The Money Problem

You need it more than it needs you

There are serious problems with money, and if you don't know the main one, try doing without it for a while.

Money makes the world go round - but only when it does. It's just as true to say when money isn't moving, it stops the world. Things don't happen until money gives its permission. No money, no go.

Worse, it's also true that money sets the patterns through which human economic activity is organised, and those patterns are clearly destructive - of society, of human health and dignity, and indeed of the planet - our very ground of being.

These problems exist because of a simple misconception deeply embedded in the way money is taken to exist - indeed from the very idea that it does in fact exist, that it is some sort of real thing.

Things that exist do so in particular quantities; things that don't exist have no such limitations.

The money we commonly use was never designed. It just happened.

The origins lie in barter, when items of comparable value were exchanged, one for another. Nobody gave up something of value without getting value. Wine for grain, fruit for fish, clothing for sheep.

The inconvenience of such arrangments leads naturally to a preference for exchanging goods in general for particular small and convenient amounts of "precious" things - metals, gemstones - things that could in turn be predictably exchanged with others for other things.

But this wasn't yet money - just another level form of barter, thing for thing exchange.

The next step was to coining the precious metals in denominations, to stabilise peoples' dealing - and that too is still in effect barter, since the coins were considered to have value from the value of the metal in them.

Money - as a really imaginary thing, a promise - began to come about when political powers gradually reduced precious metal contents, and stamped coins from base metals, declaring their value to lie in the fact that they were issued by, and acceptable to, authority.

It had value because it had the "right" marks on it. A purely imaginary, social valuation. A promise by the issuer - usually that it was acceptable in payment for taxes.

The form has become progressively more abstract, from coins to notes, notes to cheques, cheques to plastic, and plastic to the electronic.

Money itself has no longer any vestige of inherent value. Coins can be melted for the metal, paper can be burned for heat, but digitally stored accounts have no possible purpose beyond their accounting.

Money is merely a promise, a ticket that provides its carrier with the expectation of something real.

But yet it still is thought of as real - by economists and bankers, by adults and children. We think it real, because of our experience that it's scarce, that only so much of it exists. It has at least that attribute of reality.

As Soddy said - money is the nothing you get for something so that you can get something else. And he won a Nobel prize (NOT in economics, of course!)

Money only works if it moves - if it can be exchanged for something of "real" value. Bread, a haircut, an idea.

If no one will take it, it isn't good money.

Given that condition, it is generally assumed that the best money is the money that goes furthest, that is accepted by everyone. Governments and nations, and banks strive to make their money as good as they can, which means they seek to ensure that -

    it moves everywhere and anywhere

      not only within a nation, but across borders

    which it will only do if it is scarce

      because the more plentiful the money, the less it is accepted

    and that requires that only a few can create it

      it comes from "them", as far as we are concerned

These are three self-consistent elements and to this point in history ALL currencies that have mattered - all national currencies for example - have had to follow these rules, that they move anywhere, are kept scarce, and come from "them".

This is NOT a function of any design, nobody planned it this way, nobody even thought about it that much at all. Money just was what it was until it became what it now is. It was an inevitable evolution that needed no help, and could in any case scarcely have been avoided.

The consequence for a community is predictable and observable.

All around the world, through no fault of their own, cities, regions, villages periodically find their money supply has dried up. The money that was coming in, isn't, and the money that was already here, left.

Is this familiar ? If it isn't you are living in a strange and unusual part of the world. It's happening everywhere, all the time.

That's the first of the evident failures of conventional money -

    it leaves things undone that need doing

      paradoxically, it's the actual quality of money's existence that is the problem - given that it is supposed to exist, why can't it exist where and when it is needed?

      there's no point in cavalry that doesn't arrive - where's a policeman when you really want one ?

The second failure is probably more dangerous

    it gets things done that shouldn't be done

      the pattern of everyday social actions derives from the ways in which money flows through the community

      the money comes into the community, it goes around maybe once, and then it leaves. In, round and out - that's the way it is

The consequence of these conditions is a economic context in which strategies of competition dominate.

Game theory shows us how context determines the players' best strategy.

If you have to have money to live, and money is short so everyone competes for what little there is, then you too have to compete to get what you need, you have to compete to live.

And it's the same at every level - nation shall compete with nation, region with region and community with community. The rhetoric of the marketplace, the political slogans, the cynical self interest all seem to make perfect sense, to reflect an apparently inescapable logic, that of the survival of the fittest - by which is meant the fittest fighters with the least scruples.

But this "perfect" sense rests on very imperfect assumptions - that it's all due to human nature, or it's just the way society works.

There is no recognition that the context in which the social behaviour arises is set by the nature of the money that drives it, not even that the money has indeed any nature. It isn't seen that the money we use is only one particular form amongst several different possible forms.

We think that money is just is what it is and couldn't really be any different; and that it always was, and always will be, something scarce, and will be valuable just because of that scarcity, and something for which we will always have to compete.

But this way of working is NOT in any sense an efficient use of human or economic resources. We don't get good results in any organisation by coercing, bullying and belittling those within it. People don't respond well to such pressures. They may work, but they don't work willingly, and they don't work well.

And if to maintain this pressure it is necessary that large numbers of our community are kept idle, unvalued and alienated, then surely there is something fundamentally wrong about the whole arrangement.

But yet, within that context, there is virtually nothing that can be done to change matters.

While we only use the old familiar conventional money, there are no real alternatives. The way the game is played is written in the rules.


    Check Einstein on that, or any good systems analyst. Albert observed

      "The world we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done so far
      creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level we created them at."

      .... the tools that broke it, won't fix it.

    The good news is this,

      that when you see what the problem is,

      you also see that it's really no problem at all.

Written by Michael Linton of Landsman Community Services Ltd.
Version #003 27-7-96