It’s Only Make-believe: The Paradox and Pain of Money
It’s only make-believe: the paradox and pain of money
Spoke with a friend this weekend, and he sounded a bit off. He moved to the mountains just about a year ago, with his daughter, his new wife, a freshly minted four-year sheepskin and a plan to take on the world. But the world can be a pretty tough customer, and now my friend is reeling from its latest one-two combo that seems to have landed squarely in his midsection. “I’ve been out of work for like a month,” he told me, the longest stretch in his 20plus years in the labor force. He’s not alone. I’ve got friends sweating it in all corners of the country as their industries begin to fall: oil exploration, medicine, finance, real estate, restaurants, landscaping, construction, media, retail. I mean… hell, man… we can’t all go back to
tending bar. The squeeze is coming down from high above, where decisions are being made and switches are being thrown, judgment calls that affect us all, made in large part because of a declining series of numbers on a computer screen somewhere. All this is happening because of money, which if it weren’t so sad would be funny. Because money isn’t real. Oh, it feels real enough, especially when the mortgage is late and the larder is bare and the month is about eight days too long. But money, like manners, is just a convenient contrivance of human society, “a matter of functions four, a medium, a measure, a standard, a store,” as the old saying goes. You’ve got to go pretty far back in civilized society to pre-date money. In the real old days, every man used to do for himself: hunt, clothe, gather, build, grow. If he were lucky, he’d have a wife (or two) to help him bear the load. And if he had a particular skill, say flint-knapping or some such thing, he could take on another man’s toolmaking duties if that other man returned the favor in kind by, I don’t know, tanning his pelts for blankets and clothes or something. And if he knapped his flints in such a way that his tools became in great demand, he could basically outsource all his other work in trade.
Money came into play when things started to get really complicated, about 100,000 years ago. The Native Americans of the Northeast used wampum, the shell of the channel whelk, cleaned and strung as beads. In Ancient Mesopotamia they used shekels, a weight of grain represented by an equal weight in gold or silver or bronze. Paper money and coins are a holdover from 5,000 years ago. And until recently, American money was held to a fixed gold standard, disabled by President Nixon during money woes after the Vietnam War. And what is gold, anyway? It’s very handy stuff, I’ll grant you that: extremely malleable and conducive to electricity and all that… but these days the only reasons it’s valuable are that it’s relatively rare and very, very shiny. But at least it was something. Now our money doesn’t really represent anything except itself, and in the last dozen or so years money has become something of a recluse. We rarely even lay our eyes on it anymore. Most of us get our money from checks, which we drop into our bank accounts and then write what are essentially promissory notes against it to pay our bills, buy our food and exchange for various shiny objects. We use checks and debit cards for most large purchases; the only folks who carry big wads of cash these days are drug dealers, cab drivers and strippers. And when we talk about large amounts of money its value becomes even more abstract. How can anyone comprehend a trillion dollars? It’s a million times a million, and the median household income in this country is about $50,000 a year. It’s like looking at one of those scale representations of the earth against the sun. Money is not even an object: it is the representation of an object that no longer exists. It is wholly an invention of mankind; the moon and stars are heedless of its ebb and flow. And yet…, my friends who are feeling the pinch remain unswayed by such existential arguments. The downward trend of numbers on their computer screens are causing great distress in their little tribes. Try telling someone who’s just been laid off that money doesn’t exist. Try telling someone who has lost her house to foreclosure that money is just a collective figment of our imagination. Try paying your bills with handwritten notes on paper and you’ll see the extent of our mass hallucination. It’s fairly widespread. And that’s the way it needs to be, unless we all want to go back to knapping our own flint.