Dec 1, 2022 - Economy

Philosophy prof takes on crypto effect, teaches fitting money into life

Photo illusration of Andrew Bailey with columns and digital coins.

Andrew Bailey, an associate professor at Yale-NUS College. Photo illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios. Photo: Matt Cashore

Crypto markets have been so drunk on wealth that those involved forgot how to consider risk realistically. But one bitcoin-minded philosophy professor is helping students think about how money should fit into their lives.

Why it matters: Humans have known as long as money has been around that it's dangerous when cash becomes an end in itself, and 2022 presents very strong evidence that those lessons for sure haven't sunk in with the crypto crowd.

What they're saying: "Money matters to us. It bugs us. We want it. It drives us crazy," Andrew Bailey, at Yale-NUS College, tells Axios in a video interview. "The whole point of the course is to notice that, slow down and reflect on it."

  • He found students were getting ready to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives — how to spend it as adults — and seemed overwhelmed.
  • "When you want to think, you can't just think about something, you need the tools to do that with," Bailey said.

What do we think about when we think about money? For most of us, it's probably wanting more, but do we really know why?

Case in point: Money, researchers have found, has a limit. For example, he presents readings where researchers have found people have two levels of happiness: how they feel right now and how they feel about life overall.

  • "Though both of these respond to money, they respond to money in different ways."
  • Money can make a person instantly feel better now, but in terms of the big picture (as in, life satisfaction), Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton found in 2010 that it tops out at a much lower annual income than one might think.

College students seem to get a lot out of an early essay by Karl Marx where he describes how money alienates people from each other.

  • "There's some fire there that really grips students," he said.
  • And yet few finish the course buying into the idea of prescribed financial equality.

Details: The course is called "Money." One of his syllabi can be viewed online. It has links to all the readings.

  • He's a philosophy professor but his approach is very interdisciplinary.
  • For example, there's a lot of small fiction pieces throughout the course. He's found this really helps bring some concepts home and sparks interesting discussions.
  • He first taught the class in 2017. He's taught it eight times so far, adjusting it a bit each time.

Hot tip: For anyone looking for a shortcut to a spirited conversation, there's several readings on the syllabus by Jason Brennan and Peter Jaworski.

  • Bailey promises that they write things that push uncomfortable buttons in ways that provoke great conversations.

Zoom out: Yale-NUS College is a partnership between the U.S. Ivy League school and the National University of Singapore. Academically, Bailey works on the philosophy of bitcoin, with a group of philosophers known as Resistance Money.

The bottom line: Bailey has made a decision to focus on the cryptocurrency that's laser focused on being an alternative money: bitcoin. He is skeptical of the others claiming the technology can do more.

  • "I think this is the big problem for crypto, is that it is about money, and it's just about money. And people want to make it something else, and it's unclear they have a path to that more idealistic vision," Bailey said.
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