Our Greatest Invention

Candice eetimesA few years back, I was talking to a young protegee about some big ideas for future development, ways that could greatly expand the standard of living for all of humanity.  Instead of engaging in thinking about how to implement these big ideas, she asked the most thought and action limiting notion that plagues our society, that hobbles our imaginations, paralyzes us, “We could never do that, where would we get the money?”

I had to explain that money isn’t real.  But to her, money is more real than solid objects.  But, as the philosopher Alan Watts so eloquently put it, “Money isn’t wealth, its a measure of it.”

And yet, money is important to our society.  Money does not exist in nature.  It is a human invention.  I believe, strongly, that it is our single greatest invention to date.  Not control of fire, not the wheel, money.  Money is what allows our complex society to exist.

Money is what allows us to trust one another, even strangers, especially strangers.  Think about it.

With family and (real) friends, we can simply give them what they need, knowing deep down, that if we need something, they will reciprocate.  If I have food today and you, my best friend, are hungry, I gladly will give you some food, knowing that next year, when my harvest is bad, you will keep me from starvation.  Or, I need a new chair for my living room and you just happen to be a carpenter who makes chairs.  You will give me a chair.  Your cousin needs a horseshoe put onto your best plow horse.  I, as a blacksmith, am only too glad to turn iron ore and charcoal into a horseshoe.  Everyone in the little hamlet where we live, we all know each other, trust each other, and know that we are all doing the best we can to help each other.

Ah, but that no good layabout who lives on the other side of the hill, we know that he won’t do a thing unless he has to.  From him, we can expect nothing.  So, when he needs something, we insist that he trade for it.  The things that are traded must be equal value, which is hard when many of the trade-goods are in units too large to match to one another in value.  We could accept his “promise” to provide something in the future, but we all know how that goes.

And what of the traveler, the trade caravan or the lone peddler?  How to find suitable trade goods of equal value?  We can’t accept their “promise”, nor can they accept ours.

Enter “money”, a unit of measure with no real value in and of itself, but that which we collectively agree to.  OH… but you then say that that money was in precious metals, gold and silver.  My answer is yes, and at the same time, no.  Gold and silver artifacts started out as just another trade good, often in the form of ornamentation, jewelery.  That’s not “money”.  The word “money” gives us a hint as to the social sanction that it took to turn such metal into “money”, as it comes from the name of the Roman goddess, Juno Moneta, in whose temple such metal was stamped, coined, with her image.  Gold or silver certainly had trade value as a raw material, useful in manufacture of various useful objects, but it wasn’t “money” until is was given an official, in fact, sacred, stamp of approval.

Consider coins and paper money today.  The metal in the coins is not what gives them value.  And certainly the paper that money is printed upon isn’t worth what numbers are printed upon it.  What makes a one dollar note worth less than a hundred dollar note?  Surely there is no difference between the two in paper quality or even in the quality of the portraits printed thereon.  Our society has even gone a step further, using electronic tabulations, with no physical object as value counter, in our banks.  No, the value is that which we all agree it denotes.  This concept, this social invention, is so powerful, that even anti-social individuals, criminals, agree with the social convention and honor the collective decision to use “money”.

Thus, “money” an elusive, non-thing, is our greatest invention.  With it, our society, on a global scale, trades goods, services, labor, land use, etc.

But money is only a measure of wealth, a means for lubricating trade.  It does not create wealth.  We create wealth using our imagination, working with the only two things that are real, raw materials and energy.  As long as we have these three ingredients, we can create any amount of wealth we desire or need.  And, since raw materials and energy are quite abundant in the universe, we are only limited by our imaginations.

That’s worth repeating:

We are limited only by our imaginations.