November 9, 2021

We Have to Flatten the Money Curve

I’ve never quite understood finance. It’s a nut I just can’t crack.

I don’t get why the stock market goes up when there’s bad news. Or why at a time of climate crisis the Dow Jones is breaking all records. I don’t know why 30 percent of new wealth is speculative — no physical objects bought or sold. Or exactly what work the three trillion dollars sloshing around the global economy every day is actually doing. Nobody has ever been able to explain this to me in a way that makes sense.

And how come tax havens still exist? And why did no one on Wall Street go to jail after the meltdown of 2008?

It is all a mystery to me.

But I think maybe I’ve been looking in the wrong place. Maybe the answer isn’t in The New York Times, The Guardian, the evening news, or the books I’ve been reading.

My new theory is that a long time ago, capitalism got infected with a virus. And that virus seized control of its host and began to deform it. Capitalism drifted from its origins as an honest exchange between you and me with both of us walking away satisfied. The purity of that exchange got eaten away. Until now, a millennium later, we have . . . whatever the fuck it is we have today. Junk capitalism. Predatory capitalism. Or simply a “death cult,” as Jia Tolentino called it.

If this really is a doomsday sect then it all starts to make sense, this place we ended up: The dehumanization of personal exchange. The explosive tension between rich and poor. The constant threat of speculative bubbles and ecological tipping points.

And maybe the virus, the actual virus, the one in the brain of the global economy is . . .

Money itself.

This thing that has grown and grown until it casts this immense cultural shadow, eclipsing security and trust and freedom and even love.

*

The infection begins the moment we replace gift-giving and straighton barter with some symbolic object: a shell, a coin, a paper note.

And this early money is a harmless, necessary thing — a placeholder for my chicken and your promise to build me a chicken coop. A portable bit of value that says, “Yes, I’m good for it ...”

It’s a leap of faith, really. We agree to believe in the value of the things being exchanged. We look each other in the eye and buy in, together.

And so the virus lives dormant in us. At least at first.

But the thing about “trust me” is that there are no guarantees. Our best intentions are vulnerable to outside interference. This is what the old myths were about, how we puny humans are powerless when the gods start moving the furniture around.

And so as more and more distance creeps in, as money becomes more abstract, the virus mutates into ever more deadly strains.

*

The writing was on the wall a millennium ago.

In his marvelous book The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, historian Fernand Braudel wrote of the gradual insinuation of the money economy into the lives of medieval peasants: “What did it actually bring? Sharp variations in prices of essential foodstuffs; incomprehensible relationships in which man no longer recognized either himself, his customs or his ancient values. His work became a commodity, himself a ‘thing.’”

Because, see, as soon as there’s money, lo and behold someone shows up whose job it is to . . . handle it. To keep track of our affairs for us. And naturally they need to make a living: just a little off the top.

So now there’s this third party in the mix, between you and me, between my chicken and your promise to build me a chicken coop: A middle man. He isn’t part of the actual exchange, but he’s taking a cut of our trade.

And holy hell, that is the job to have. Because unlike our original transaction, there are no limits to it. Making money off of money is a little bit of magic. That guy can get ahead no matter which way the wind blows.

It’s a sweet deal, because now there’s real wealth to be had — it’s in the currency itself — silver coins, gold ingots, printed notes.

A purity of intention used to run through the village: We are trading partners; we are partners. We are tight. What can I give you, brother? But now things have changed. You could be ripped off. So you have to protect yourself. You look at your neighbor with a touch of suspicion.

Human interactions are no longer holy but transactional — every move has become a cost-benefit calculation.

Alienation creeps in.

*

The Catholic Church has a lot to answer for in all this. In 1095, it made a move no one saw coming: it started selling papal indulgences.

This changed the very nature of money. Money was now this thing so powerful you could buy your way into heaven with it.

What a great business model for the church. The exploitation of medieval fears of damnation proved so successful that the sale of indulgences became an industry. Usury. Debt and the erasure of debt, a gateway to unfathomable riches.

*

Let the colonial pillaging begin!

