Funny Money: Social Illusions about Value, Reward, Cost, and Risk

Money is a funny phenomenon, funny-peculiar that is. Money has a lot of odd characteristics, most having something to do with social definitions and the assumptions that shape perception. It exists, for example, only because we have willed it so – it is a social construction. Money has value only because we value it – we instill it with value. No money has intrinsic value. But most people don’t believe that. “Real” money, they think, is inherently valuable.

Now here is where I get in trouble with the monetary realists – mostly “gold bugs.” These folks believe that gold has intrinsic value independent of human perception or definition. I once took an “independent study” class with a philosopher at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was supposed to read Karl Marx’s Capital. Well, it was a very big book and I didn’t exactly finish reading it; I skimmed a lot of it toward the end of the semester. Any college student knows what I’m talking about. So, yes, Marx was quite a scholar and economic researcher – unlike many of his followers. But it was the reaction of the professor to my apparently unorthodox views that I remember most distinctly. Well, I thought his views on both money and matter were rather peculiar too, and overly resolute.

He was convinced, based on what evidence I do not know, that atoms have intentionality, some sort of free will – as if they could do as they pleased. I think it had something to do with his trying to make sense of Marx’s materialism. Maybe he was trying to reconcile the obvious existence of purpose in humans with the mechanistic aspects of materialist determinism. He also asserted that gold has intrinsic value regardless of its relationship to humans. That contradicted other things I was learning that made much more sense to me. That semester I was taking a class in social psychology from Tomatsu Shibutani. He was teaching us about symbolic interaction and its central role in human behavior.

Golden Illusions, Symbolic Reality
Shibutani was a great teacher; he tied the theories and experimental work in social psychology directly to everyday experience. He was one of the most impressive teachers I ever had. I was really into that class. Shibutani was amazingly organized in drawing evidence and explanations from all the social sciences to demonstrate how people behave in relation to one another and the often illusory symbolic worlds we inhabit. So I wrote a paper for this philosopher. I explained how I thought money was essentially a symbolic process in which humans engaged to facilitate their economic relations, whatever their illusions about it. Who knows what Marx might have thought of my paper? But the result did not reflect the philosophy professor’s view of Capital. I cited my sources, but somehow he concluded that I’d plagiarized the whole thing from some author unknown. I didn’t; I explained that it was my interpretation of what I had been learning in social psychology applied to money as a socially constructed symbol of value. I got the impression that he didn’t believe I was capable of writing what I had written. I was offended. We argued. To my distinct indignation, he gave me a B.

That ‘academic’ experience was part of a series of things – including my military experience – that framed my sociological thinking. I was ultimately led to see much of human behavior as well as thought and emotion as based in illusions framed in symbolism. It’s not that our responses to experiencing the real world are not real or are necessarily mistaken. Instead, the thoughts and emotions about the world we experience indirectly respond to and help shape our perceptions. Perceptions are filtered and “edited” by what we already believe. They are always colored by the ideas and attitudes that we have previously acquired and are committed to.

A new phenomenon has to really get our attention in order for it not to be pushed into an old comfortable category. Global warming is a clear example of this. At any point in time, we come to the world with a “preconceived” framework for perceiving and interpreting our experience. In that sense, almost no experience is “pure.” Instead, it is tainted by our expectations. Those expectations are based on our pre-existing beliefs. Here’s the kicker: most beliefs are not a result of perception; they are the result of our being “socialized” into the culture in which we live.

Most of what we believe, we have learned from others and from the mass media that surround us, not from direct experience. But most of us don’t believe that since we define ourselves as “independent.” Any honest assessment of the mass persuasion of electoral politics ought to dissuade us of that illusion. Our perceptions are shaped by the culture within us and its manipulation by corporate-controlled mass media. That is why it is so difficult to face the new facts of climate disruption, the end of the growth economy, and the necessity to reorganize the way we relate to the planet and each other. Yes, many of us are in denial. These emergent realities do not fit the world view that has dominated our entire lives.

Untenable Beliefs in a Rapidly Changing World
Today, we live in the last stages of the dying culture of an extractive industrial economy of increasingly concentrated wealth, expanding poverty, massive waste, and flourishing ecological destruction. But that dying culture still shapes most of what we believe and the way we perceive the world. The industrial revolution began when the earth was not densely populated, and vast expanses of land and mineral wealth were not yet exploited. New technologies were just beginning to apply fossil-fuel energy to do work and reorganize the way we live. There was much room for expansion. The debt-based money system required continual expansion for a return on capital investment. The whole ideology of unlimited economic growth grew and took over the cultures of nations as they industrialized. We perceive value, reward, cost, and risk through the lens of that same dominant preconceived framework that industrial capital continues to sustain in the face of massive evidence that it will no longer work.

