Without even mentioning the most recently prevailing forms of money, such as paper, gold, silver or bronze, Glyn Davies created a Full money alphabet with a small selection of objects that served as symbolic of value: amber, beads, cowries, drums, eggs, Feathers, gongs, hoes, ivory, jade, kettles, leather, mats, nails, oxen, pigs, quartz, rice, salt, thimbles, umiaks, wampums, yarns and zappozats, which are decorated axes.
Interestingly, a simple thought experiment can separate the aura of money from any or all these things. Let us assume that you are stranded alone on a deserted island.
If, when you were left stranded, you had a thing in your pocket say a knife that knife will still be useful as a knife on your island. Now, you may take with you a million dollars in money in this fantasy! Whatever Form you choose, on your island that money changes into paper, plastic, metal or whatever else, but it has ceased to be money. Events in recent decades have further made evident the non- material nature of money. In , the United States ceased to define the value of the dollar in terms of gold.
Since that time, the dollar has represented a promise from the US government to redeem the dollar with another dollar. At least when the dollar was backed with gold, we could more easily believe it had some objective value.
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With the demise of the dollar-gold equivalency, such self-deception has become more difficult. For another analogy of money and magic - no magician's routine is complete without a disappearing act. Money has been performing this feat in a rather spectacular way. Once upon a time, when money was mostly gold and silver coins, banks started issuing pieces of paper that stated where the metal was kept.
The sentence 'I will pay the bearer the sum of one Pound Sterling' which adorns the Pound bill is still a reminder of the weight and silver content of the metal currency. The next step in the disappearing act is already well under way.
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The vast majority of our paper money has further dematerialized into binary bits in computers belonging to our bankers, brokers, or other financial institutions, and there is serious talk that all of it may soon join the virtual world. Should we wait until the last paper bill has disappeared into a cyber-purse to wake up to the true non-material nature of money? A working definition of money Our working definition of money can now be very straightforward: Money is an agreement, within a community, to use something as a means of payment.
Each one of these terms is essential in this definition. Seen as an agreement, money has much in common with other social contracts, such as political parties, nationality or marriage. These constructs are real, even if they exist only in people's minds. The money agreement can be attained formally or informally, freely or coerced, consciously or unconsciously.
Later in this chapter, you will learn about the terms of our contemporary money agreement. Money as an agreement is always valid only within a given community. Some currencies are operational only among a small group of friends like tokens used in card games , for certain time periods like the cigarette medium of exchange among frontline soldiers during World War II , or among the citizens of one particular nation like most 'normal' national currencies today.
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Such a community can be the entire global community as is the case of the US dollar by treaty, as long as it is accepted as reserve currency , or a geographically disparate group such as Internet participants. Finally, the key function that transforms the chosen object into a currency is its role as means of payment.
Notice that the words 'means of payment' are used instead of the more traditional 'medium of exchange' see sidebar. The nuance is useful to be able to include transactions, which have ritual or customary purposes, instead of just commercial exchanges. After all, it is only in Western culture that total priority has been given to commercial exchanges, neglecting the other purposes for payments.
There are also other functions that today's money tends to perform, such as unit of account, store of value, tool for speculation, and so on. In summary, the 'magic' of money is bestowed on some 'thing' as soon as a community agrees on using it as a means of payment.
The origin of money's power Besides magic, we also endow money with power. As Marcel Proust observed, 'Material objects have in themselves no power, but, since it is our practice to bestow power upon them For money is frozen desire That process of wish and imagination, launched or completed a million times every second, is the engine of our civilization For the objects of human desire are limitless, or rather limited only by the imagination, which amounts to the same thing.
Money shifts and power shifts Money is, therefore, much more than a technical issue. Whenever a currency is accepted within a community, it makes an implicit statement about power in that community. So when priests or priestesses were in power, temples issued money. When kings dominated, Aristotle attributed to them personally the 'Sovereign right to issue currency'.
In the Industrial Age nation-states became the paragon of power, so national currencies automatically became dominant. Now that power is starting to shift away from the nation-states, it should not come as a surprise that new non-national currencies are emerging. Some people still assume that there is only one kind of money possible in the modem world - the familiar national currency, in the form of bills and coins. The first magician's trick concerning money is to make us believe that we need the magician's help to create money. This is definitely not the case, unless we choose to take sleight of hand for reality.
