We work hard for it every day, and not always in a Gloria Estefan, romantic tale, kind of way. People murder, or worse, for it—all the time. But as you read the thank you letter a billionaire wrote to himself and slipped in the envelope with your tax refund…do you wonder, what is this stuff we call “money?”
Liza Minnelli told us it makes the world go around. That is close enough to the truth, for modern (or post-modern? are we still saying that?) human beings. After a couple of decades counting it, paying it out, guarding it, earning it, losing it, wasting it, and saving it—both as a good TV obeying American consumer and as a professional trust administrator—I think I might have a few answers to this puzzling question.
The common wisdom (as portrayed to me during my childhood by Bulwinkle the Moose and Sesame Street) is that once long ago, in the mists of time-gone-by, there was a barter economy. Bear-catchers caught bears, fishermen caught fish, and sommeliers harvested grapes. Crops and catches varied in size, and trade was ruthless and unorganized. Then, somebody decided that instead of just swapping haunches of bear-meat for jars of wine, people should take everything to a common market and regulate the trade of these goods by the exchange of little pebbles and shiny shells, which would stand for common units by which the goods would be judged. Money, presumably, was born.
However, this Sunday school version of economics is a little over-simplified. The name of the inventor of the coin is as lost to thousands of years of unwritten human interaction as the name of the inventor of the wheel. Both were once filed in triplicate at the County Clerk’s Office in Alexandria, Egypt, but there have been some file corruption errors since then and the attachment didn’t go through. What we can tell from how it is used today, is that money is a symbol developed by humans: something that stands for something else. Money is a loosely defined variable in the calculus of our lives that can be exchanged at any time for one of three things: potential, property, or value.
Potential is the easiest aspect of money to realize, and the hardest to define. We have created a thing that can become anything imaginable. It can also arise from or ruin the greatest of inventions, nations, or people. If you receive a windfall of $500 tomorrow, what would you do with it? (I would like to go on the record and say that I have always believed the “bank error in your favor” Monopoly card needs to be updated for inflation.) New car, caviar? Four-star day-dream? Maybe tickets to see a football team? You could feed third-world children for less than the cost of a triple-grande-mocha-no-whip per day. You could blow it all on a night in Tysons Corner with friends. You could put a down payment on a purse. This unlimited potential of money is why your government, your church, your kids, your hobby, your virtues, and your vices all demand it from you on a daily basis.
Property is as much a human construct as money itself. I still remember when my two year old first started declaring things “mine!” Suddenly, her family didn’t own anything—everything, from the house, to the car, to the cats, to the sandwich I was trying to eat were claimed by the loud decree of a tyrannical toddler. (Which is soo cute!) The philosopher Proudhon was known to have said at various times in his life that: (1) “Property is Theft”, (2) “Property does not exist”, and (3) “Property is Freedom.” But despite the ravings of even the most intellectual and impassioned of French post-war ontologists, the implied rules we live by every day say that in order to make something yours, you must first present money in exchange for it. Of course, everyone owns something by natural right. Those are the things we have focused so much of our lives and our attention that neither semantics, economics or moral or lives for that neither codes can tell us it does not belong to you. Ownership of real estate and family heirlooms eventually fall inside this category—but only after money has been paid, and time has passed.
Value is the bane of the existence of appraisers, accountants, and yours truly. How much is it worth? How much can it be sold for? What was his net-worth? How much do you make? Lawyers say that “time is money,” but if that were strictly true, you would expect the smartest lawyers to give more time to themselves. What the phrase really means is “my time is being exchanged for a lot of money.” John Lennon said something to the effect that it is okay to be a working class hero, because otherwise from the time that you’re born you are given no time at all.
So, what is money? Like I said, it is a variable. It is a symbol that makes you ask yourself what you value. But only you can answer.