Money no longer represents value. Today, money – which is created and tightly concentrated and distributed by and in the interests of the power elites – controls value. The real costs of extractive industrial production are externalized by corporations to the people and planet in the form of increased poverty, diminished health and ecological destruction. The risks of continued economic growth and concentration of wealth are avoided by elites who have transferred those risks to the people and the planet. The power elites – financial and mega-corporate executives and their political allies – are temporarily insulated from risk by obscene salaries and bonuses, bribes, political cover, and gated compounds. But they won’t be protected much longer; Mother Nature makes no class distinctions.

We have already reached the tipping point of ecological destruction and climate disruption. Only massive social action to counter the in-place system of money-driven illusion of unlimited economic concentration and growth will have a chance to turn the tide. The illusions of money are not funny anymore.

Making Money: The Ultimate Illusion of a Debt-Driven Economy

How is money made? Well, in conventional terms we work for it. But where does it come from? We know that the economy needs a sufficient “money supply” so we can exchange “goods and services” every day. Of course, it’s not that simple. After the “Great Recession” of 2008, the Federal Reserve injected hundreds of billions of dollars into the Big Banks. The purpose was to keep them from going under as a result of their gambling with depositors’ money. So, where is all that money now?

The conventional wisdom is that the “the government prints our money.” Technically but only partially true, this image of overworked treasury printing presses is increasingly irrelevant. Most money today is created electronically when banks lend up to some multiple of the money held in their accounts. A bank’s solvency depends on the money it holds “in reserve” – does not lend – in accordance with banking rules. If the ratio of loans to reserves is too high, the bank risks not being able to cover losses if loans go bad.

Reserve requirements were reduced significantly in the years before the 2008 crash. But the “too big to fail” banks took it a step further. They packaged many risky mortgages into highly leveraged “derivatives,” re-sold them to investment clients and each other, and took exorbitant “fees” at each step. It all blew up when mortgages failed and the Big Banks couldn’t cover their losses. So, the Fed stepped in and kept them solvent by “lending” them billions upon billions of dollars.

With the lowering of reserve requirements and the elimination of the firewall between commercial and speculative investment banking, all hell broke loose. Lending practices and the bundling of debt took on the logic of gambling in a casino, but with more hubris. Reliance on complex mathematical models of “risk management” to justify reckless behavior became the biggest illusion of all.

Most critics of the federal “fractional reserve” banking system worry that our “paper money” or “fiat currency” is not “backed” by gold. They consider gold to be “real money,” not arbitrarily “created” money. Gold is an effective standard of value because it is scarce, not reproducible or easily faked, and is universally valued by humans. That’s great, as long as everyone believes in gold’s value.  After all, value is what we make it.  But any economy needs its money to circulate. If paper money had to be backed by gold, there would not be enough to circulate and the economy would stagnate. Yet, if too much paper (or electronic) money is put into circulation, borrowed and invested, then inflation can get out of hand.

There is some validity to the concern of producing an oversupply of money leading to inflation, as has happened in several historical cases. But the biggest problem of money creation lies in our debt-based banking system, created under the influence of the big bankers in 1913. That was when the Big Banks convinced the government to create the Federal Reserve banking system. The Fed is essentially a private banking cartel that “lends” money to the federal government – the nation. Where does the Fed get the money it lends to the government? It simply creates it out of nothing – other than the government’s authorization for it to do so! That sounds crazy because it is, unless you own the Big Banks. But if national banks were owned by the nation, then money creation would not produce national debt.

So, you can see that fundamentally the “national debt” is an illusion created when the government gave up its sovereignty over our currency. Without the privatization of currency creation, indebting the government, there would be little need for an income tax.

A debt-based monetary system is inherently unstable and succeeds only as long as economic growth continues. But as long as conservative reserve requirements held sway and investment banking was separated from commercial banking after the Great Depression, another crash was averted. The Glass–Steagall Banking Act of 1933 kept commercial banking separate from investment (speculative) banking after the Great Depression. And relatively strict reserve requirements limited the Big Banks tendency to engage in excessive speculation – until deregulation beginning in 1999 unleashed the Hounds of Wall Street.

For a hundred years, the government has become increasingly indebted to the Federal Reserve and buyers of treasury notes and bonds.  These instruments are the means by which  the Fed sells our government’s debt worldwide. Despite the increasing debt and interest payments, the economy could be managed as long as it kept growing – adding new money from new debt to pay old debt and interest. The Federal Reserve – the private central bank owned by its member big private banks – partially controlled inflation by controlling interest rates, some of the time.

But the illusion of endless growth and the phantom money it creates are rapidly coming to an end on our finite planet. The debt-based monetary system will be unsustainable in a steady-state economy aligned with real-world limitations – it must be replaced. We must move to a stable ecologically grounded economy.  We can no longer support an ever-growing debt-based money system. In an ecological economy, money will simply circulate as the means for exchanging real value – that is, actual goods and services.