The Role of Money

I've been thinking for some time on the merits of money. You see, I hope to make a lot of it. In fact, I am substantially better off than I have any right to expect or deserve. Frankly, that's what has started me thinking about it. What is it about money that we want so much?

What does money do?

I'll admit it, I seem to have a talent for accounting and basic economics so I like the concept of money. I mean, money makes things easy and almost all economists see money as needed for an economy to run at all. Money is much better than barter, as you can imagine and allows us to easily exchange one item for another. I think it's cool that adding a third element to a trade makes the trade easier (first element is a cow, second element is some butter. How much butter for your cow?)

So money is wealth, right? Actually, no. Well, okay, so it depends on how you define wealth. I once read a book by Carrol Quigley that explained that money is actually the opposite of wealth. That's because wealth was defined as stuff you have and you can either have stuff or money. In other words, you can have a fancy car, or $50,000 but not both. Carrol actually put it in terms of food. You can eat or have money. Having enough food to eat for a year is having wealth, but having enough money for food for a year isn't because if the food disappears before you get around to buying it, you don't have it when you really need it. Make sense? I thought it was profound because it means that money is how you store wealth, but it isn't actually wealth.

That's a nice thought, but it doesn't explain how money works. The truth is that any economist worth his salt will tell you that we don't really understand fully how money works. Not in all its implications. People used to think that money was a function of the precious metal backing it up. That's because early forms of money are almost all precious metals. This is persuasive, but doesn't explain Indian beads, wampum, or those huge stones people used on some Island I can't think of the name of. Finally, people realized that money just has to be durable and desirable to work as a currency. Then it was thought that money was a function of people's trust in the currency issuer (usually a government--durable and desirable). But that hasn't turned out to be quite right as well because currency values fluctuate too weirdly for all that and it doesn't explain why money works the way it does.

There's a lot of theories around about it. Frankly, I find them fascinating, but not really relevant. What I really want to know is when is money good (why do I want more of it), and when is money bad (because it is pretty obvious that people with a lot of it seem worse off somehow)?

Good or bad? Can a mere thing be good or bad? Maybe not intrinsically, but the possession of some things seem to affect us one way or another, so I guess what I'm really asking is what about money affects us for good, and what affects us for bad?

For the good, I want money because it stores wealth. I mean, if I have enough money, I will feed my family and be able to convince some strangers to part with stuff they have and I want. Having money is purportedly better than not having money. I can believe that. I mean, we need stuff and since money is how we obtain it, then money is necessary. And good.

For the bad, I've come to believe that money harms us because it masks our dependencies. People often say that someone is 'independently wealthy'. With enough money, it is easy to believe that you don't need other people. I don't need to listen to my parents (boss, cop, neighbor, friend) because I can do just fine without them. If I had a million dollars, I won't need you. This is a pernicious lie. Just because you have money, doesn't mean you are less dependent on those around you. You still depend on the farmer to grow food, on the doctor to learn medicine, on the cop to catch criminals, and on the mechanic to fix your car.

Just because you can pay somebody to do it for you today, doesn't mean you will be able to pay somebody to do it for you tomorrow. You see, money isn't wealth. Think about all those things people say to disparage rich people. Snob. Aloof. Conceited. Arrogant. "He thinks he's better than me." That's not just envy (or at least, not all of it). It should be a warning that money can artificially separate us from our fellow human beings. That's some serious stuff.

Particularly when scripturally, we are taught to treat others as our brothers (and sisters).

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30. June 2000 10:06 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink


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