Money is as pervasive as the air we breathe. It governs every aspect of our lives: where we work, where we live, how we live, how long we live. It consumes our thoughts, focuses our ambitions, colors our dreams, sparks our disputes, and stokes our anxieties. It’s here, there, and everywhere. No wonder it is viewed with the same degree of inevitability and blind acceptance as a force of nature. Such as gravity.
Money, however, is not a force of nature. It is a concept, an idea, a figment of the human imagination. And it is real only to the extent that we allow it to rule our lives and our relationships with one another.
Money, which has been around at least as long as recorded history, is most commonly and simply defined as a “medium of exchange.” And its utility is often illustrated by such examples as the ease with which it permits a shoemaker to exchange his labor for bread without having to search for a baker in need of shoes. On this simplistic level, the concept of money undoubtedly did serve some useful purpose in times past.
Today, however, money serves a far different and insidious purpose. Today, money is no longer a medium of exchange, if it ever was. The word “exchange” implies equality in the transaction, as in the dictionary definition: “To part with, give, or transfer in consideration of something received as an equivalent.” The parties engaged in a transaction involving money are not in a mutual search for equivalency. In transactions between buyers and sellers, employers and employees, each side is seeking to advantage itself at the expense of the other. The seller wants to charge as much as possible; the buyer wants to pay as little as possible. The worker wants to earn as much as possible; the employer wants to pay as little as possible.
Therefore, money is more accurately defined as a “medium of competition.” By its ability to digitize and dehumanize every economic transaction, money has become both the facilitator and the score-keeping mechanism in the Mother of All Monopoly Games called capitalism, or money-ism, a game in which we are all required to participate, whether we like it or not.
As the real economy and the financial system that controls it have become increasingly globalized and intricately intertwined, with the acquisition of money as the universal objective, every individual on the planet is forced to compete − directly or indirectly, on one level or another − with everyone else on the planet. Neighbors compete with neighbors for jobs; retailers compete with one another for sales; towns, cities, and states compete for investments; while nations and blocs of nations engage in fierce negotiations over customs duties, subsidies, currency controls, monetary policy, trade regulations, investment incentives, interest rates, and export-import restrictions, all involving money, the consequences of which percolate downward to the unsuspecting participants in the lower precincts of the planetary financial system.
There are plentiful attempts to sing the praises of this competitive game. It’s a familiar refrain: Competition forces everyone to excel, work harder, be more productive, become inventive, create better products. If the “free” market is permitted to work its magic, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will guide human activity in the most productive and desirable directions and the entire human race will benefit, because a rising tide lifts all boats. As far as individuals are concerned, if they will work hard; be thrifty, honest and conscientious; adopt the entrepreneurial spirit, be willing to take risks, and truly believe in themselves, they will surely prosper.
Nonsense. This game is rigged. The truth is that hard work, conscientiously and honestly performed, is no guarantee of success. There is, in fact, considerable evidence to support the belief that the reverse is true, that in our financially driven competitive economic system the decent hard-working people are the ones who get screwed, while those who are devious and manipulative and clever enough to figure out ways to advantage themselves within the workings of this labyrinthine financial system and its complex rules, with a bit of good luck thrown in, are the ones who walk off with the spoils.
If they are born at the right time and in the right place or marry into the right family; if they have the top lawyers, accountants, and investment advisors; if they learn how to execute a leveraged buyout, downsize a corporation, cook the books, lobby the government, bribe the authorities, romance the bankers, devise exotic financial instruments, engage in high-frequency equities trading, and trade stocks on insider information, then the numbers in their bank accounts, their scores, will keep rising: five million, a hundred million, five hundred million, a billion, three billion.
It is never enough, and the bigger the number, the more extravagant the praise. As the faces of these Masters of the Universe appear on the covers of Fortune, Forbes, and Bloomberg Business Week magazines, and their successes are glorified and their lifestyles admired in glowing profiles on the pages within, the truth is that the rest of society is paying a terrible price for living under an economic and financial system that makes that kind of success possible.
It should come as no surprise that a number-driven game with competition as its energizing principle will produce losers as well as winners. And it should come as no surprise that the winners, with the power and influence of their wealth, will use their advantage to continue the pursuit of an ever-widening gulf between themselves and the losers. The much-glorified free market, it turns out, means that there are very few restrictions or limits on the ways in which the powerful are free to exploit the weak and the rich are at liberty to extort the poor.
