Doing things differently since 1984
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about money. Not so much in terms of my bank balance, but about money itself. We work to get money to get other things. Most of us would like to get better work (meaning, higher paying work) in order to get more money to get more things. This is one of the most universally accepted facts of our world today.
My question is this: Is money “good”? How much do we really know about money? And how much should we trust it?
Like with most things, in order to fully understand money we need to examine where it came from (shameless history plug #1!). In the beginning, we invented money as a mode of convenience, like a central bartering tool, so that goods didn’t have to be directly exchanged with each other. It was a key development toward complex societies. We gave it its power. Moreover, those who had easier access to it gave it its power. But as the mode of exchange, it contained a great amount of power in and of itself. That kind of power became the driving force of history, including some of its achievements and many of its ills. For sure, money’s place in history has not always been “good”.
But how reliable is it? At first, the power of money was contained within physical commodities that had to be produced. Grain, cattle, and wine were among the first kinds of “money” to emerge. Gradually, these gave way to precious metals and nonperishable luxury items. In time, these were largely replaced with “symbols” of worth, in the form of tallies, promissory notes, and eventually paper currency. Very recently, even the use of paper currency has been giving way to mere digits that define what quality of life we will be able to have. Now, as many in this recession can attest, money is neither solid nor steadfast. It is numbers that fluctuate only somewhat within our control.
Perhaps a better example would come by way of my great grandmother, who when she was alive passed on a valuable lesson. My great grandmother, you see, was born in Germany, in the early 20th century. Her father passed away when she was a child, and left her a sizeable inheritance, which she would have access to when she turned 18. She was called “little rich girl” by those who knew about it.
However, my grandmother’s teenage years arrived toward the end of World War I. After Germany’s defeat, the Treaty of Versailles imposed severe penalties, which Germany tried to pay off by simply printing money, and the result was very rapid and severe inflation. By the time she turned 18, the whole of my great grandmother’s inheritance, which was the product of many decades of her father’s work, bought her a single dress. My great grandmother’s experience was no fable or proverb; it actually happened. Those who rely on money think they can control it, but none of us hold that amount of power; none of us know the future.
So what does this all mean? If money isn’t particularly “good” or reliable, then what do we make of it?
I want to introduce an idea that, if taken to heart, would radically transform our society. The idea is this: money is a necessary evil.
OK, I know, this is pretty far down this entry to introduce a main idea, so I’ll repeat it: Money is a necessary evil.
I’m not saying we do away with the monetary system. I’m not saying we quit our day jobs, or cease striving to make the kind of money we desire to get the needs and wants of our families fulfilled. We’re too far down that path to make a reasonable reversal. That’s why it’s “necessary”. All I’m introducing is a change in perception.
Our perception of money makes a difference. If money is “good”, then it is precious. If it is reliable, people build their lives around it. It is cherished and looked after, and not let go of easily into the untrustworthy world. One truly cares about the good things in one’s life. The things that we depend upon become the foundation of our ambitions.
If money is a necessary evil, however, it is no longer a family heirloom to be cherished. One puts up with it for as long as it’s needed, but has no sentimental attachment to it. No one seeks it beyond its necessary purpose, or puts it on display like a trophy. One’s focus shifts from the pursuit of money itself, to the pursuit of things they want to accomplish in life, whether by money or some other way. Generosity becomes easier, and greed (as in the desire to hoard money) becomes the ambition of fools.
All this is to say, don’t think that money is too wonderful a thing. It’s not. It is finicky, fleeting, and disloyal. The things you want to buy with money — or, more importantly, the purposes you ultimately want to fulfill by buying things with money — those are the wonderful things. So don’t let money go to your head.