Despite the range and complexity of the challenges facing the modern world, a fundamental illusion exists in the currency of society (in both the literal and figurative sense) that magnifies many if not most social and ecological problems. It lies in the universal medium of exchange known as “money”. Specifically, essential as money has been to the evolution of society, the nature and function of money itself has quietly evolved over the centuries, yet our conceptions of it have remained unconsciously, even superstitiously, stuck in the past.
In brief, money originated as a claim-ticket for items of physical value. Many commercial items were difficult to bring to market (land, cattle) while others were dangerous to carry around (precious metals and gems), so it was useful to create a token medium to exchange in their stead.
Over the decades and centuries, by a process of Pavlovian conditioning, money itself began to take on the same perception of value as the objects it represented — even in the absence of the target object. (An illustrative thought experiment: Burn a $100 bill. How much actual value is lost to the world? Is it a toaster oven’s-worth of value, or is it the 12 cents printing cost the Treasury expends in producing it?)
Indeed, the common, simple definition of money continues to be “a store of value and a medium of value-exchange”. Accordingly, as a “thing” of value, there is a cultural incentive to accumulate money as a measure of one’s personal “net worth” — generally the more the better.
A critical characteristic of things — physical objects — is that they can be accumulated ad infinitum; limited by the space one has to store them. Moreover, when money becomes “virtualized” (as will be discussed below), even this limitation is removed, enabling some to hoard up astronomical quantities of it.
When money itself becomes a thing of value, when continuous pressure exists to gain more of it (“profit”), when it can be accumulated and stored without limit while the actual physical goods and services it can buy are finite in supply, the results are the social, economic, and ecological harms we struggle with today: growing inequality, inflation, recession, lack of access to life’s necessities, corrupt or unrepresentative politics, crime and desperation, environmental destruction, climate disruption, resource wars — the list goes on.
Finally, when all society members are in principle competing for a limited supply of wealth in an attempt to “get ahead”, a subtle undertone of competitiveness, mistrust, isolation, and cynicism cannot help but creep into the fabric of society.
Wealth — A Thing or an Experience?
In days of old, it was largely possible for a king or group of nobles to own and control virtually all of the available physical wealth. In today’s world however, the scale of natural and human creations and activity is so vast that even the richest billionaire, despite their vast holdings, can only control a relatively small portion of it.
Although the entirety of wealth can no longer be wholly owned, still, the great majority of the population can experience it. This might be accomplished through short or long-term purchase, rental, or borrowing, through travel, television, books, movies, and a variety of other means. Yes, there are still a few Midas-types who may get a sort of gratification out of owning things they never experience (e.g. a third or fourth home that is never visited); yet most sane people would realize that to own an asset that one never uses is (literally) use-less.
The Virtualization of Money
Over its long history of use, money has become increasingly virtualized — that is, less physically substantial — progressing from physical goods, to precious metals and gems, to token coins and paper bills, to checks and credit cards — now to bits and bytes in an electronic ledger in the “cloud”.
Despite this transition, especially in Western culture, money is so intimately tied to health, happiness, security, and opportunity, that it is hard not to respond to it as an actual object of control — a thing or an entity to which we must continually consider, defer to, and work for.
Yet owing to the virtualization process, rather than a physical object of value, money as it exists today (especially since the unhooking from the gold standard) is better thought of as a coupon or a claim-ticket for experiences.
What does this mean? To illustrate, consider a movie theater ticket. The ticket itself has no direct relationship to the costs of producing a movie or the costs of the facility used to screen it. It simply permits the ticket holder to have the experience of viewing the film one time.
Or, consider exotic vacations. The money spent on travel is not a token of partial ownership in Hawaii or Disneyland or the Grand Canyon or United Airlines. It is simply a coupon that entitles one to experience the pleasure of those locales for a limited time.
This is also fairly easy to understand in terms of service professions. It is difficult to apportion the literal cost of the training and expenses necessary to produce a haircut, or a dental exam … or open heart surgery. Instead, the fees for these are set by the non-rational (and often unfair) process of supply and demand.
It is a bit more of a mental stretch to extend this logic to physical items, but let us consider property — apartments, automobiles, and the like. Rental enables one to experience such property — an flat in downtown Manhattan, a reliable new automobile — for a relatively brief time. Further, if one has a large enough quantity of monetary claim tickets, one might “experience” exclusive use of a nice home or other property for a lifetime. (What happens thereafter is subject to another experience: the legal system).
In past centuries, when Western culture met Eastern/Aboriginal cultures, the latter were puzzled by Westerner’s need to own things. In the aboriginal view, land was borrowed from the Earth, not conquered. A gift was intended to circulate through the community, not sit on one’s fireplace mantle. (Hence the term “Indian giver” when the gift-giver returned to suggest that the gifted item “wanted to move on”.)
Why is This Distinction Important?
If modern money is viewed as experiential rather than objectified, what difference would this make to the world? I suggest it would vastly change social dynamics for the better.
In his book “Anatomy of Human Destructiveness”, psychologist Eric Fromm suggested that the most fundamental human drive is to make a “dent” in the world — that is, to believe that one’s existence mattered; that it made a difference in some way that one was here.
Because some amount of physical and social assets are necessary for survival, throughout history the accumulation of these has been a primal measure of one’s worthiness and significance — one’s “dent in the world”.
Further, since it is difficult to determine how much accumulation will actually be needed for long-term survival, a second default measure of one’s significance is how one’s own hoard of wealth compares to that of others: “If I have more than others, that must mean I am more fit to survive. That reflects my status as a better person.” If this dynamic was not the root of competition and social hierarchy, it was certainly a catalyst for it.
When wealth is considered a physically existent object, and since the planet has a finite supply of “stuff”, when it is hoarded beyond one’s need or ability to utilize it, that generally deprives others of the ability to utilize the same. It is the proverbial zero-sum game. Indeed, after a point, “private” property is not so much about having things but preventing others from having or using them.
That may be tolerable in many cases involving physical goods — not everyone can own a Ferrari or is comfortable sharing their home with strangers. However it takes on a perverse dimension when today’s virtual money continues to be treated as a thing — a physically existent object. Virtual money, the kind that exists only in computerized accounts and ledgers, can be accumulated and stored without limit — as many ones and zeros as a computer can hold. And whether through legitimate or illegal means, the world today hosts an increasing number of billionaires. (Doubtless, some are eager to become the world’s first trillionaire.)
Yet the money supply as currently conceived cannot be expanded to infinity without disrupting the economy through inflation. So despite modern money’s unlimited, virtual nature, an artificial limit must be set on the money supply — commonly known as a “debt ceiling”. (Modern central bank money is debt-based.)
The result is an artificial constraint on economic activity. Rather than expand or contract the money supply in accordance with the actual needs of the nation and its people, we expand or contract economic activity and our ability to meet true need in order to meet the needs of the financial system — despite the harm caused to people, business, and other institutions.
Accordingly, the national budget and economy becomes an artificial zero-sum game — a perennial tug-of-war for funding between national needs, social needs, military needs, and the like. If all of these are deemed important, would it not make sense to adjust the national money supply such that all can be accommodated?
Instead, the banks, the Fed, the Congress, the White House, and the economy at large are engaged in a constant, treacherous, high-wire juggling act to balance prosperity and opportunity for some, with inflation/deflation, and with budget-cuts and austerity for others. And no matter what happens, someone is pretty much guaranteed to be left out and unhappy.
With all of the resources, knowledge, and technology available to the modern world, can we really not design a society, a planet, that works for everyone?
The Alternative: Money as a Claim-ticket for Experience
The central point of this paper: for a healthy, happy future for the planet and all of its inhabitants, it is time to wake up from the illusion that modern money represents a thing of physical value. It is time to re-conceive it in a way that is more consistent with its actual use. Namely, it is a coupon that provides the holder with access to a range of desired experiences — living space, food, clothing, healthcare, education, entertainment, travel, and the like.
Why is this significant? Quite simply it is the contrast between a zero-sum and an open-ended scenario. Whereas possession of a thing excludes others from having/using it (my degree of wealth depends upon your degree of impoverishment), experiences can generally be shared by many without diminishing one’s own. My experience of Vivaldi or a painting or a sunset is not degraded simply because another is also listening or looking.
Moreover, unlike “stuff” (virtual stuff in particular) there is a limit to the number of experiences one can enjoy in a lifetime (including the ultimate limit known as “death”). Whereas the richest among us might compete to hoard monetary wealth on up to galactic proportions, even the greatest can only pack a finite number of experiences into their time on planet Earth.
What sense would it then make to accumulate more opportunities for experience than one could actually utilize? If one were gung-ho for Disneyland and wanted to visit the theme park annually for a lifetime, one might be happy with 50–100 admission tickets. Why would one then seek to amass ten thousand admission tickets — especially if it denied others the ability to have that experience? Yet this is precisely the result of current monetary policy which enables some to hold more monetary wealth than could reasonably be spent in dozens of lifetimes.
In this light, if one wanted to leave a legacy of achievement, it would lie not in the number of lion-skins or dollars one has piled up over a lifetime but instead in the number and quality of experiences one makes possible for self and others.
I suggest that the great majority of human-caused social and ecological problems are caused or exacerbated by the illusion about money as described above. If we are collectively able to free ourselves from this illusion in time, before burning or blowing up the planet, I’d expect that we may be on the threshold of true, new Golden Age.