The concept of money and what it’s worth to society is something that most people probably don’t think about often. We make money, we spend money, we lend money, we borrow money, but what does that money really represent and what is it worth? Technically, it’s a systemized means of trade. For example, we know that every ten dollar bill is worth precisely ten dollars, always. We can use that bill, worth precisely ten dollars to “trade” with someone who has an item that we want in exchange for (and that they believe is worth) that ten dollars — a T-shirt perhaps. But as the state of the economy fluctuates, so does the value of the dollar, so although that ten dollar bill will always be worth ten dollars, if the value of the dollar decreases, so does the value of that ten dollar bill. It won’t be able to get us as far as it may have once gotten us, and that T-shirt we used to want to “trade” for it will be harder to attain because it is not simply worth ten dollars anymore.
While we have grown accustomed to this routine of fluctuation in the dollar’s value, as it changes every day, it is still a very abstract concept to grasp; a dollar bill that I can hold in my hands today will not be worth exactly the same amount by tomorrow. But another currency system that is even more mind boggling for us to think about is one that exists on the island of Yap, where they use huge pieces of limestone as a means of currency. The most intriguing thing about their system is that the stones don’t even have to physically change hands in order for a payment to be made, but instead they simply have the known ownership of them transfer to whoever payment must be made to.
In a more civilized and technological society, like that in which we live here in the United States, that system would never be plausible. Although we most certainly do not physically hold a large amount of the money that we receive or spend – paychecks in direct deposit, credit cards, loans – we are far too populated and untrusting to simply leave payment that we are owed with the person that owes it to us and accept that it is ours when we wish to take it and use it for something. However, on the island of Yap, communities appear to be smaller and more tight-knit. They also lead a very simplistic lifestyle compared to ours here in the United States. And maybe that’s why their system with these giant “fei” works for them — they have more trust in each other, less corruption to deal with, and fewer materialistic needs or desires, so they don’t need as much official paperwork and record keeping when it comes to the transfer of money. There is also probably a lot less apparent greed in their society, which essentially is the driving force behind making and spending money here in the United States – we want money to buy impressive things to make us superior, so we work hard for it; we are not accepting of others being more well off than us without working harder than us. If the community on the island of Yap had as much greed as that which exists here, there is no way that the inhabitants would allow the one famously rich family that exists there to have infinite wealth just because of a mysterious fei that it apparently owns that its ancestors lost on the bottom of the ocean. Had the inhabitants of Yap had as much greed as we do, they wouldn’t accept this fei without physical proof.
The entire idea of money in general is hard to grasp. Although generally speaking, every dollar in this country is supposed to be backed by an amount of gold equal to one dollar, this is no longer the case. We print money that we do not have gold to back, which is why it is possible for the value of the dollar (in terms of gold) to decrease to less than a dollar. Essentially, the dollar bill to us is the same value as the known ownership of each fei on the island of Yap; we just live in a society where proof of ownership means everything, and so we print money to represent our ultimate buying power. Plus it’s probably a lot easier than carving out huge pieces of limestone on some distant island and shipping them over.