My son is a high school sophomore—an intelligent baseball player and talented singer. He asked, “Does money really make sense?” I chuckled at his sophomoric wordplay.
“No, really, Dad,” he said. “We’re learning basic economics in civics class, and, well, money just doesn’t make sense. It’s not real. I mean it doesn’t mean anything except what we say it means, does it? It’s not even about the gold standard. Who decided gold was valuable in the first place? Maybe I’ll figure it out next semester, but it seems to me that nothing A-Rod could ever do is worth $100 million, and music is more real than money. ‘Amazing Grace’ is the same song, whether you sing for free or someone with talent sings it for money.”
Wow! Wake up and smell the seedy underbelly of so-called civilization. Money. It’s the price we pay. Does it make sense? Better yet? Is it real? Why is climate change a myth and money real? Why is evolution an elaborate hoax yet money solid as a rock? Is money, as my son surmised, merely a mirage of an image of a reflection of a shadow of a myth? Could the ethereal music of the spheres be more real than money?
I spun my wheels at the gym the next day and watched two economists on TV discuss the debt ceiling. One spoke as if the sky would fall and squash the planet’s fragile biosphere if we didn’t raise the limit. His temper flared when the other economist said, “But the debt ceiling’s not real.”
“It’s going to be real enough in 18 months when we’re all faced with the reality of “X, Y, Z” (fill in the financial tragedy of your choice).
The other guy continued. “The debt ceiling isn’t a hurricane or even a cloud. It’s a perception, a belief. It’s not real.”
I went back to spinning my wheels, singing a paradoxical tune—and smiling. What could be more fun than the listening to the efficient rational market economist yell angrily that the sky is falling while the behavioral economist coolly presented the rational argument that money and the market itself is a manifestation of our collective mind and not, at its root, real?
After Congresswoman Gifford tragically was shot on Saturday, I sat down and had a think, much like Winnie the Pooh. I’m trained in psychology, the pitifully “soft” science that suffers physics envy. I wanted to help my son understand what made sense about money, about violence, about how tightly a string of convictions has to be held before it turns into a stream of bullets—how tightly convictions about the reality of money, the market, an economy divorced from environment has to be held before they lead to fully human orchestrated catastrophe, such as ‘“financial meltdown.” I got nothing.
Best I can do is bow to the wisdom of his question. Bullets are real. The id, self-esteem, derivatives? Virtual reality. When an efficient market develops a rational mind, I’ll believe money is real. Bullets are real. The superego, inner child and debt ceiling? Virtual reality at its best. When a multi-national financial corporation develops a conscience, I might be tempted to believe money is not only real but has value, not mere usefulness. Until then, I’ll continue to oppose using real bullets when we could sing real songs. I’ll continue to love my neighbor as myself best I can, work toward a post-capitalist economy, and view economics (save the emerging branch of behavioral economics studied scientifically by Shiller and his colleagues) as the ultimate un-science, a set of beliefs divorced from reality.