Friday, September 10, 2010

Not So Funny Money

What is of interest, is how quickly conversations about money polarize into a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games are those where one person's gain is another's loss. A poker game is zero-sum. Those busy accumulating boat loads of money, try to hide its zero-sum nature by saying that the "pie" is getting bigger. Prosperity is not a zero-sum game, though "prosperity" is too easily associated with monetary wealth, which is not the same thing at all. Clearly, quality of life is not a zero-sum game - quite the contrary. All of the things that we might call "true wealth": health, enough to eat, shelter, meaningful work, diverse habitats and resources and beauty - none are diminished by all of us having more.

But, this is not true of money. If everyone had a million bucks, what would a million bucks be worth for instance? Money is a mask, it pretends to be wealth. And its pretension is backed up by force. Money has power because of scarcity, and the threat of scarcity. Without money I will starve and die, even if there is food around. Without money I will become homeless, sleeping in the rain and shivering in the cold. Therefore, when I say I need some dirty work done, you say yes. I say yes. We say yes.

Money seems like a natural and necessary part of the world, but, actually, it is neither. Few really understand money, and certainly no one, not even the governments that print money, control it, despite their best efforts. In some ways money is the ultimate pyramid scheme - its value is surprisingly sensitive to human attitudes. Others make money their god, their master. Being pragmatic, realistic; is the justification. "Money will win. Trust me. And either you are with the haves or you are with the have-nots." But how much "have" is enough? There seems no limit.

Julius Caesar borrowed large sums of money from his officers. Not only did this enable him to pay off his mutinous troops, but it insured that the future success and prosperity of his officers depended on his own. Money is a drug; if the right dosage can be found - printing just enough, not too much - it's like magic. As long as people keep buying things they don't need. As long as those in the business don't hoard too much - which is of course their only reason for being in the business. As long as the real resources don't dry up, the illusion of prosperity can be maintained with more and more IOU’s. To the future. To the earth. Like all stimulants, money steals from tomorrow.

Aristotle said that money was meant to be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. He called the ability of money to engender itself usury, the birth of money from money; and called it the most hated sort of money making. In Africa especially, money is about poverty and the threat of poverty. It is poverty that gives money value. By threat of poverty, I must not only work - which people have always done - but I must work for money, even if that work has no value or is destructive. And money is about power - power backed up by guns and prisons. Poverty, power and prison are money's soul, flesh and bones.

It's a question of scale and edge; before money, subsistence level was the poorest one could be and was the way most people lived. Money has created a poverty below subsistence. Today some "earn" enough money in one hour to feed, and shelter, 100 people for a whole year; or to pay 20 000 people minimum wage. Perhaps the bottom of the scale is a better measure of the wealth of a society, than the gold and jewels at the top. Zen roshi Robert Aitken once said, somewhat enigmatically, that it is easier to practice "true poverty" if you own your own home.

No comments: