For the Love of Money

By its Merriam-Webster definition, money is something (such as coins, bills, or digital information) used to pay for goods and services and to pay people for their work. It is one of the most important inventions. Without money, the only way to trade is bartering. That requires finding someone who has what you want and needs what you have for each transaction. That makes an economy limited to bread and water. Nevertheless, the invention of money is inevitable if one thinks about how people do business.

Suppose a dog walker is extraordinarily successful in that line of business. She has so many customers that she doesn’t meet with many of them in person. She hires people to service her growing customer portfolio. Walking too many dogs, she produces receipts unique to her business to ensure customers of her possession of their dogs. At any point of this large dog walking operation, one of her customers could decide to give a dog to someone else. Simply by the owner’s handing over the dog walker’s receipt, the dog could find a new home. The receipt on its own completes the arrangement, providing it is difficult to replicate. It is a prototype of money.

In the real world, precious metals would have had an exchange value of their own. But the modern concept of money as some worthless object to become the medium of exchange was probably invented out of practical requirements of keeping domesticated animals or stocks of harvested crop. People would have used clay tablets, etc. that represented such goods for payment. Nevertheless, it would have taken millennia before an official currency could be possible for King Alyattes of Lydia. While the king still had to use precious metals instead of papyri or clay tablets, archeological evidence suggest the Ionian kingdom was the closest thing to a market economy in its time. 

Once an official currency has become a reality, natural laws of money were clear and observable: Money’s purchasing value is based on its “units” in circulation versus products and services in demand. Even the mightiest of Roman emperors could not dictate how much a unit of money should purchase. It found its own purchasing value. In contrast, those who put more money in circulation than needed, as it happened during the 16th century ‘Price Revolution’ in Europe, learned gold and silver could lose 80 percent of their values when there is too much of them. There is an invisible hand, a natural law that sets the purchasing value of currency units. And this can be essential information to see money for what it really is from an individual perspective. It can be purposed much beyond its exchange function. It can support an increasing sense of well-being; happiness that is found within the self.

Our thinking is wired to avoid danger. When something is “wrong,” we feel discomfort, scare, or pain. We respond to make it go away. We don’t have to fall off a cliff to learn it is a bad idea. We can deduce it is by observation. When we are not paying attention near it, a jolt of scare brings us back to our senses. We step away from the cliff.

Similarly, we feel sharp discomfort by idleness. It could be the opposite. Idleness conserves maximum energy. But it also means we are not doing anything about finding food. In nature, the former means death within days. The stress of idleness is the warning that should make us use the time to do what it takes to keep alive.

That is in nature. We, however, build civilizations that sustain our supplies of food and shelter for us. They happen without our hunting, collecting, or making. Working for a living is about specializing in a small part of production networks. There is plenty of idle time in many occupations. Time at home is mostly to rest and groom. The alarm sound in our subconscious never ceases. People who show they are happy with where they are and what they do are a distinct minority. That is different from one’s being thankful for what she has. That kind of happiness is about being self-sufficient in accomplishments.

An argument against this direction of thinking is sound in the light bulb metaphor: Did Edison invent the glass and the copper wire? In other words, could anyone truly accomplish anything on her own?

The answer is yes. For the light bulb metaphor, the accomplishment is in progressing our cumulative knowledge further. Copernicus studies Ptolemy, Newton studies Galileo, Einstein studies Maxwell, and so on, before they made their contributions. Does the unknown Roman inventor of bookbinding have a part in the overall progress? Yes. But she is not Einstein.

Coming back from geniuses to the world of ordinary people, a person who receives direct payment for goods or services she produces accomplishes meeting with the demand and matching her product with the value of money. Anyone can produce something. But she produces something worth money, which relates to her abilities to communicate, conceptualize, design, produce, manufacture and negotiate, not for the sake of it, but to get results. Getting results is the crucial part. It corresponds to the prehistoric accomplishment of finding food. It has nothing to do with showing off to others or being aristocratic. Finding food was a joy of avoiding hunger or death for our ancestors. We can substitute it only modestly in the modern world.

Productiveness for the feeling of accomplishment can greatly improve the quality of life. Money is the measurement of such efforts. If money is coming because of production, the accomplishment is authentic. For someone financially secure, this could be the missing piece of a happy life. Good for her. For someone who needs the extra cash, even better, for all the difference it will make otherwise.

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