What's $100 Between Friends (v2)

posted on Dec 18th, 2015

For the last two years I’ve worked as a computer programmer in the recovery auditing industry. At a high-level that means I’ve written software to discover and correct errors in financial records. Computer software, by its very nature, is an abstraction built on top of some reality. Usually the abstracted reality is at least concrete itself. With financial software, however, that isn’t the case, since money is also an abstraction. Given this situation I’ve been thinking a lot about the true nature of my work. Ignoring the question of “what is money”, I’d like to detail my thoughts.

First, I want to create a concrete scenario to test my hypothesis against. Imagine there are two companies, Acme and Omega. Ten years ago Acme hired Omega to install doors at one of their stores for $100. After the installation Omega accidentally sent Acme two invoices. Acme, remodeling several stores simultaneously, didn’t notice and paid both invoices. For ten years, this mistake went undiscovered until my software found it and requested that Omega reimburse Acme for the original $100. For my services in finding this mistake I charged Acme $10.

There are a few trivial narratives to describe what just happened. I’ll examine these narratives first before moving to a more complex – and I believe correct – narrative. This approach has two benefits. One, the form of the desired answer will slowly become more apparent as I fill in the negative space around it. Two, my final answer will be more defensible after showing why the most intuitive answers are specious.

Perhaps the most trivial answer in my mind was that $100 was freed up and could now be spent on other productive services. This was certainly the case for Acme, who just received $100 from Omega, but I need to remember that there are more actors affected by my work than just Acme, namely Omega and myself. When combining Omega’s $100 loss with Acme’s $100 gain the net amount “freed” is $0. To further make this point, let’s remember that I charged Acme $10 for my service. Including my service however, the total transaction is still at $0 because while Acme lost $10 I also gained $10. So, while Acme and I gain in this exchange, I’ll have to look elsewhere for the benefit of my work when considering all parties.

After finances the next most trivial answer to me was justice. No money may be gained or lost, but at least Acme is no longer paying twice what they agreed on. However, as before, this answer only holds up when I keep my focus narrowed to one player. If I take a step back then I have to contend with the fairness of the original deal. Perhaps Acme has a monopoly and manipulated Omega into providing their services at a greatly reduced rate. Or maybe Omega has ties to the mob and charged Acme an exorbatent rate as insurance against a mysterious fire. In either case, by enforcing the original deal, I would have actually reinforced injustice.

While it is easy to find value or justice for any individual actor in the narrative we still haven’t satisfactorily explained the total benefit. Luckily we’re actually fairly close. By slightly adjusting semantics we can find two more satisfactory answers. In place of total financial gain we have “power”. The power for individuals and organizations to seek corrections to past wrongs. The power to resolve conflicts without violence. The power to make sure top performers can thrive. Then, in place of justice, society gains efficiency. Instead of having to look at every single transaction when arbitrating between two parties society can simply look at the situation trusting auditors to enforce the transactions. This makes it much cheaper to create change and justice when it is needed. In short, my work helps to create an environment where successful organizations can thrive.

This line of thinking brings us to the soft under-belly of capitalism. My work has value because, when it involves money, we are all, by and large, obedient. Whether that is installing windows or correcting a 10 year old mistake. This obedience is in no way required by natural laws as transactions in nature are. Obedience simply comes from imparted cultural heritage passed down through generations. Obedience becomes both savior and master. Savior, because by it we can influence our world without needing to resort to force. Master, because by it we can replace our deeper motivations with a more brittle veneer. And so each day I go to work I encrouage obedience from all, big and small.