Money Metaphor

As inspiration for Melting Asphalt, and to get things started with a nod to Venkat, allow me to re-present one of my all-time favorite ribbonfarm posts, "Ancient Rivers of Money."

Pissarro's The River Oise near Pontoise

The idea of money as water is nothing new. Like all conceptual metaphors, it's encoded in our everyday language. Cash flows, liquidity, pools of money, frozen assets.

What Venkat adds is the dimension of time. How does our understanding of money change if we look at it not just as a stream, but as a stream of a given age:

Some rivers of money are very old and very stable.... Others are new and unstable and may change course frequently, creating and destroying fortunes through their vagaries. Others may be maturing.... When you buy a sandwich at Subway, the few dollars that change hands are part of a very ancient river of money indeed. Through countless small and large course changes, the same river of money that once allowed some ancient Egyptian to buy some bread from his neighbor now allows you to buy a sandwich.

Here's my favorite passage:

Organizations are like riverbank communities. They are as old as the last significant course change or waterfront battle. The stability of the river, not the attitudes of people, is what makes old organizations seem set in their ways. Perhaps people resist new ideas not because they have specific personalities, but because they have settled on the banks of a river of money of a certain age. Or perhaps there is self-selection. Possibly the hidebound kinds go settle on the banks of the most ancient rivers. Tax rivers are among the oldest and most stable rivers of money (and the only ones protected by the threat of legitimate force), and people attracted to government work aren’t exactly known for being passionate champions of creative destruction.

Some startups are about finding and colonizing the banks of minor unknown tributaries of old rivers. Others are about creating new rivers. Still others are about building canals between vigorous new rivers and somnolent old ones. And of course, there are those that are about displacing incumbents from prime waterfront locations.

Go read the whole thing. It's a beautiful, evocative piece that will plant itself in your mind.

Originally published March 16, 2012.