We came pretty far ahead of our mammoth-hunting ancestors, don’t you think? I mean, we’ve got cars and jobs and ready-made meals and television and airplanes… not to mention Internet. We’re doin’ alright, friend. At least those of us who got money.
The dough. The ice. The cold-hard cash. Whatever you want to call it, it spins the world around, and takes our lives along for the ride. The loot. The little pieces of paper (or plastic for some). The greatest game we ever invented for ourselves.
In the beginning we had hunters. Hunters brought the prey back to the cave, paying it in full with wounds and hardship and often enough the lives of other hunters. They sat, ate their fill and received the tender love and praise of the rest of the tribe, as well as a right to choose from the goods made out of the unlucky animal. It was called trade.
Later communities grew. We discovered agriculture, and traded our grains for the fruits and beasts of the forests. We made markets, where people could meet and exchange what they had. But you know all of this. Fast-forward when the first money was born. The king placed a stamp of approval – namely his word – on a piece of hard-to-find metal. Or seashells. Or ochre. Whatever the medium, people started believing that money had an intrinsic value, something to strive for, work for, risk one’s life for, and even kill, if necessary. That’s where it all started.
At least we all agreed to measure it against something. That something was gold. At least for a while, all the money in the world were covered by, and could be converted to gold. People did not want gold for its sake – some argue it is “pretty”, but I’ve personally never seen the aesthetic value of a lump of cold metal. You couldn’t even use it for something useful (aside from some applications in microelectronics and high-end audio, but those where out of the question back then). But the mere fact that everyone suddenly wanted it made its value frighteningly real.
Anyway. Nowadays we don’t even have this feeble link to reality. The money stopped being related to one country’s gold treasure, and started being valued against its GDP. For those of you not into economics, that’s an imaginary value obtained by selling everything a country produces within a year. Furthermore, this number is sometimes “adjusted” by some countries upwards – to be able to obtain certain advantages on the foreign capital markets. We even invented a whole new science – the aforementioned economy – just to deal with this imaginary world. And, speaking of economy? Its anything but.
Economic growth, you heard that one? Let’s say it’s 11% this year, but it was 12% last year, and economists say that company or country is slowing down. But wait a minute, isn’t this percentage based on the numbers of previous year? Why, yes it is. Let’s see that again in slo-mo, shall we? Say that you started with 100 bucks. First year you had 12% growth, so at the end of it you were worth 100 + 100 *12% = 112 bucks. Net difference: 12 bucks. With me so far? This year you have “only” 11% growth, so 112 + 112*11% = 124.32. Net difference: 12.32 bucks. Ain’t economy wonderful?
This is the greatest game ever invented. Generations lived and died by it, and chances are you will too. The Europeans wiped out whole civilizations in the name of the great game. Americans are poised to do the same. We grow up learning about the value of money, and we spend all our adult life in touch with it in one way or another. Want proof that it is all a game? Have a look at airline ticket prices to your favorite destination, and answer me this: why is it that the same flight, with the same plane, eating approximately the same amount of kerosene is costing SO much more if you’re flying back the next day? Or on Christmas eve? Because economics dictates it to be so. The law of supply and demand presently demands that you supply twice the sum for a business trip. Halleluja.
Could it be otherwise? I wonder. Jack Vance imagines in his story “The Moon Moth” a world where prestige is all the currency there is, and prestige is gained through daring deeds and personal qualities. Another view – in another book I’ve read lately, Cory Doctorow‘s “Down and out in the magic kingdom” – speaks about whuffie points, which they can earn by contributing to society. Both books are quite enjoyable, and both systems are unlikely to ever replace currency in our daily lives. And that’s a shame, really, because we need the change. We’re so absorbed by the economic aspect that we are literally frying up this planet because it’s economically sound to do so.
En fin. I’d love to sit and chat some more, but I gotta get back to work. What can I say? I need the money.
PS. By the way, some things in life really are free. Cory’s book is available for download, just follow the magic link and see for yourself.