Apparently, it is illegal to destroy a bank note.
I didn’t know that when I and a friend ripped two 50€ notes and threw them into the sea. I was just testing that I could do it, because otherwise — I thought to myself — there is a chance that I am psychologically enslaved to money, and I really didn’t want to be. A few years later, when living abroad, I found out on the internet how banks created the money I was working so hard to earn. This felt like an existential revelation.
What is money? One might as well ask, what is God? God has always been talked about to mean different creators and universal sources of goodness. In the secular West, we believe we have overcome these illusions but we often speak of Society, as if all human beings belonged to the same nation-state. The same is the case with Money. Not many people in China will want to get paid in dollars, just as the average American doesn’t think of yuan when discussing business. They think of Money in their respective languages.
This stuff is not so intangible as God or Society. It probably runs your life as much as it runs mine, so understanding it is a good idea. In your life, you probably want to accumulate as much of it as possible, or perhaps you have given up on such an illusion of freedom. In any case, we can assume that you want to have money, simply because it can be exchanged for goods and services that you need. There is a thingness to money that we are all very used to, and that relates to the natural scarcity of goods and services.
But let’s look at a typical response to the question of why, say, the ten dollars ($10) you have just earned have any value—other than ‘because people believe they have value’. The response is that those $10 are backed by the government. Many people are satisfied with this answer. Yet if you have read this much of the present article, you’re probably not satisfied. What does it mean that your $10 are backed by ‘the government’?
As I will show, what this means is that some people have established a monopoly on banking, in which there is a central bank that does not actually produce money but credit. This distinction runs counter to the common view that central-bank tokens are money. See for example this popular explanation of ‘the economy’ by Ray Dalio:
Dalio believes that when you receive a token issued by a central bank, the transaction is final. This means that you may consider yourself satisfied— paid —because you have something of value. But this is not quite true. You still rely on some government or moral authority, which has determined that somebody, somewhere, owes you $10 worth of something. There is nothing in the token that makes the transaction final, unlike in the case of gold, bitcoin and other forms of money.
Credit is not money
Firstly, notice how weird it is to speak of credit as stuff. Credit is about people, not things. When the barman jots down the drinks that the local drunk has promised to pay, he has a number of credits, a measure of the drunk’s debt to him or the bar as a company. If and when the drunk pays those drinks, both credit and debt disappear. But this also applies to the so-called money that he uses to cancel his debt.
Imagine that the barman began to jot down credits whenever he liked, without anyone in particular owing anything to the bar, and that most people around you desired those credits. Well, the bar would then be the central bank.
Convincing people that credit is money can be very easy, since being in debt is one of our main characteristics as a species. We feel indebted to our parents and spouses, our gods and societies. In most cases, this debt is not with human beings themselves but with some institutional, mythological or religious facade to which we feel that we owe our very existence. Officially, in the U.S., the dollar is ‘backed by the full faith and credit of the government’. But the government is no one in particular. Its representatives change constantly and all citizens owe allegiance to the abstract entity of the nation, the issuer of the credit for which, apparently, they desire to work. In this way, the debt corresponding to all the credit that banks have created, including your $10, will be presumably paid —just as you paid by providing goods or services for those $10.
Let’s now suppose that you have succeeded in accumulating $1mm — one million dollars. Maybe the military has given these tokens to you, fresh from the central bank, in exchange for your services to the nation. Yes, people are willing to give you their goods and services in exchange, because that way also they can obtain goods and services. Ultimately, however, having $1mm means that through their allegiance to the U.S., certain people — probably not Chinese — owe you a number of goods and services for these tokens.
This about this for a moment: the nation is able to create a credit that it simultaneously desires. Imagine a child that could make candy appear magically out of nowhere, and that feeling guilty, began to hoard it. Similarly, the Bank of the Nation creates precious credit that the government can preferentially borrow. The government can pay with the taxes that it collects from citizens, who are regarded as owing this credit to the government. This causes the crazy spiral that economists call ‘economic growth’.
What is more, the credit is multiplied in what is called fractional reserve banking. Imagine the bar above, the Bar of the Nation, delivered its credits to certain subordinate bars, which used them as reserves to create their own credits. These subordinate bars (commercial banks) attract more and more drunks, and they take the blame when this system (expectedly) fails. In this way, your $1mm are bound to decrease in value, while the central bar looks responsible as the ultimate lender and regulating authority.
So, banks are not really to blame. In its original form, a bank provides the valuable service of lending deposits (e.g. of precious metals) that would otherwise remain idle. The problem is that banks have been made to work for the nation-state. Unlike other producers, they cannot produce their own tokens and offer them to their customers. They have to issue new dollars only, so that ‘the economy’ will grow for the benefit of Society. And once they have created another $1mm, your money will be worth half as much.
It’s just math. Nothing that is made up at will and becomes so abundant, so easily, can retain its value for long. One may certainly treat it as though it were precious and want to hoard it. One may lend it and charge interest as any bank will naturally do. One may fix the prices of things to keep them from inflating. Eventually, though, the system will crash, and this abstract eternal creditor will have to admit its lack of credit, get very upset, and possibly go to war as it has done in the past following a recession.
Hence, you are going to have to invest this ‘money’ into something else that will keep its value more, especially if you want to leave some wealth to your children. Alternatively, you can vote for presidents and policies that will prop up the value of the dollar, if you are a right-wing kind of person. You can make sure that the U.S. has preferential access to the world’s oil, for instance, by defending a War on Terror. Or you can vote for the other party, as a left-wing person, in order to get more money, or more credit, or whatever it is that will keep others providing for you.
Money is not credit
It always helps to make a distinction between what is real and what is imagined. I cannot see Society or God, and probably you cannot see them either. Many will say that believing is seeing. But we either believe in a means of exchange that works only within a society or nation, or we believe that money works to mediate exchanges regardless of where we are. There are beliefs and beliefs. Even if you believe that the value of gold is only a matter of belief, there must be a reason why most of the world’s gold has ended up in the vaults of national banks, after much historical pillage and plunder.
Indeed, gold is a safe store of value because it cannot be issued at will by any government or financial system. It has to be mined and worked to the point that it can be used as a medium of exchange, besides having uses as a commodity. Similarly, throughout history and prehistory, people have stored value in the form of flints, teeth, shells, beads, barley, salt, copper and silver. These things are naturally scarce.
This means something entirely different from the artificial scarcity of today’s fiat ‘money’, which is mostly a number typed into a bank account. When somebody holds money, you can be sure that someone has made a previous effort to produce or obtain it, and others, regardless of cultural context, will make a similar effort to obtain it. Compare this strategic situation to the case of the fiat ‘money’, which requires no effort to create and is made for the purpose of getting a good or a service from someone else without doing anything before.
If you have your feet on the ground, you will probably agree that the previous distinction is important due to its physical or logical nature. We need to stop using the same word for those two very different things, at least so that we can avoid the confusion I have illustrated. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter if we call it money or something else, but I think money is an accurate word due to its etymology and emotional baggage. So let’s try to call the first kind of token credit and the second money from now on.
Credit is a medium of exchange primarily. The institutions of a society make credit so that certain people, actual or potential, will use it as such. These people must first believe in those institutions, or be at least forced to believe and/or pay tribute to them. Only after these normative facts do people begin to save credit for their future needs, to treat it as a store of value, even though saving is not necessary because they can always use those institutions to produce more credit.
By contrast, money is a store of value primarily. It works regardless of institutional or social context because it has natural properties that anyone can recognise, and that signal the previous effort of others. Money becomes a medium of exchange after this fact: you save it until you need someone else’s effort in the form of a good or a service. Unlike credit, money becomes a medium of exchange simply because other people want it for that same responsible and constructive purpose.
Are economists and financial experts also confused?
Bernard Lietaer was an economist and engineer who worked at the top of the financial system. I won’t bore you with his extensive curriculum. Let’s just say that he knew very well what credit is. One of the ways in which you can tell is that he was able to explain it to the layperson. In his book The Future of Money he wrote:
Our prevailing system is an unconscious product of the modern Industrial Age worldview, and it remains the most powerful and persistent designer and enforcer of the values and dominant emotions of that age. For instance, all our national currencies make it easier to interact economically with our Fellow citizens than with ‘foreigners’, and therefore encourages national consciousness. Similarly, these currencies were designed to foster competition among their users, rather than cooperation. Money is also the hidden engine of the perpetual growth treadmill that has become the hallmark of industrial societies.
Another way in which you can tell that he knew what credit is is that he was concerned: ‘Deep in our hearts, we all want to leave a better world for our children and we cherish the hope that we may experience this for ourselves in our own lifetime.’
However, Bernard’s proposition revolved around what is called complementary currency. He still regarded credit/money as the tool of governments, to be complemented by tokens that function locally. He gave working examples of this, such as the Japanese ‘caring relationship tickets’, which are issued in exchange for something like taking care of old people. This illustration of credit shows that not even someone like Bernard Lietaer could escape the confusion of credit with money. Because it is moral to help the elderly, there not only is an incentive to ‘make money’ by caring for them, but also a duty that can be exploited by anyone who feels that they morally ought to be helped. In this way, we are back to square one, like addicts who believe they control a drug that in fact controls them.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are theorists whose platonic belief in economic value concerns substance rather than morals. Mathematicians like David Orrell go so far as to claim that the nature of money and credit is quantum — yes, meaning quantum physics! To Orrell, if you and I decide that the letters that make up the present article are money — each having the numeric value of their place in the alphabet — and we use them to mediate our exchanges, we have established a quantum superposition between the value of things and the value of the numbers.
This is a remarkable viewpoint — and I am not joking (p. 56) that what I am saying follows from it. It isn’t that human beings agree on the value of a house through numbers. Rather, in Orrell’s world, the number itself is the value of the house. Electromagnetic waves come to monetary agreements when they reveal themselves as discrete flying particles. And perhaps the electromagnetic field is divided into different cells, which sometimes go to war with each other for their respective values… Anyway, I’d better get back to the real world.
As I write, the first result that comes up in a Google search for ‘what is money’ speaks of another illusion that works. The author, Mike Moffatt, is another top economist who has become a writer. His article does consider explaining something like inflation in the manner I did above—as a result of the printing of credit. Yet at the same time, credit is ‘essentially a good’ (sic) because it has a limited supply, so people can use this good ‘to purchase the goods and services they need and want’.
You’ll see Orrell’s quantum superposition pop up repeatedly in this kind of discourse, with media-of-exchange being goods and not goods at the same time. To this author, it is seemingly not important to make a distinction between what is limited in supply as a result of policy or whim, and what is limited as a result of its being real. In light of this, our environmental troubles should not come as a surprise, since our economists and politicians believe that the planet should catch up to their magic, that natural resources should flow in exchange for these symbolic ‘goods’ created by national banks.
Of course, no religion or political system believes their pretence in and of itself. They always back it with arguments and facts, such as the fact of a good or a commodity, or the fact of the assets they hold in their churches and treasuries. Similarly, Moffatt backs his argument on the value of credit through the old saying that if it weren’t for ‘money’, we would inevitably resort to the barter of real goods. Lietaer, too, based his proposal for the future of money on the idea that barter is at the heart of all economic transactions.
This dichotomy between ‘money’ and barter is part of an old myth that economics textbooks reproduce without a second thought. As Orrell himself has echoed (p. 26), it has been disproven by anthropologists looking at what, in fact, happens in human societies lacking a market economy. However, this is not because anthropologists can tell money from credit. On the contrary, as social ‘scientists’, most anthropologists consider that credit or debt is all there is and ever will be. For most people, there is just no way on earth to have a functioning economy but either through the myth of barter or the myth of the state.
But let’s turn to those who believe in the value of money, such as gold or silver, and see if there remains any confusion in their camp. I’m talking of course about the Austrian school of economics. This perspective can be confused with mine because Austrian economists take the perspective of decision-making individuals instead of that of Society. However, as social or political theorists, they are drawn to a debate with the other team that is not very constructive. Unfortunately, Austrian economists still view money as the product of a society, instead of adopting a natural, scientific perspective.
Biology and Bitcoin
Eventually, in my search for an answer to this central problem, I realised that I had to give up all political motivation (what I call morality). This can be very hard; I still have trouble with being political because I rail against politics. This is because the value of money is rooted in our everyday experience and the choices that we make as individual organisms. When you choose to save something, you have to consider if others are seeking to save the same thing, and what reasons they have for it.
My biological theory of money is based on this strategic problem, and concludes that money is a token of cooperation. I am not going to elaborate on it here, though I hope it suffices to say that cooperation is not what people do when they provide goods and services in exchange for dollars—that is altruism. When we use money, we are cooperating and building something together. If you look at the most advanced form of money, Bitcoin, you will see that this is exactly the idea behind its functioning. Even though bitcoins are only numbers, their meaning is real. They are not assigned value through some institutional consensus but through a real consensus that involves a previous effort, as I mentioned above.
Bitcoins have real value because some computer running a program—itself run by human beings—has spent energy to find the solution to a hard mathematical problem. In doing so, it has provided proof of a previous investment to other computers on the internet. These computers are the voluntary nodes of a network, all of which validate and build on those previous investments to create electronic value. Some people believe that this makes Bitcoin akin to the laws of physics, a sort of ‘monetary energy’. This is a great metaphor, but it is not accurate. Money is about human behaviour, and human behaviour involves strategy and the possibility of ignoring money, or of rejecting it—just as I ripped a 50€ note that was a considerable fraction of my wage at the time.
Ironically, many people interpret biology in an abstract way, as the study of marvels that don’t quite exist, such as the selfish gene and its selfless mother Earth. We confuse credit with money because we confuse values with reality. We love the symbols that make up our culture and values, and we believe that they are real. To many people, my idea that money could be biologically explained therefore sounds ‘purely theoretical’ or like quantum physics.
But biology starts at the level of human beings looking at living things, interacting with them, giving them intelligible names and functions. Biology is the only branch of study that has something scientific to say about existence. It only needs a greater awareness of language, money, and other aspects of our personal lives.