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On Having Fun Staying Poor

Those plebs on Twitter may have your best interest in mind.

CoinDesk Insights
Sep 11, 2021 at 12:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 12:00 p.m. UTC

If you’ve ever publicly expressed the slightest reservation about bitcoin going to $10 million, a pleb – a vocal defender of bitcoin named after the plebeian class of ancient Rome – has probably told you to have fun staying poor. It’s meant as an insult, but of course plenty of people have fun staying poor. They sip lemonade on front porches, go on long walks, sing songs, swim in lakes and don’t think or care much about money.

But what about people who heard about bitcoin when it was $10, or $100, or $1,000 or $10,000 but had concerns and didn’t buy it? What about people who have decided not to buy bitcoin, and let’s assume that bitcoin will go up in value. Can they have fun staying poor? Or are the plebs exhorting them to do something impossible?

Bradley Rettler is assistant professor of Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. He is co-authoring a book on bitcoin as a tool to resist corporate and state overreach. This post is part of a series called Crypto Questioned, a place to discuss the ideas and philosophies that drive the cryptocurrency industry.

Well, first let’s talk about being poor. “Poor” is an inherently comparative term; what is poor in one time and place may not be poor in another time and place. Normally the comparison is made to those around you. But even very wealthy people have been told to have fun staying poor – like Elon Musk. So the relevant comparison class cannot be the general population. The comparison the plebs have in mind must be your future self who bought bitcoin. If you continue to fail to acquire bitcoin, then compared to that future self, they’re saying, you will be staying poor.

Let’s break it down further. What does it mean to have fun? At first glance, it might seem that having fun is the same thing as experiencing pleasure. But that’s not quite right. You can experience pleasure by being done with work at 5 p.m. on a Friday, but it’s not (usually) fun to walk to your car. You can experience pleasure while you’re fixing your car (the satisfaction of a job well done), but it might not be fun. Same for any other task that’s physically or cognitively demanding – running a marathon, doing the Saturday New York Times crossword.

So there can be pleasure without fun. I doubt there can be fun without pleasure. “I’m having fun, but I’m not enjoying it” lacks credibility. If that’s right, then I think we can say that fun is a particular kind of pleasure. An untroubled, lighthearted, amused kind of pleasure.

Can you have fun being poor? This seems like a category mistake, because being poor isn’t an activity. And if fun is an untroubled, lighthearted, amused kind of pleasure, it doesn’t seem like being poor is something you’d do to get that kind of pleasure. But of course you can have fun while being poor, for example, by racing someone, or swimming in a river, or playing a game of Duck, Duck, Goose. Similarly, asking whether someone can have fun staying poor seems like a category mistake.

But can someone have fun while staying poor? That is, can someone who heard about bitcoin and didn’t buy it have fun later on in their life after bitcoin has gone up in value? One thing we might consider is what kinds of things they find fun now. Will those things remain fun for them after bitcoin goes up in value? It seems reasonable to think they will. Bitcoin going up in value will not affect their enjoyment of playing games with their children, or traveling to new places or sipping a beer on their front porches.

It seems like the only way to say that someone can’t have fun staying poor is to think that they will be so filled with grief by their failure to buy bitcoin that it will pervade their entire lives. When they try to do things they once enjoyed, the fun will have been sucked from them because of their constant thoughts of bitcoin, and they’ll cry salty tears. This seems unrealistic. So it is possible to have fun while being poor, and possible to have fun while staying poor.

But is someone who stays poor bound to have less fun than they have now, and less fun than they could have had had they bought bitcoin when they heard about it? That seems plausible for two reasons. First, they have less money than they would have. They can buy fewer things. They can go fewer places. They have to work more. Second, occasionally they’ll think of the fact that they could have bought an appreciating asset and didn’t. They’ll berate themselves when at times they could have congratulated themselves (had they bought an appreciating asset), and that will make it harder to have fun at those times.

And they might also take out their grief on the world around them – say, by trolling bitcoiners on Twitter.

It would be nice if we could see the plebs as being encouraging. “By not buying Bitcoin, you will be poorer than you would have been. That might make you sad at times as you think back on this conversation. But try not to be too hard on yourself. Keep having fun.” That’s how I choose to interpret it. I suspect I’m wrong. But I hope I’m right.

DISCLOSURE

The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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