Monday, August 13, 2012


 Book Summary and Review

Most of you know that my fascination with money has dealt mostly with the problems of many in the developing world. These include issues such as lack of access to capital and financing (microfinance seeks to address this), lack of foreign investment, Dutch disease, safety/security issues and poverty caused or aggravated by inflation and hyperinflation, etc. I’ve been intrigued by examples of micro-economies, microlending, microsavings, and alternative currencies (The Future of Money, Do-It-Yourself Currencies, World of Good Markets, The Future of Barter, Local Exchange Trading Systems, Community Currencies in the U.S.). But the truth of it is that money is facing problems the entire world round. And by the way, what is money? Have you ever thought of that?

I think about what money is awhile. I’ve been reading “The End of Money” by David Wolman after hearing Wolman speak, and I’ve been pondering greatly this issue of money. When you ask people about what sets humans apart from other animals, they will usually mention music or art or high level of intelligence or highly complex language. But rarely do people say money. However, we’re the only animal that I know of that uses money (of course, some might say money is a by-product of our intelligence). But that still doesn’t answer what it is. What is it?

From the pre-money or early-money days when money took the form of whale teeth, feathers, shells, trinkets, butter, salt, tobacco, anything that had value (or didn’t as is seen the example of stone monuments used on the Micronesian Island of Yap), there were always problems. First, not all feathers are alike. Secondly, there might be a limited supply of whale teeth (supply is something that I’ll come back to). Third, some of these items decay. Fourth, some of the items just didn’t have any intrinsic value and could become worthless of people didn’t believe in their value. So coins were finally born in  the Greek kingdom of Lydia, 2600 years ago.

Coins were something that could be made to be all alike, whose supply could be controlled (assuming it was made from a substance found in sufficient quantities), take a long time to decay if made from good material, and have intrinsic value if made from material people saw as valuable. Coins are fungible (meaning you can interchange it or use it for a variety of uses or purchases), and you can even put your face on it if you’re the government.

Even though gold has no real intrinsic value, any more than silver or bronze, people sure like it. And if people like something, it, in some sense, it became infused with value. Additionally, it’s tough, malleable, nonflammable, nonpoisonous, nonreactive, and just scarce enough to add to our fascination with it. However gold coins became a problem, too, as its scarcity became a hindrance to boosting it’s the money supply. Additionally, sometimes people thought it was better to hoard and save your gold. One of the earliest monetary “crashes” I heard of was the 16th century Spanish Empire which plundered the silver mines of South America so much that there was an oversupply of silver. This caused steep price increases that the purchasing power of the silver dropped very quickly and the money became worthless.

Paper money (originally born as early as 800 AD in China and first replacing coins during the 13th century Yuan Dynasty) was finally reborn in 17th century Europe when people would bring gold and jewelry to the goldsmith to fashion coins. The goldsmith would give you a receipt to say he has your jewelry and that you’ll soon get your coins back. Well, since the receipt represented a certain amount of gold, people began using the receipts themselves to trade with others like the butcher for meat. The goldsmiths quickly realized that people weren’t checking how many of these notes they issued, and as long as no one checked, they could issue as many as they wanted. David Wolman calls this the birth of modern banking. Ha ha!

Without going into the historical details, the next evolution in money came in colonial America when people started issuing paper money not backed by coins, but backed by a promise of the government to repay in coins or something valuable in the future. Somewhat differently, in China a version of this had happened in which the government hid the fact that the paper money was not backed by coins. Here, it was not concealed.

So cash had arrived, and just like today, it was a promissory note saying “We promise to pay you back in some form at some day in the future, as long as that day is not today.” This is the strange thing about money. Again, what is it? Well defining exactly what it was became harder and hard which led to two more transformations.

In 1933, US President Roosevelt decided to consolidate the country’s gold supply in an effort to build the economy during the Great Depression. Then all the major economies sent representatives to a private meeting in which they agreed to their money to the US dollar with a fixed exchange rate that can only be changed by permission with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As part of the agreement, countries could exchange their foreign reserves of US dollars for gold from the US.

In the early 1970s it was quite obvious that the US had no ability to back all the foreign US dollars which was three times the amount of gold held in reserve by the US. So the US President Richard Nixon, in August 1971, de-tethered gold from the US dollar. From that point on, the value of gold in US dollars was now set by the market. And all currencies were allowed to move up and down against each other as the market saw fit. However, goods were still priced on the world market in USD and it was also agreed that oil would be bought and sold in USD.
And so we arrive at the world of today, but that still begs the question. What is money? Well, it seems like it’s nothing now. In fact there are men who receive a lot of it to simply decide how much should be created each year. Other men receive a lot of it to decide what should the general interest rate be, and this changes the amount of effective money (since credit increases people’s buying power). And it’s simply amazing to me that people have such responsibility to make these decisions about some pieces of papers whose scarcity makes it valuable and whose abundance makes it useful. But what of people who don’t have money or have too little money. I wonder if they’d like to see more money created and put in the system. Or what about people who work full-time for too little money? I bet they would like to see more money in the system. But how do you do this? More importantly, if money really is nothing, why print it at all? If it’s just in our heads and belief systems, why not work with digital money? Maybe in this way, people will see that it’s just an arbitrary (though educationally informed) decision about how much of it should be in the society.

