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Modern Money: Much Ado About Nothing

Money is actually nothing. Did you know this?

In general, when people think of money, they either feel they don’t have enough, or fear that someone might take their wealth. One of the wisest things I’ve ever heard was that both the rich man and the poor man have nothing but a $1 at the end of the week. The poor man might have used his money to buy bread, while the rich man bought a third yacht, yet each only has $1 until the next payday.

No matter how much money we accumulate, we never feel we have enough. Thus, humans spend most of their lives fretting about money and most of the crimes against humanity and the planet are done in the name of money.

And yet, what exactly is money? In our imaginations, we often think it looks like this:

But the US dollar hasn’t been backed by gold since 1971, when the United States stopped selling gold to foreign official holders of dollars at the rate of $35 an ounce. As of now, there aren’t any currencies in the modern world completely backed by gold, or anything else, other than promises and goodwill.

In reality, modern money looks like this:

It’s kinda cool, all those 1’s and 0’s floating around in cyberspace. But it’s certainly not shiny and you can’t touch, taste, feel, or smell it. Money is now an extra-sensory experience.

This means that when we fret about the size of our bank account, we are fretting about a fictional number, one that has meaning only within the context of the story of the culture in which it exists. The cultural story of money depends on how various types of work and resources are valued. In America, if you write software, a big number gets written into your bank account. If you teach children how to read, a MUCH smaller number is given. And if you care for the elderly or the sick, well, your number is so small, it’s almost laughable.

It’s the same with expenses. If you live in California, a HUGE number is taken out of your bank account for your mortgage or rent. If you live in Alabama, a much smaller number is equated with the four walls and the roof over your head. In the end, the value of work and goods is completely irrelevant and totally out of any one person’s hands. Economists like to think that it’s all about supply and demand, and at it’s most basic, most monetary value is based on this. But demand is a fickle thing and supply can easily be manipulated. In spite of our desire for a simple equation to govern the economics of our society, the fiction of money is based on the group mind, the social order, and the will of those “in charge.”

We fight wars over numbers written into an account by a computer. What a strange thing to covet. Numbers, arbitrarily assigned based on profit. Yet what is profit if money is merely a story? Money is a messenger, the great storyteller of our times. Read the story carefully, for the way labor and resources are monetized within a society will tell you the moral values of the culture in question.

If you look at the American story of money, it’s fairly horrific. Even though money is a complete fiction, 43.1 million Americans live in poverty according to the latest measure. According to a supplemental poverty measure, the poverty rate in 2015 was 14.3 percent. It appears that Americans have decided that a decent number of us aren’t allowed to have a number written into their bank account big enough to provide shelter, food and clothing. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. No food? Too bad. Even if you work, your work is devalued. No big number for you.

Yet there are some that we do value in our society. It was reported this week that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett have collectively more wealth than the 160 million poorest Americans, or half the population of the United States. It appears that the American story of money definitely likes these three guys. They’re special. So special they get a number so big that it is equal to half the “money” number in the whole United States. Hungry? Go ask them for a hand-out. All three have foundations that will write a few numbers into your bank account. But not too many, because, well, that’s our story and we don’t want to disrupt it with too much generosity. That would make the numbers less valuable, you see.

There is a saying that you can’t worship both God and Mammon. I’d agree, yet God for me isn’t some old guy sitting up in Heaven watching us fight, kill, maim and destroy in the name of numbers loaded onto a computer. To me, God is the Life around us: Workers who labor, animals who graze and provide us food, water that flows from lakes and rivers into the oceans, and land that provides food, shelter, minerals, and precious, oh so precious, metals. Life is people and planet. If we worship Life, then profit is merely a tool to help us exchange our work for goods and vice-a-versa. If we worship profit, or Mammon, then we will kill Life. It’s really that simple.

Take the polluting of the Earth. There is no solution until profit is no longer worshipped. No accords, agreements or promises stand a chance against the worship of Mammon. Think about it and you’ll see that keeping the Earth alive requires some number in some bank account somewhere to go down, and damn if that’s going to happen. Thus, the Earth will be depleted, mined, and polluted no matter what an individual has to say.

The irony of it all is that story of money is ours, albeit we have created it with a group mind that borders on the psychotic. I imagine this is the result when we worship Mammon over Life — our minds go to rot. But here’s the kicker — this just might be the only way to stop our own self-destruction — choosing Life over Mammon and having the courage as a group to create an entirely new story that honors all three things: profit, planet and people. When we decide to worship Life, we free money to flow into the world and do its job, which is simply to allow the exchange of labor, ideas, goods and services. Money should drive innovation as an exchange, not as a weapon.

Money doesn’t want to be worshipped. Hell, it doesn’t even actually exist. All this pain is over nothing.

Nothing at all. How crazy is that?

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