Different kinds of money have co-existed in the past, and do so now as well. Frequent-flyer miles or Internet money are just early examples of corporate scrip that we should expect during an Information Age. Other examples will be given in the next chapter. Before we explore these new, less familiar currencies, we need a firm basis from which to compare them with the key characteristics common to all our familiar national currencies and the social effects they tend to generate.
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Today's money All money systems serve to facilitate exchanges among people. Whenever a specific financial system is designed, the remarkable motivating power of money is invariably used to load the system with a host of other objectives - sometimes conscious, often unconscious from the prestige of the gods or the ruler, to collective socio-economic motivations.
The main characteristics of today's system were pieced together in pre- Victorian England, just in time to trigger the Industrial Revolution. Its legacy - the money system that prevails today looks as if its designers had asked: how can we create a money system that reinforces our nation-state, and concentrates resources to enable systematic and competitive heavy industrial development? Even if its designers never asked such a question, the system has proved remarkably successful in meeting these objectives.
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Every country in the world, regardless of its level of development or its political orientation, has bought into this pre-Victorian construct. Even Communist countries have reproduced all its key features, except that banks became state-owned rather than private, which in practice did not prove beneficial. Four key design features All Industrial Age currencies have four key characteristics in common, which gradually came to be considered as self-evident for the first time in England between the 17th and early 18th centuries.
It's not as if some conspiratorial group of Englishmen gathered in a dark, smoked-filled room to dream up the current money system. What happened instead was a slow and gradual evolution of payment and banking habits. This was accompanied by dramatic changes in personal insights and collective crises such as the need to finance wars, or the political reactions to the South Sea Bubble of the s. Such a combination of more or less conscious choices by the many and the few shaped a money system remarkably in tune with the pre- Victorian English Zeitgeist, the priorities and mindset of an island country poised to carve out its empire in the world.
Many aspects of the modern money system can be traced back to the customs of medieval goldsmith money lending, or to Renaissance banks from Tuscany and Lombardy. But several of these hallowed traditions were dropped and replaced with brand new ones whenever they did not fit with the Zeitgeisoi pre-Victorian England.
For instance, charging interest on money — which had been prohibited on both moral and legal grounds for more than 20 centuries suddenly, became a normal and accepted practice. While payment and banking- technologies i. From the perspective of the objectives pursued by the money system, we are still living with what propelled us so effectively into and through the Industrial Revolution.
Four key features still characterize our 'normal' money systems and remain basically unquestioned: Money is typically geographically attached to a 1 nation-state.
It is 2 'fiat' money, i. Perhaps this sounds obvious, even trivial, but the full implications of each one of these features are much less clear. When we question these assumptions, we can sometimes discover a wealth of new insights. Let us take a brief look at each one of them. National currencies We now have trouble imagining any currency other than those issued by a given country, or in the case of the euro, a group of countries. However, it is useful to remember that the concept of a nation-state itself is only a couple of centuries old.
However, if you want to create a national consciousness, the creation of a national currency is one of the more powerful tools available. It makes evident in everyday life the boundaries that are otherwise visible only in an atlas. In a recent example, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, one of the first acts of the newly independent republics was to issue their own currencies. Similarly, the euro - the single currency that, as of January , officially replaced national currencies in 11 European countries has as one of its goals the creation of a more unified European consciousness.
The ubiquity of national currencies should not make us forget that during the few recent centuries when national currencies were issued, there was always another transnational currency available for global trade, namely gold. The only exception to this rule has been in the past twenty-five years or so, when one particular national currency - the US dollar has become the global currency. This arrangement has serious negative consequences for all participants, including the US.
Lastly, emerging global non-geographic communities, such as the Internet, foretell significant changes in the transnational currency realm, which will be addressed later Chapters 3 and 7. Not only does money perform the act of disappearing and reappearing, it is also, quite literally, created out of nothing.
To understand this process fully, we need to look beyond appearances. At first sight, national currencies appear to be created on the printing presses of central banks or, in the case of the US, the Department of the Treasury. But this is not where money is created. The rabbit that appears to come out of the magician's hat is not really coming from the hat, either. If we want to know where the rabbit comes from, we need to track its path through the magician's sleeve. If you want Pounds in cash, what do you do?
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You go to your bank teller and ask for Pounds He or she or now with ATMs, 'it' will look up your account balance. If there is more than -E in your account, that amount will be debited and you will be given the cash, if your balance is not large enough, you will get an apologetic smile or some other message, but not the money.