Furthermore, because of its abstract nature, the concept of money is easily manipulated by those who claim the authority to not only set the rules by which it is used but to also actually define it, all to their advantage and everyone else’s misfortune. Banks, for example, with a bit of legerdemain called “fractional-reserve banking,” are able to create money out of thin air, while the United States Federal Reserve Bank does so by simply cranking up the printing presses. Actually, most money is best described as “virtual” in the sense that very little of it consists of paper currency and coins, but is represented instead by electronic bits and bytes either sitting on the computers of banks and various other financial institutions or whirling about the global ether at the speed of light as it is traded back and forth between those institutions.
An especially troubling aspect of the concept of money is that it takes many forms and therefore lacks any stabilizing frame of reference, although the U.S. dollar has often been cast in that role. There are nearly 200 different national currencies whose relationships to one another are tossed about by the unpredictable winds of geopolitical upheaval and the ceaseless search for exploitive foreign investments, a situation that provides the foundation for an entire industry based upon foreign exchange trading. While the total value of the goods and services produced annually throughout the world has been variously estimated to be in the neighborhood of $85 trillion, of which only $4.4 trillion, or 5 percent, is exported from the country of origin, the daily activity in the foreign exchange markets averages $8.5 trillion, suggesting there is much more going on than the facilitation of international trade.
Also troubling is the recent revelation that some of the world’s largest banks have been complicit in rigging the forex markets, not long after it was earlier revealed that they had also been rigging the daily London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) which serves as a benchmark for interest rates around the world. With recent concerns about the possible fixing of the gold market, it becomes increasingly likely that all markets are rigged.
Added to this financial turbulence, and the uncertainty it engenders, is the helter-skelter introduction of various forms of local and limited-distribution alternative currencies (more than 4,000 so far, as detailed in Rethinking Money by Bernard Lietaer and Jacqui Dunne). And now we have the recent arrival of cryptocurrencies of dubious substance (more than 300 so far as reported at the first CryptoCurrency Convention held recently in New York City), of which Bitcoin has become the bellwether.
Meanwhile, for most individuals, all they know is that they need money in order to survive, and that their only path to obtaining it is to find a job. All the rest is but a mystery shrouded in the complexities of a financial system with rules that defy comprehension, drawn up by people they do not know, with motives that are less than pure, and consequences that are indiscriminately destructive to untold millions of hapless victims.
As for those who make the rules, if they get in the way, they feel free to simply change or ignore them. For one example of many, in the United States the Financial Accounting Standards Board has devoted millions of words to codify what they call Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, with the ostensible aim of accurately and transparently tracking business activity to establish a true picture of a company’s assets and liabilities, as well as its profits and losses, and therefore its financial worth. Nevertheless, at the time of the recent financial collapse it was impossible to know the real value of the country’s largest financial institutions. And when it was determined that their assets had plunged in value, making them effectively insolvent, the authorities let them off the hook by canceling the generally accepted accounting principle that assets must be “marked-to-market,” allowing them to invent their own asset evaluations.
Similarly, the United States Internal Revenue Service’s tax code, which consisted of 3.7 million words of dense regulations according to a 2008 Congressionally mandated report by the Taxpayer Advocate Service, purports to advance the objective of equity and fairness in taxation. But that pretense went out the window when the government, during the George W. Bush administration, responded to rising complaints about the heavy tax burden on ordinary citizens by cutting taxes but, bewilderingly, did so on the very rich. Further, those millions of tax-code words are totally ineffective in the prevention of widespread tax evasion by the use of offshore tax havens by the revered Fortune 500 corporations and by the use of numbered Swiss bank accounts by wealthy individuals.
In the same vein of perverse consequences resulting from regulatory malfeasance, the Securities and Exchange Commission, formed to protect investors from fraud and corruption, was found to be taking a nap while Bernard Madoff was running a massive Ponzi scheme. And it looked the other way when the most destructive flood of reckless financial transactions in Wall Street history triggered the near-fatal collapse of the global financial house of cards.
Meanwhile, what’s the result? After all the rules and regulations and government supervision, or lack thereof, what’s the score? Who is winning? And who is losing?
