Has anyone ever stopped to think about how strange the idea behind money is?
Probably a silly rhetorical question, as commerce is something that many people have thought long and hard about over the course of human history. But I don’t exactly mean the concept of different monetary systems or the merits of different economic theories like capitalism vs. communism.
I’m certainly nowhere near enough of an expert in any sort of financial realm to be able to begin to tackle those big ideas.
However, recently I’ve been contemplating a different bizarre aspect of money that relates more to a psychological sphere of thought. Namely the idea of ownership when it comes to money, particularly in the much more nebulous 21st century where the lines between the physical and the digital are blurred more and more.
I could point to a number of places as the genesis of my thinking on this subject, though two primarily come to mind off-hand.
First is my sister, who loves to tell the story of an old man who approached her as she worked the concession booth at a Redondo Union band event. Apparently his idea of small talk was telling a couple 16 year olds that they should be careful with the money they were handling because all U.S. bank notes supposedly have some trace of cocaine on them.
He’s not even wrong if this 2009 article from CNN or this 2018 Snopes piece are to be believed, but still. Weird thing to just casually talk about.
The second place is my mall adventure with Juan the other day, where one of our stops post-mall loitering was the bank so he could deposit some money.
I probably have another post incoming sometime soon regarding stuff from this trip that’ll make it relevant again, but for now just know we went to the bank after all was said and done.
Both of these small, seemingly disconnected events kind of evoke the same cliché: You never know where your money has been. An unarguable idea, especially looking back at the lede to that CNN article I linked where the author talks about how frequently money is passed from person-to-person through anything from paying for goods at a store to dropping $5 on the ground by accident.
But I’m not here to examine the idea of your money having been touched by anyone and everyone at some point in the past, per say. Rather, I’m more interested in the much smaller idea of casually calling it ‘your money.’
At its core, money is the symbolic representation of a totally imaginary concept called worth.
That is, symbolic unless you go into the minutia of things like the cost of materials needed to print a penny versus how much a penny is symbolically worth… But that’s going pretty far into the weeds.
What I’m looking at is the idea that we, as a species, have collectively decided that slips of paper have been assigned a value that essentially boils down to a more simplified form of bargaining. Instead of trading a sack of flour for two chickens, we’ve come up with a representation of how many paper slips each sack of flour or each chicken is worth, that way there’s a universally tradable object allowing someone to buy anything they want rather than being restricted to getting chickens.
Naturally there’s an infinite number of complications to that idea when it comes to things like the universality of currency if we all have different currencies worth different values. But like I said, I’m not an economist or a financial guru, so let’s just go with a more simplified world view here.
The creation of a universal representation of wealth has also crystalized an idea of what it is to be a wealthy individual. Sure back in the day you were the king if you had X number of chickens or acres of land, but there were people who could argue they didn’t need chickens or land if they had different goods.
In today’s society, money is literally the deciding factor because money can be used for almost anything.
That’s why people will go around talking about their net worth, how something like their stock options give them a billion dollar value. Because that symbolic value is worth something in that it’s usable for almost any kind of bartering one can imagine.
But in 2018, that’s where things get complicated and interesting to me. You can say you have $100 available right now, but do you really have the physical Benjamin in your pocket? Or do you have $100 in this nebulous digital concept called a bank account?
Now I know bank accounts aren’t technically completely nebulous, since there are physical places where one can deposit and take out physical bills. But here’s the thing: Even those physical bills aren’t technically completely your property, despite the fact that your inherent worth says you have that much available.
When you deposit a dollar in the bank, there’s no guarantee that when you take it back out you’ll be receiving the exact same dollar. It’s more likely that the bank just has a pile of dollars hidden away somewhere that they peel bills off of for anybody that needs it at a given time.
Also yes that probably isn’t how a physical bank works, but again. Not a banker. So any real life bankers out there please don’t get mad reading my description.
Just go with it for the sake of this hypothetical.
The idea extends beyond banks as well. Like I mentioned before, purchasing items creates an interesting dynamic. That dollar “you own,” once handed over to the cashier in exchange for whatever it may be, goes into a cash register. But if you go back to that store one day and get cash back for having too big a bill, you aren’t guaranteed to get the exact same dollar you handed over long ago.
That dollar probably disappeared as soon as the person behind you in line that day used a bill that was too big and got cash back. Now it’s suddenly a representation of that person’s wealth rather than your own.
As usual I don’t necessarily have a larger point to this discussion beyond it being an interesting train of thought into something most of us more than likely take for granted in this fly-by-night world we live in.
But next time you go to buy that new video game or receive a paycheck and toss those singles around like you’re the king of the world in a strip joint, maybe you’ll think about this post and give your psychological perceptions of money a reexamination.
Those bills you’re tossing around? They aren’t yours, as you might think. No matter how hard you worked to earn them in the first place.
They’re just a symbolic representation of the work you put in given a physical form that allows you to barter without trading away any actual goods. No matter how many times you kiss that wad of cash, happy to be worth something, just remember that the second you put it down it’ll be the property of whoever picks it up next.
But also maybe think about the fact that you’re likely kissing money that has cocaine on it. Because let’s not forget, that money could literally have been held by anybody before it was held by you.