The current problem is paper itself. We could be headed to the next transformation—from paper to digital. It’s not a new prophesy; in fact, it’s a recurring cry heard from people such as technologists, but there are many barriers to moving to a cashless society.

There are the evangelical Christians with an apocalyptic interpretation of Revelations. Many of these people feel that eliminating cash is the last step toward the predicted mark of the beast according to the interpretation. Other possible steps may have been the elimination of the gold standard, establishment of the UN, barcodes, radio-emitting microchips, and growing Wall Street banks. All of these things are seen as possibly heading to some one-world order in which a person (the Antichrist) controls the economic system of the world. According to this view, it is inevitable and money’s destiny is digital. However, they don’t want to rush the end and the impending end-time carnage.

There are the technologists. They argue against paper money on two counts. One it’s a losing game. For example, one in every 1 pound bill is counterfeit, and 40% of all UK-issued pennies are missing. A few years ago the price of a penny peaked at 1.8 cents and a nickel (5 cents) cost 9 cents to make. A nickel is now 6 cents to make and the price of a penny has come down. But it is a problem when it cost more than what the money is worth to make it. These problems increase (there are many statistics) from lost coinage to monetary costs of coins to environmental costs of making coins including pollution, acid rain, the use of water and cotton in production, etc. The US Mint has manufactured 500 billion coins over the past generation, yet 200 billion of those coins have fallen out of circulation. Some people want to kill just the US penny or the US nickel. Some want to kill all coins. Some don’t want any money.  Norway, Denmark, and Sweden all removed all of their coins less than 0.50 of their currency. The cost of money-making increases when you include ATMs, armoured cars, night safes, transportation. This includes robberies, security, cash handling (annual cost of cash-handling in Indonesia is $800 million).

This brings up the second reason technologists oppose it. Cash supports illegal activities. It’s anonymous and virtually untraceable. It encourages counterfeiting and robberies. It supports drug wars and money launderers, gangsters and war lords. It encourages tax evasion (there is about a $350 billion tax gap in the US between what should be taken in and what actually is received). It encourages cash robberies. Every year around 800 Americans are killed in cash robberies, and there were more than 10,000 bank robberies in 2009 and 2010 that would not have happened if there were no cash.

And the stories go on. Some people are just loyal to the penny or to cash and don’t want to see it go. Some people see credit card companies as predatory (understandably so) and prefer that people completely tear up all credit cards and live on what they earn (of course there are troubles with this—how do you pay for university studies for a family that does not have the money?). Some people feel that when they physically hold money they spend less money. In other words, as Wolman put it, if you walk into a casino with $300 you know you might lose $300. But if you walk into a casino with a credit card, you could lose your house. There are people who have an emotional attachment to the physical feeling of money. They are called tactilists.

Some people deplore the tracking of digital money that can tell when and where you’ve spent your money and for what activities. They prefer the anonymity of cash. Of course, so do criminals.

There are some who know cash penalizes the poor disproportionately. The poor have little options for other forms of money such as credit and bank accounts. For many people, because it is easier to spend cash, the lack of banking hinders the ability to save. They often disproportionately face risks associated with money such as security/safety risks with cash. This is especially true in places where the money’s value is low or dropping or when it is dropping extremely fast (hyperinflation). Some people might have to spend multiple days on a bus to deliver money to a grandmother in a rural town. That is lost time and money just due to travel. Now through the advent of mobile money technologies, people can use cell phones to send and receive money. Imagine saving 3 days of travel and your rural grandmother receiving the money instantly. Imagine that now she can choose to spend it at a shop or save it “in the phone.” Kenyan taxi drivers use the mobile-money giant, M-Pesa, to load up their cell phone money accounts so they don’t have to carry cash (just go into a store or any operator who will take your cash and send money to your account through the phone). Wolman tells a second-hand story o f a man in Kenya who put money on his phone when traveling through a dangerous part of the city because he didn’t want cash on himself. When he exited that part of the city he took out cash again at a nearby shop. Kenya’s central bank has reported a drop in cash usage, and there were 13 million users (half the adults in Kenya) after only 4 years of operation by M-Pesa.

So the stories continue. But whether physical money will ever disappear is a bigger and longer prediction. People like physical money and it is hard to part with tradition or inertia. Some people think Japan or South Korea since they love technology and adopt new technology faster than in the UK or the US. Others think it might be Sweden since there was a banker-led campaign to do away with physical cash. We shall see. If or when any country does it, it will still be some time in the future. But it’s quite interesting to watch how it unfolds.

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