buddhism actually, and I don't mean the lesser and greater vessels.

There's the hoicked up western version, as popularized by guys like Alan Watts, then there's the on-the-ground version you find in rat holes like Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos where it mostly serves as a means for avoiding responsibility and enforcing social caste.

The hindus have it right, actually.  Buddhism is just a subsect.  It carries all the same baggage, superstitions and prejudices as the source from which it sprang.  Don't believe me?  Go there and see for yourself.

idea_hamster's picture

Can I note a couple of this without taking bait?

In general, if any version of a religion is "hoicked up," it's the version that avoids responsibility and enforces social castes, since those aren't functions of religion.

As for what's a subsect of what, the Buddhists would say that Hindus are the subsect!


ebear's picture

By hoicked I mean focusing on aspects of a belief system that aren't really central to its primary function.  Enlghtenment is at the core of buddhist philosophy, but most cultural buddhists aren't searching for that in the same sense western practitioners are.  For the great majority it's simply a means of social organiziation and group identity.  Nothing unique about that of course, but the avoidance issue tends to stand out.  Not losing face is more important than owning up to errors, thus transgressions tend to be overlooked which has the effect of giving greater licence to transgress.  You can't help but notice this if you move in that world.  In my case I married into it, so I speak from first hand experience.

I was trolling though, I must admit.  I get a kick out of rattling the cages of western buddhists whose knowlege comes mostly from books.  Funny thing is, they often know more about the philosophy behind the religion than people who are born into it.  Not many western buddhists are conditioned from birth to accept the hand fate dealt them.  If they were, they wouldn't be searching for enlightenment, right?

Good name BTW.  Idea hamster.  Like that.

sitenine's picture

I don't see a lot of 'value' being created lately, unless there is value in TBTF, QE, Fascism, or tyranny in general.

Mrmojorisin515's picture

How much profit is generated by falling in love? ask eharmony or match, everything has been financialized.  EVERYTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

SilverIsKing's picture

Because people are williong to pay for the things they value and there's always someone figuring out how to exploit these desires and make a buck in the process.

NoDebt's picture

I work for myself.  I have no debt other than of the "transitory" type when I pay off the cc at the end of every month.  I don't feel like a worthless slave.

Try it sometime.  You might learn what freedom and a sense of self-worth feels like, and why our Constitution was written the way it was (and why you don't want government becoming your nanny or oppressor).  In short, you might like it.  And you don't even need to travel to Bhutan to experience it.



Bryan's picture

Thank you, Charles.  This is one of the most rational and helpful essays I have yet found on ZH, mostly because I agree with it and have been preaching the same thing for a few years now.   The lust for "moar" is killing us, or at least killing our joy and the potential of what we could be.

q99x2's picture

"How much profit is generated by falling in love?"

Ask that bitch of an ex-wife of mine.

Radical Marijuana's picture

Marriage was the second biggest social wealth transfer device, after death.

The surreal aspect of postmodernizing corporations is that they do not have to die, and so, the numbers representing "wealth" have become inhuman, and no longer based on life, which used to be all about the alternation of generations. Since all individual flesh and blood human beings had bodies that eventually died, taxation and the control of death operated upon them in ways which also matched the biological life cycles, which required social institutions regarding marriage, so that property could be passed down through generations, after deaths, in regularized cultural ways. More and more, that old-fashioned political economy that was built around human biology has been superceded by an abstract fascist plutocracy, based on numbers, not blood.

Therefore, was used to be the case, and still largely is, although disappearing faster and faster, was that the ways that the succession of biological generations transpired made marriage and death the two biggest wealth transfer mechanisms. Today, it has mostly become vast corporations being able to do things like make money out of nothing, to use that to control property, which is transferred through more corporations, whose ownership through biological beings has been made so abstract and hyper-complicated that it barely has any sane relationships to humanity.

Marriage used to make more sense as a social wealth transfer means, because of the imperative of estate planning. Today, all of those kinds of things have been cultured into crazy corporations, that enjoy the legal fictions of being the treated as if they were human beings, and indeed, have superior rights to human beings, since there is no longer anything that kills off corporations within a relatively short period of time.

We are more and more tangled up in the strange ways that marriage and children, that used to be vital to life, have become irrational, and therefore, the wealth transfer within marriage no longer seems to make sense to many of the people who were put through that process.

Our political economy has become so totally dominated by legal fictions, such as corporate personhood, and other bigger legalized lies, that our civilization is more and more primarily organized by inhuman numbers, within which meat grinder the old biological life cycles, and the social institutions that sensibly developed around them, no longer make as much sense.

Marriage is still a significant social wealth transfer, but with less and less connections to the death of old people, and their replacement by their children. The at first gradual, but now runaway accelerations of the triumphs of abstract numbers, which are based on legalized lies, backed by legalized violence, without much relationship left to the ancient human relationships, have more and more rendered marriages into farces, dependent upon larger frauds.

We have developed a kind of surreal incest, whereby large corporations, mandated by governments, own almost everything, and control almost everything, where no individual human beings, not even the most wealthy individuals, are able to control that runaway environment that has been created. Therefore, more of the old-fashioned, biologically based, decisions that people continue to make, regarding marriage, children and estate planning, make less and less sense inside the context of the runaway triumphs of astronomically amplified frauds, mediated through corporations, which are nothing more than the supreme legalized fictions and frauds.

People often do not think about things until they go wrong. Often divorce forces people to recognize that the social contracts they presumptively entered into were irrational and crazy things. Usually, people tend to personalize that. However, the bigger picture is that the huge lie of the "personalization" of corporations has created a world where human relationships have become secondary to the abstract numbers which drive those corporations. Going through a marriage contract that ends in divorce often become a personalized way that people face the absurdities of the social predicaments that we more and more find ourselves within.

All the social institutions around reproduction have become secondary to production in an economy dominated by entities which are no longer human! The inhumane aspects of militarism have been astronomically amplified into the inhuman aspects of the monetary system.

ebear's picture

"Interestingly, both Yoni and I thought of Bhutan's guiding national policy, Gross Domestic Happiness, as a reference point for Net Value."

Yeah, well read this


and this:

Poor choice as an example of human happiness I'd say

They do make nice stamps though.....

trollin4sukrz's picture

What shall profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?

akak's picture

Ask Blankfein, Dimon, Bernanke, Obama, Bush, Cheney, Pelosi, Biden, Geithner, .... I bet they know.

RenegadeAnalyst's picture

mmmmmmmmm; I love the smell of Commie in the morning.

akak's picture

I pity you, if you cannot grasp the fact that there is, or can be, a deeper meaning to life than sterile and shallow materialism measured only in financial terms.

Professorlocknload's picture

"It is better to travel well than to arrive."    Buddha

Miffed Microbiologist's picture

Actually I like " it's best to travel alone than have a fool for company" quote better. ;-)

Miffed :-)

ebear's picture

    wherever you go, there you are!

Atticus Finch's picture

Eventually society at some point will emerge from the nightmare that it is currently passing through. Who knows, from this horrid experience, perhaps people will conclude that the entire economic system is wrong and that the bill of goods we've been sold our entire lives is a dysfuntional model.

One way to start is turn off your televisions and stop being bombarded all night long with suggestions that you do not quite measure up. Might have some effect on turning around the epidemic of mental depression.

InconvenientCounterParty's picture

Self worth can be measured in units of lethal force. It's a form of mental dysfunction, that is manifesting with an alarming trajectory.

If you've posed for pictures/videos with weapons and subsequently been embarassed to show others, seek treatment now.

svc101's picture

What about Ayn Rand's virtue of selfishness?