Money is a Lie
“Money is a fiction.” This is a line mentioned in the beginning of the NPR broadcast, Planet Money. Anyone who hears this would find it absurd because nobody would associate money as something made up. It’s something our country heavily relies on, it’s part of one’s stability. How could something of such importance be considered made up? Money itself is worthless and really doesn’t exist, but it’s people’s strong belief in those numbers that bring it to life. The faith that people put on money, regardless of whether it is tangible to them or not, is what truly makes up its monetary value.
An NPR broadcast, The Invention of the Economy, discusses the beginnings of our reliance on numbers. As mentioned by Karabell, writer of The Leading Indicators, the economy was invented as a result of the Great Depression. The country was suffering tremendous loss to its businesses, employment and overall well-being of the people. It’s because of the overwhelming short-run effects of the Great Depression that we now have a long-run effect, a nationwide financial system. Suddenly, the country was reading out numbers of GDP, national income, and these numbers brought prosperity or demise for the country. These numbers determined whether someone felt it best to invest in stock or if they will have enough to buy food for the week. However, these measures aren’t concrete either. As mentioned in the broadcast, the measure of the gross domestic product (GDP) doesn’t count the black market, so its readings are not accurate. At the end of the day, GDP is just an idea that gives people peace of mind. Without a system where we can measure our finances, the country would still be in disarray like they were during the Great Depression. The people’s belief in these numbers is what helps drive an economy and the overall country from distress.
A prime example of people’s faith being a driving component in our universal dependence of money was the sudden boom in the economy in Brazil in the nineties. In Act 1 of the NPR broadcast, The Invention of Money, they discussed how the government of Brazil had tried to control the means of the economy through tactics such as freezing prices to decline the high inflation rates. The majority of these attempts proved to be unsuccessful, so the Financial Minister of Brazil in 1993 invited four graduate students to come up with a solution to the economic distress of the country. The coordinator of this act of Planet Money themselves were baffled in hearing that virtual money was the key to reducing inflation, getting the country to be in equilibrium, as well as developing a new currency. The key to this madness, as the economists mentioned, was to trick the people into believing this virtual money was worth something. Regardless of how the government fluctuated the prices of goods and services, the economy was still failing and the only way it was able to stabilize itself was through people’s trust in virtual money. People’s strong believe in a completely distinct economic system almost seems ridiculous, but the country had nothing to lose. In a time of desperation, people are willing to place their hopes on anything. While the monetary and numerical value of currency didn’t change much, it’s the belief that people have placed on this new currency that has enhanced its value.
Believing isn’t just seeing and this is something that has been proven through the interactions of the Yap Islanders and the French with the U.S. In the essay, “The Island Stone Money,” the writer mentions an anthropologist by the name of William Henry Furness III who wrote about the monetary system of the Island of Yap. Their means of exchange is done through stones made of limestone found on another island some 400 miles away from the island. Because of how far away the other island is from Yap, there was bound to be mishaps that followed the journeys back home. One incident recounted in the essay is during a violent storm, an enormous fei, the stone currency, fell to the bottom of the ocean. Regardless, the owner of the fei still deemed themselves to be wealthy without having the stone in their possession. This idea itself sounds ridiculous, but the U.S and France did something similar with France’s gold. Friedman, writer of the essay, further goes on to explain that the French firmly believed that with a couple marks made, the gold was theirs. This resulted in one of the biggest financial crises in the U.S. when the country believed to be out of gold. Both the French and the Yap Islanders believed in a wealth that was miles away from them regardless of the inability to have it in their vicinity, they felt wealthy.
Friedman questions in his essay, “The Island Stone Money” if this system is any different from today, challenging the ideas of how we put faith in something we cannot see. We still do this today daily. Today, we are in worldwide pandemic that had shut down our economy, something that has never been done before. Money, something we heavily rely on, suddenly becomes inaccessible to thousands of people. Currently, with the coin and paper shortage of the printing of money, we now more than ever use money that we cannot touch. Everything nowadays is paid through Venmo, online bank transfers, and phone applications. Most of shopping is done online so one no longer sees their money being put into the cash register. All these forms of exchange cannot be done without putting trust in the system, exactly how the Yap Islanders and French did. It’s not something out of the ordinary and it seems that currency is heading in the direction where it will be purely digital.
If it weren’t for the human faith and need for social structure, money would be completely worthless. These numbers allow us to properly function as a society and gives us a sense of security.
Friedman, Milton. “The Island of Stone Money.” Diss. Hoover Institution, Stanford University , 1991.
Glass, I. (2018, February 19). The Invention of Money. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://www.thisamericanlife.org/423/the-invention-of-money
Goldstein, J. (2014, February 28). The Invention Of ‘The Economy’. Retrieved September 22, 2020, from https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/02/28/283477546/the-invention-of-the-economy