Monday, May 3, 2010

Risk and Reward: Monetary Madness

We now know that financial reform is unnecessary as politics is clearly more valuable than the preservation of our capital system. I’m elated to know that Congress has finally dethroned the nonsense about “In God We Trust” and replaced it with, “In the Fickle Hands of Populist Propaganda That Gets Us Elected We Trust”. It’s going to require the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to do a much smaller font or a much bigger bill so, while we’re at it, let’s reconsider the money thing.

Money – more specifically our notion of representational currency based on debt – is a bizarre consequence of fear. If we think about the wholesale birth of representational legal tender, we understand that the reason for its existence was to convey a sense of trust that value was, in fact, being exchanged. Early letters of credit (which conveyed to the recipient an “ownership interest” in assets for which there was no tangible confirmatory evidence) were generalized during periods of the Crusades. A conquered treasure in Jerusalem could be conveyed between parties in Italy or Germany without the trouble of having the assets carted across treacherous sea and land passages. A ship laden with silk could return home with timber plus a representational interest in gold that would not weigh down the ship. The utility of money was a means to lubricate trade without the necessity of negotiating or transferring stuff.

However, money opened up another, more insidious human dimension which is the focus of this posting. “This Note is Legal Tender for All Debts Public and Private” sounds so useful. But when we think about it a bit more deeply we realize that the requirement of a note is based on a breakdown in the social network. Part and parcel of last week’s post on the corporation, money represents an explicit statement of dissociation between counterparties and their sense of accountability to one another. You see, when I give or demand money, what I’m also saying is that I’m both relieving you of the opportunity to be accountable to me and I’m relieving myself of the obligation to remember any accountability I have to you. I annonymize value so that I don’t have to deal with the consequence of representations made during a transaction and I don’t have to have accountability for repercussions which may result from a transaction in the future. The exchange of money absolves us of the need to retain accountability.

Even more deeply, I think that money represents an animation of fear and distrust. We “need” money because, if we had a system that required counterparty relationships over any duration, things might change. People might forget what one owes or is owed. One might dispute recollections of commitments and obligations. Over a period of time a performance obligation may – God forbid – change.

Money is a utility. It isn’t power, fame, wealth, etc. It is a utility that is currently the predominant mode of access – access to things, to experiences, to influence. Remember that the Republican’s vote had nothing to do with the Republic – it has everything to do with expediency. Reform a system that is the utility to get elected so you get more money in your own pocket? Heck no! That would be madness. Because, if you reformed the system, you would have to change how you do business and, that would take effort. And people may actually expect accountability. And that would be…

Refreshing! So think about this. Do one transaction this week without money – one that you spent money on last week. Don’t do the, “Dave, you’re an idealist. We have to use money because everybody does!” Seriously, pick one thing that you used money for last week and don’t use it. Rather than buying your friend a cup of coffee, make a thermos and have two cups with you. Then ask yourself whether you had less, more, or about the same “value” in the transaction. Repeat. Begin transacting with your time, your culture, your resources. Because we won’t change the system all at once but we will, if we stop letting incumbency paralyze us, begin to move the system. I’m not opposed to money. I’m opposed to the consensus illusion that somehow we’re better or more efficient with a system that reduces every depersonalized exchange through the stranglehold of money. We can do better and, shortly, I’ll describe some ideas on this topic.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave