Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Money as a figment of our collective imagination

I went grocery shopping the other day. I bought approximately $120 of fruit, diapers, cheese sticks, bread and the other assorted necessarys of life with three small-ish children. I "paid" for these with a credit card--an intrinsically worthless rectangle of plastic with a little magnetic strip on the back. Somehow the machine took information from that scratched strip and transmitted it to a huge corporate conglomerate where the fact that I owe X is stored on their massive harddrive as a collection of zeros and ones. I will pay off my credit card by transferring, electronically, more zeros and ones from our online bank account . . . where the fact that I have credit for X dollars is stored as more zeros and ones in their harddrive. (Oh, wait--it's the same harddrive. My bank is also the issuer of my credit card). The money was "put" in our account after we mailed in my husband's paycheck--a piece of paper with no value of its own, an essentially extra-spiffy IOU. Payment for services rendered . . . which this week, was, in part, preaching on stewardship and what Jesus has to say about our attitude towards money. Does this all seem more than a little surreal to anyone else? Will trade theology for food . . .

In the giant game of tit-for-tat that is economics, increasingly our money is . . . what? An idea that we've all agreed to pretend together . . . one that starts from the premise that life is a zero-sum game--and then breaks and breaks and breaks again because we human beings, made in the image of the Creator God, create . . .

My girls like to play Webkinz. The currency of choice for the stuffed animal avatars on that site is Kinzcash--site credit that the web masters dole out parsimoniously for showing up, answering trivia, playing arcade games. Collect enough and you can "buy" your virtual furniture, virtual food, virtual clothing. Both the Kinzcash and the items bought with them are nothing--less than nothing. Zeros and ones on a poorly built website. It really doesn't matter to the web masters whether they give out 25 Kinzcash or 25,000 Kinzcash--they're just inventing it as they go along anyway.

What I'm starting to wonder is, is our "real" money really any more real than that? The idea that treasure in heaven is actually more solid and secure than the "wealth" that we amass here is making an increasing amount of sense . . .

2 comments:

Katherine Gunn said...

Hmm.. the concept of money in this world's economics has always been about what the group collectively agrees something is worth. As long as the groups continues to agree on the value of a certain object (i.e., ones & zeros on a hard drive), the system will work.

It has always applied - a government would set the value of a certain item used for common exchange - say gold - and the group (peasants) would agree and tada - currency. But even further back - 1 cow = 3 goats, etc. It is all dependent on everyone collectively agreeing that the currency du jour is worth a certain amount. ;)

Sara said...

has always been about what the group collectively agrees something is worth

Maybe that's what I'm getting after--how reliable is OUR judgement about what something is worth? Does the price tag we slap on something have any actual bearing on whether that thing has real worth? How well does it reflect that thing's actual worth? And even if we all agree to use a collection of zeros and ones as a way to track our exchanges--does that mean that the zeros and ones are actually of any significance at all aside from their use as poker chips? And how can we think that something so increasingly ephemeral can in itself be security?