According to the March 24, 2014 issue of Forbes magazine (that self-proclaimed capitalist tool), out of a world population of 7 billion, there are 1,645 billionaires with a combined net worth of $6.4 trillion, and an average net worth of $3.9 billion. Here are the Top Five, the cream of the crop, and what they are worth:
Bill Gates – $76 billion
Warren Buffett – $58.2 billion
Larry Ellison – $48 billion
Charles Koch – $40 billion
David Koch – $40 billion
And how are these Masters of the Universe making out during this great ongoing global financial crisis? During the past three years, while major portions of the world population struggled to stay afloat in a sea of financial confusion and uncertainty, this elite club of the already-too-rich welcomed 383 new members into the fold, and saw their combined wealth grow by a trillion dollars!
In its October 19, 2009 issue, Forbes magazine identified the 400 wealthiest persons in the United States, all billionaires, with a total net worth of $1.27 trillion, an amount greater than the total net worth of those who occupy the entire bottom half of the country’s financial pyramid. One year later, in its October 11, 2010 issue, Forbes made no such broad statements highlighting the continued concentration of wealth, but rather chose to remind us why the rich getting still richer is a good thing: “Who cares whether somebody is worth $2 billion or $6 billion? We do. That personal stash is a critical barometer of how well the nation − and, to a degree, the world − is doing. By creating wealth, the people on our list help shape epic financial innovation and entrepreneurship. Both Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are richer than they were a year ago, and that has had huge implications for philanthropic giving.” The October 9, 2013 issue declared, “Five years after the financial crisis sent fortunes spiraling, the wealthiest Americans have gained back all they lost and then some. The Forbes 400 are worth a record $2.02 trillion, double the sum of a decade ago.” Forbes magazine considers this an admirable accomplishment.
On the other hand, an Oxfam briefing paper dated 20 January 2014, prepared in an effort to influence the agenda when the rich and powerful gathered at the annual Davos Forum, sounded the alarm that almost half of the world’s wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population. Also, the wealth of the one percent richest people in the world amounts to $110 trillion, which is 65 times the total wealth of the bottom half of the world’s population. Additionally, the 85 richest people in the world own the same as the bottom half of the world’s population.
These startling levels of inequality and wealth concentration are the stuff from which revolutions are born. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence that the great movers and shakers have any understanding of the extent of suffering resulting from the system they have created. There is hardly any hope, therefore, that they will be changing their ways any time soon.
Some call money the lifeblood of the economy. Not so. Labor is the lifeblood and money is the cancer that poisons the bloodstream and threatens the life of the host. That’s us.
Two characteristics of money mark it as a cancer on society. One is its role as economic intermediary. Increasingly, in this globalized society, we are all reliant on other people, most of whom are strangers to us and we to them. How many individuals were involved in providing that cup of coffee you enjoyed this morning? Each of the many steps along the way, from plantation to cup, was shadowed by a financial transaction with money interposing itself between the participants and serving as the medium of competition. While it is true that money serves as a facilitator of such transactions between strangers, it also formalizes the competitive and adversarial nature of the relationship, and thereby ensures that the parties are likely to remain strangers.
The other characteristic that marks money as socially cancerous is its digital nature. It is the score-keeping function of money that transforms all economic activity into a contest, an insidious aspect of which is that, whatever one’s score, there is always a larger number. As a result, however successful one might be in this Mother of All Monopoly Games, there are more points to be scored, more dollars, yen, renminbi, and euros to be accumulated. And once the accumulators have experienced the high that comes with money’s power and prestige, the addiction has been firmly established and it’s ever onward in the relentless search for the next fix.
The attempt to digitally quantify the value of everything − an object, a service, an hour of labor, a plot of land − by assigning it a higher or lower number has led to the creation of a vast parallel universe of numbers. The planet is bathed in swirling clouds of financial data: commodity prices, foreign exchange rates, stock indexes, capital flows, stock and bond ratings, gross domestic product statistics, export-import figures, all chopped and diced into microscopic fragments or aggregated into massive sums as the analysis and financial games-playing require.
Furthermore, money’s role as both the driver and the inhibitor of economic activity is devoid of any ethical or moral considerations. If you have enough of it, you deserve to do and can do whatever you want (fly into space!) or have anything done that your heart desires (a pyramid, perhaps?), no matter how harmful, useless, or degrading to other people. Without it, you’re impotent, no matter how decent, honest, hard-working and conscientious you may be.
A society, after all, is made up of a group of individuals who have joined together − coalesced − in the mutual pursuit of some common interest or goal. Money, on the other hand, fragments society, leading everyone on the planet to compete with everyone else to possess it. As a result, the pursuit of money, rather than the actual production of goods and services, has become the primary objective of economic activity without regard to its effect on the planet and its threat to human survival.
On a personal level, money sticks its nose into everybody’s business, causing rifts between friends and neighbors while famously serving as the primary cause of marital and familial distress and disintegration. There could not be a more anti-social concept than money.
But now that the entire global financial system is quite literally coming apart, it is becoming increasingly clear that the process is now beyond anyone’s control or understanding. With 250 economists on its staff, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, the most important financial institution in the world, did not see the financial crisis coming, has provided no explanation for its arrival, and has offered no prescription for its cure. While presidents and prime ministers, central bankers and treasury secretaries, financiers and industrialists gather at high-profile conferences and go through the motions of trying to devise ways to get the capitalist jalopy going again, those who have been the beneficiaries of this system suggest that it’s basically sound and that a bit of tinkering here and fine-tuning there will do the job, while the fear grows that this creaking, groaning, rattling Rube Goldberg contraption may have already gone over the cliff.
The disastrous failure of the global financial system is most easily understood as the inevitable collapse of a long-running variation of the Ponzi scheme made famous again by Bernie Madoff.
Here is how capitalism is like a Ponzi scheme: In the Ponzi and Madoff schemes, participants were promised a generous monetary return on their monetary investments. In the capitalist version, the investment is not money, but labor. As individuals invest their labor in the production and distribution of goods and services, they are paid wages that enable them to purchase and consume the goods and services they themselves produce. Fair enough. This sounds like the standard description of the bedrock elements of an economic system. And it is the promise of a bountiful return on the investment of honest labor, presented in glorious high definition color and high-fidelity Dolby sound, that drives the capitalist dream machine. In reality, however, the dream has become a nightmare.
The defenders of the capitalist Ponzi scheme can turn themselves inside out in an effort to explain and defend the indefensible, but in the end, the essence of the scam comes down to the following: the capitalist schemers who pay wages to the workers when they are producers are the same schemers who charge the workers when they become consumers, and they charge them more when they consume a product than they pay them when they produce the same product, the difference being a little something called profit.
In 2013, gross domestic product in the United States was valued at $16.8 trillion. Of that amount, $14.1 trillion (or 85 percent) went to the workers who created it, while corporations who produced nothing of life-sustaining value themselves skimmed $2.7 trillion (or 15 percent) off the top. In other words, workers are paid $8.50 to make a widget and then charged $10 to buy the widget they themselves produced. It doesn’t take rocket science to see the flaw in this arrangement. While this degree of profit-skimming applies to the United States, it represents the essential capitalist formula for labor exploitation and is applicable, to one degree or another, around the world, including in countries flying the banner of socialism, which is only a slightly more humane version of capitalism .
Sooner or later, underpaid workers/overcharged consumers will find it impossible to keep buying what they produce, thus setting in motion a downward spiral in economic activity. If the demand for automobiles declines, so does the need for workers to make them. The result: unemployment, leading to a further decline in sales, then more unemployment, and so on, resulting in an accelerating downward spiral.
Such a situation represents a serious challenge to a system that, like Ponzi’s and Madoff’s schemes, requires continuous and endless growth. Like all Ponzi schemes, the capitalist scheme must grow or it too will collapse. There is no provision for a sustainable equilibrium. That is why the slightest decrease in the growth rate of gross domestic product evokes a panicked hysteria on the part of the schemers, raising the fear that the economic engine might actually slow to a halt and then start to drift backward into a recession.
Under those circumstances, what are the capitalist schemers to do? How do they keep the economic cycle going forward when individuals begin to run short of money and can no longer maintain an ever-increasing level of spending?
Without the concept of credit, which, like money, has been around a long time, this capitalist Ponzi scheme would have collapsed a long time ago. But the capitalist schemers, in their infinite self-preserving wisdom, have kept the game going by lending some of their profits back to their underpaid workers so they can keep spending, a strategy that has yielded two major benefits to the schemers. First, it did indeed keep the economy going longer than it otherwise would have, so they can continue to reap their annual profit skim. And second, it yielded another income stream in the form of interest charges on the credit they granted.