When the Spanish conquistadores landed in the Caribbean and put slaves to work extracting gold, some mothers opted to kill their children and themselves rather than die slowly in the mines.

For those Spanish sailors, looting and killing with a view to earning more and more and more, the drive wasn’t greed so much as shame and desperation. Everyone was caught in a debt trap. Living to pay off high-interest loans — for their supplies and the excursions themselves. They could never get out of the hole. They sold their souls trying.

Usury was the original sin. Something horrible happened at that moment, in the West, when we started going down that path.

*

But this isn’t really a story about money. It’s about the choices we made to allow money to shape us. The moment money started using us, rather than the other way around.

So when was the tipping point? When did money stop being a tool and become . . . a wish?

Was it in the Middle Ages, when the goldsmiths who were storing money for folks in their vaults realized they could crib a bit and issue receipts for money they didn’t actually have in the vaults? That was the moment that deceit got baked into the banking system.

Or was it in 1971, when President Nixon abandoned the gold standard — unhitching global currency from any real value at all?

Or was it 2008, when, as the banking crisis threatened to hobble the world economy, the world’s industrial nations brought three trillion dollars of toxic debt from private financial institutions?

At what point did it become clear that money is simply a fiction? And that those in charge of the storytelling hold the power in a culture?

In truth there was no single moment that money became the lifeblood of our civilization, any more than there is a single identifiable moment when a virus starts making you sick.

*

And so here we are, in the endgame of financialized speculation, of digital hyper-abstraction.

This is the most toxic strain of the virus.

Complicated bets made with borrowed money by people who don’t know what they’re doing. Financial assets like derivatives and credit-default swaps — the same instruments that stole the show in the 2008 meltdown and cast such a long economic shadow now — bundled together and hawked as the world’s best way to get rich. Speculations on speculations, hedges on hedges . . . these trillions coursing through the circulatory system of the world, this isn’t real money, or even the idea of money. It is the idea of the idea of the idea of money. A conceptual hallucination.

Money has transcended reality. Its circulation has become an end in itself. The value of over-the-counter derivatives contracts now dwarfs the entire world’s GDP. A fundamental shift in the nature of value has taken place right before our eyes.

*

It didn’t have to be like this.

What if we could walk this story back, as far as it takes, and then change some key decisions, so that a new story unfolds?

Maybe the rewrite begins in 1095, the moment the Catholic Church brought usury into the economic system.

What if Christianity never goes down that road? Instead of caving to the demands of kings and rich patrons, it holds fast to moral principle. It prohibits the hoarding of treasure on the backs of others. With that moral weight against it, usury never becomes the bedrock of global finance.

And another world emerges.

What else would look different now? Would we have derivatives? Flash trading? Predatory loans? What would our stock markets look like? Would money still be pegged to something of real value, like gold?

And maybe we never build a gig economy where honor doesn’t even make sense anymore?

And maybe cryptocurrency becomes a savior meme instead of another speculative sea anchor dragging down the economy. (Bitcoin is the story of what capitalism did to a good idea.)

Maybe in this alternate universe our Western economic system retains a bit of the pure exchange ethic, worth for worth, the dignity and humanity of the exchangers intact.

And maybe instead of a functional system gummed up at every turn by the friction of intermediaries taking their pound of flesh — the friction that Western capitalism said you absolutely need for growth and wealth — we instead create a virtually frictionless money system.

Something a bit like the Islamic economic system.

Because Islam never went the usury route.

The class warfare we’re seeing now, this raging hatred that threatens to bring our whole Western house of cards crashing down: the blood of usury is on our hands. The war between rich and poor is the war between creditors and debtors.

Islam never took that bait. Islam said: We can’t allow the rich to become richer just because they have money in their pocket.

The point is we had a choice. We still do.

The only way forward is to flatten the money curve until the virus slowly dies.

We flatten the money curve and start building toward frictionless money flows.

We turn money into a public good like the freeways. You can drive from New York to San Francisco without paying any tolls along the way. So why can’t you send $100 to your mother in Lebanon without someone lopping $5 off the top?

Cutting the middlemen completely out of the equation: that will be our salvation.

The Third Force

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