by Jonathan Lyons on January 26, 2013

trillion-dollar-coin425The $1 trillion platinum-coin option has had me thinking about money lately. You’ve probably heard of the scenario, but for those who haven’t, it goes something like this: the Treasury has the authority to mint new money in whatever denomination it wishes. As Republicans in Congress threatened to refuse to raise the nation’s debt limit, the notion was floated that new coins with a value of $1 trillion could be minted, thus creating enough cash on hand for the federal government to sidestep the GOP effort. Sounds almost like a magic trick.

I’ve been wondering why we assign value to these printed bits of paper and stamped coins. I know that the system functions as it is, but still — what if we stopped believing in money? Most of the dollars I use are virtual anyway; I use my debit card, a number is subtracted from the number indicating the balance in my checking account, and that number is added to some other bank account. A run on the banks by people demanding their dollars would reveal an emperor with too little clothing to pass around. They have the numbers, mind you, but not the dollars themselves.

The US dollar used to be pinned to the price of gold, and thus fluctuated in value as gold investors’ moods concerning the metal waxed and waned. (We once printed silver certificates as well; both the gold-based dollar and the silver certificate entitled the holder to one dollar’s worth of the precious metal.)

So why are these precious metals “precious”? Who decided this, and why? And what happens if we no longer believe in the value of gold (or silver)?

We are all encouraged to spend two months’ salary on a wedding ring; some industry sources push it to three. This, for a “precious stone” mounted in “precious metals.” Why? I have asked people in the jewelry business. Again, we get the smoke and mirrors. “Isn’t she worth it?” seems to be the standard response, meaning: Because you love this person and wish to enter into marriage with her, you should pay me three months of your current salary.

We’re urged to spend lavishly on diamonds, but not other equally glimmering stones, because of the collective belief that diamonds are more “precious.” They sell that line, and we buy it. Diamonds are forever. They’re a girl’s best friend. Madonna is a “Material Girl”:

They can beg and they can plead
But they can’t see the light, that’s right
‘Cause the boy with the cold hard cash
Is always Mr. Right

I wonder these things in part because I grew up as one of the working poor who weathered high school and my undergrad degree through the Reagan/Bush years. I can tell you that I know what it is like to have power to the house cut, and I understand that the people in charge of the top rungs of our government are wealthy and have no concern for American citizens who were not born into similar circumstances.

I wonder now, as once again my government seeks to slash and burn the budgets of programs whose goal is to help those unfortunate enough not to have been born wealthy, to help them afford things such as food, clothing, shelter, and health care.

I do not understand the mindset that justifies an increase in the deficit to give people who have plenty of money even more of it. Give that a moment’s rumination: the federal government is borrowing money, in an era of massive budget deficits and debt, to give to the already wealthy. Ours is a market-driven economy; to give more money to people who have plenty — and who will, therefore, have no additional motivation to spend it — is economic insanity. But a similar expenditure to help the middle class and the impoverished would, by contrast, give money to people who would spend it, and quickly. The resulting influx of cash into the economy would jump-start it, provide employment, create wealth, and the system would feed itself.

Instead, the proposals seriously being considered include reducing low-income heating assistance, community organization funding, funding for science, food assistance programs, and family planning programs, as well as attacking a far-from-financially-troubled and self-funding Social Security, which people pay into for their entire lives. Why is it so important to some people to yank the safety net — a safety net that people have paid for themselves — out from under them? Or to attack funding for education and Pell grants? Why does it make sense to so many people to make a college education something that only the wealthy can afford, thereby creating and maintaining a population that is working poor or worse?

A state senator in Missouri is proposing the repeal of child labor laws, which would allow the employment of children under age 14, increase the number of hours a day a child may work, and eliminate the power of the Division of Labor Standards to inspect those who employ children. A country that pursues these goals is a country that harks back to the good old days of Charles Dickens. It is one that places wealth above human dignity — indeed, even over the survival of one’s fellow human beings. Can that really be what we want?

A growing number of participants in massively multi-user online games, such as Second Life and World of Warcraft, now feel that the value of their online lives surpasses the perceived value of their own lives out here, among the rest of us. What would happen if people broke the spell, awoke from the illusion of value in all of those “precious” bits of printed paper? What if we at least tried to pursue some minimum standard of living for all?

In modern-day America, the poor are believed, somehow, to deserve it. They are thought to deserve their socioeconomic status through some inherent inequality with the wealthy; many of the wealthy also view themselves as deserving of their wealth, whether or not they were born into it or had anything to do with its accumulation.

My hometown is a working-class city called Waterloo, Iowa. When the city implemented busing, I was enrolled — first in a middle school and later in a high school — on the wealthier west side. The children of the wealthy adored their status as “haves” and were arrogant about it. A new student arriving with wealth was greeted with open arms. I recall one such “have” from my graduating class, and her habitual, almost obsessive, first question about any new student: “Is she rich?”

The “haves” tended to brag about spending a great deal on shoes and jeans. They also taunted and made fun of anyone who hadn’t blown, say, $150 on a pair of whatever shoes were trendy. Arrogance and cruelty, fueled by a pride in wealth they’d had absolutely nothing to do with earning.

Why do we all agree with the belief in an inherent “precious” quality of a rectangle stamped with $1,000 over one stamped with $5? Hold them next to one another. Both are the same size, use roughly the same amount of raw materials. Yet the one stamped with the larger number conveys quite a bit more wealth.

Here in Lewisburg, some (but not all) downtown businesses participated for a time in an alternative local currency called Lewisburg Bucks. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, circulates its own local currency. The notes are called BerkShares. Piedmont, North Carolina, circulates the Piedmont Local EcoNomy Tender, or PLENTY. In downtown Detroit, a group of businesses trades in US currency and scrip, their own local currency. It’s happening all over: currencies that have value only in a specific location.

Coupons have worth, at least for a span of time; they are stamped with a number indicating their value, and people can spend them alongside their actual cash or the numbers from a checking account via a debit card. I have read of an artist whose hand-drawn original currency is accepted at face value, but only at certain restaurants and businesses. Others have sought to charge him with counterfeiting. Artist Obadiah Eelcut hand-drew a currency called Noney, then hand-printed and circulated ten thousand Noney notes, each a work of art in itself.

American coins are minted with the “precious” metals nickel, silver, copper, and gold. The copper ones — pennies — are actually a layer of copper over a zinc coin.

We visit India regularly for my wife’s research. The rupee does not trade on international markets; its value is shielded by the Indian government. When you buy rupees with dollars, you purchase a currency that loses its value the moment you leave the country. Their coins are cast from aluminum; it’s cheaper. On a visit to the Scottish Highlands, we discovered that we had to watch what currency we were getting back for change after purchases. Scottish pounds were often passed alongside British pound notes, and you cannot spend the Scottish notes outside of Scotland.

What if money suddenly could no longer purchase positions in our various halls of governance for people born into such dynasties as the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Udalls, the Pauls, and the rest?

A shared, consensual hallucination is all that stands between that $1,000 bill and a few squares of toilet paper in value. And in some situations, the toilet paper might come in handier.

I wonder, what alternatives are out there? Barter happens. Trade happens. What if those numbers that represent your balance really are just pixels on a screen?

* * * *

Jonathan Lyons lives and teaches and writes strange things in Central Pennsylvania. His latest novel, Signal to Noise: A Novel Infused With Music, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and cool indie bookstores everywhere.

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