By the end of 2013, household debt in the United States totaled $11.2 trillion. That’s $36,000 for every man, woman and child, or $90,000 for the average American family. Meanwhile, annual per capita disposable income amounts to $33,000. In other words, the average American carries a burden of personal debt equal to more than a year’s disposable income.
All that lending is based on the assumption that it will be repaid, with interest. However, by mid-2007 a troubling increase in the number of families falling behind on their credit card and home mortgage payments sounded the alarm that the burden of debt had grown so large that it was no longer clear when it will be repaid, eventually leading to the far more troubling fear that it might never be repaid.
While this development alone was sufficient to reveal the critical flaw in the capitalist Ponzi scheme, its repercussions also served to expose a far more sinister and destructive game that was being played in the shadows. Not content with the obscene rewards they were already reaping from their control of the economic system, those who became the custodians of the world’s monetary wealth − the commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds, private equity funds, insurance giants, and financial services companies − had turned their attention to the creation of what amounted to a high-stakes gambling casino that had nothing to do with the production and distribution of essential goods and services but everything to do with their insatiable appetite for wealth and power.
The operators of this capitalist version of a gambling casino began organizing ingeniously designed games of chance with the prospect of heart-pounding winnings. Or losses. With most of the planet’s financial wealth in the possession of a relative handful of billionaires and multi-millionaires, one imagines that boredom must have set in. Already wealthy beyond imagining, perhaps they needed something exciting to do with their money. While the rest of the population engaged in the day-to-day drudgery required to survive, the gamblers chose to sit comfortably on the sidelines and make bets on every aspect of the economy they could think of. Will the price of oil rise or fall? Will the dollar become more or less valuable against the euro? Will interest rates go higher or lower? Will the S&P 500 index go up or down? And to make them even more exciting, they leveraged their bets by anteing up a small portion in cash and covering the rest with IOUs, sometimes at a ratio as high as 50 to 1, leading to some disastrous results.
While the annual worldwide production of goods and services is valued at $85 trillion, more than eight times that amount — $700 trillion in derivatives — sits on the gambling tables of the international financial casino. One is driven to ask, to what purpose?
Fifty years ago, the brilliant futurist, R. Buckminster Fuller, expressed the belief that 60 percent of the jobs in the United States produced nothing of life-sustaining value. Today, that figure is likely to be closer to 80 percent. Money is the reason.
For every member of the productive class (farmers, carpenters, doctors, factory workers, plumbers, truck drivers, etc.) there are four members of the money-centric non-productive class (bankers, accountants, financial advisors, lawyers, consultants, insurance agents, stock brokers, secretaries, bookkeepers, clerks, politicians, lobbyists, advertising agencies, salesmen, bill collectors, soldiers, weapons manufacturers, meter maids, cashiers, ticket-takers, etc., and the army of direct and indirect assistants who tend to their needs). In other words, for each individual directly involved in the economic system, that is, in the actual production and distribution of essential goods and services, there are four others who are employed in the servicing and maintenance of the financial system that controls the economic system. What a waste!
Collectively, we now possess a depth of knowledge and understanding of this planet’s physical, chemical, biological, and electromagnetic forces, as well as a more-than-adequate supply of human and natural resources, that makes it possible to easily provide every individual on the planet with all of life’s ten essentials, including clean and safe air, water, food, clothing, and shelter, as well as access to communication, information, transportation, health care, and energy. Why do we not do so? Money.
Instead, we have a handful of powerful individuals who have used that power to shape a world now caught in a vortex of accelerating social and political chaos, and it is money that has made it possible for them to do so. Thus we are confronted with the irony of a financial system that is capable of moving, tracking, analyzing, and recording vast sums of money at lightning-quick speeds, while at the same time paralyzing the economic system it is meant to facilitate.
To borrow a Ronald Reagan construct: Money is not the solution to our problem; money is the problem. It is the most lethal concept ever coughed up by the human imagination, causing more suffering than all the wars combined while simultaneously impeding human progress. It is time, therefore, that we quit wasting our time trying to fix a failed capitalist system that is beyond repair and start thinking about designing an alternative.
Here for your consideration is one place to start: The Whole Earth Design Project (http://www.design.thecoalescence.net), the objective of which is to design an ecologically and environmentally sustainable moneyless economic system capable of providing every individual on the planet with all of life’s essentials.