What Is Money?

Money—what is it? It’s 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, according to the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing website, whose official URL is moneyfactory.gov. If you’re in America, it’s green. In other countries it can be a different color, maybe even a different shape.

People often exchange money, made at the government’s money factory, for the goods and services they need to live. Cardi B’s hit song about money, “Money,” has perhaps one of the best explanations of how money works: “Shake a little ass / You get a little bag and take it to the store.”

But sometimes, money doesn’t come in a little bag that you take to the store. Sometimes, people put huge sums of “money” into investments and portfolios. Some of those people, like Jeff Bezos, are worth $138 billion, a number that makes no sense. As The New Republic’s Katie McDonough put it, wealth like Bezos’s is a “horizon—a money infinity—not a place.” Sometimes this money looks like a shiny tech company losing billions a year while being heralded as titans of their industries. Take WeWork’s infamously overinflated valuation. The company’s co-working competitor IWG, as Sam Adler-Bell noted for Jewish Currents, was “worth 15 times less than WeWork at its peak valuation, earns double the revenue, and turns a profit.” Another senseless number.

When it comes to the federal government’s budget, the idea of what money is becomes even more unfathomable. Politicians are already trotting out the spectre of the national deficit to put an end to coronavirus aid. “We’ve added about $3 trillion to the national debt,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. (None of this seemed to be an issue when Republicans passed a $1.5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy just a few years ago.)

Harping about the “debt” is an argument that politicians from both sides of the aisle use, but it’s an even more strange one during a pandemic. If it’s not worth spending money to literally save peoples’ lives, then what’s even the point? Keeping money is stupid. Money is only useful when you get rid of it. Groceries, medicine, housing, maybe some fancy cheeses—these are the things that are worth something. Money is but the grubby paper that we throw away to get them.

But that’s just one amateur woman’s opinion. Working people have always dealt with money—and more specifically its scarcity—in concrete terms, but money in its largest, and most abstract forms is what controls our systems. To try to figure out what, exactly, money is in this time of crisis, I reached out to experts in different fields—a theologist, a venture capitalist, Suze Orman, an anthropologist—to see what they thought. Here’s what these people said when I asked them a simple question: What is money?


Suze Orman, financial adviser:

Money is the physical manifestation of who you are.

Willie Jennings, theologist at Yale Divinity School:

I think money is a tool for building community. Money symbolizes a deeper social contract. Money is to be used to help people live, that’s the fundamental reality of money. The problem with so many ways of thinking about this is that it turns money into an object for veneration. Money in and of itself becomes the point. Saving it, having it, hoarding it becomes the point. In fact, money symbolizes a social relationship that is to be enhanced and strengthened. What does that mean? It means that money is for the sake of building life. The horror happens when people’s lives are made in service to money. So the problem is, once people imagine that their lives have to be shaped in order to sustain the flow of money, we’ve got the thing backwards. The purpose of money is to sustain life.

We’ve spent a whole lot of energy helping people think about how to make money, and very little energy in helping people think about the moral use of money. At this moment, you have really highly educated people in positions of power who are saying in effect, if people die, that’s an acceptable loss as long as long as we can sustain the flow of money. Which is the absolute backwards of what money is for. And unfortunately, because we are in a situation where we have so many people who have such mangled moral visions about the economy, you wind up getting into shouting matches with them because they’re not clear in their own moral compass and calculus of the relationship between people and money.

Bradley Tusk, venture capitalist, founder and CEO of Tusk Holdings:

This is such a good question. Money, at least in my world, is a few things:

(1). Money is a vote of confidence in an entrepreneur that someone believes in their ability and vision.

(2). Money is a bet that other people will see things the same way we do. As an early-stage investor, while the goal is to make sure our companies have an actual exit (IPO or acquisition), there are intermediate steps and when we deploy capital, we’re betting that other VCs will buy into the same vision a few rounds later (just as much as we’re betting that consumers will want the product/ service in the first place).

(3). Money is power (you can decide whether a new company gets funding or not) and it also means others have power over you (LPs decide whether your fund should exist or not).

(4). Money buys you time, both metaphorically and literally. It means that you get to stay in the intellectually and physically cushy world of venture capital for as long investors let you have it. And it means you can access goods and services (health care, healthy food, exercise, safety, etc...) that could extend your actual lifespan.

As an individual who didn’t grow up with a lot of money, worked in government and politics for years and didn’t make a lot of money and then all of a sudden did, here’s what I’ve found it to mean:

(1). You don’t have to constantly think about money. If the dishwasher breaks, you can just replace it. It provides mental freedom.

(2). You can pursue fulfillment. I’m able to make mobile voting a real thing because, at least in part, I have the ability to fund it. And since making money typically only buys you so much happiness before it runs out and you need to get fulfillment from other sources, this provides a really good one.

(3). You can take care of people without sacrificing anything yourself. It’s easy for us to keep paying our nanny or housekeeper or trainer during covid because doing so doesn’t prevent us from doing anything else. I can have my dad and sister on my payroll or support my wife’s mom and sister because none of that prevents me from doing anything I want to do. It does sometimes produce other issues (resentment, feeling taken advantage of), but having money makes being a good whatever (son, brother, neighbor, boss, etc...) a lot easier.

Aparna Nancherla, comedian:

Money is a system of sheets and discs and whooshes that circulates the flow of anxiety, existential and otherwise, around the world.

Bill Maurer, anthropologist at University of California, Irvine:

Money is a means of reckoning relationships. We usually think of money as an economic thing—when you think about money you think about earning some income and then using it to buy stuff or sell things in a market. We think of money as this tool we have to measure value and to equate different values. If you want to figure out on one scale how much a potato is relative to a ream of paper you can do that with money. But to me, what that misses is that money is really fundamentally a political project. It’s about how we assess claims that we have on one another and how we record those claims on each other over time. When I say each other I don’t just mean individuals, but I also mean individuals and their relationships to institutions. Money is really this great kind of reckoning device, it’s a giant accounts book, more than it is a coin that you use in a market to buy and sell stuff.

When we look at the anthropological record, what we often find is people using various things, like shells or necklaces, or in the West from around 600 BC until present, coins and banknotes. It’s easy to get distracted by the things themselves. What’s missed is that those sorts of items exist in a web of other relationships that people have with one another. Generally, the other key thing is their use is authorized by some kind of power.

There’s no intrinsic value to money. Instead, it’s the value given to it by a state authority to then allow people to continue to conduct their own credit and debt relationships with one another to sustain us during this epidemic. It freaks people out, because they think that means money is being debased and it’s not worth anything. Surprise, it wasn’t worth anything to begin with, nothing is really worth anything intrinsically. It’s only worth something if we accept in settlement of our debts. We accept things in the settlement of our debts that the state will back up by force of law and taxation.

Madi, four-year-old:

I don’t have any clue because my mouth is still not talking.

Madi, four-year-old, 24 hours later:

You get money from doing your chores. It’s an eternal thing that you pay with. I have three money.

Howie Hawkins, socialist and Green Party presidential candidate:

Empirically and historically it’s a medium of exchange, a way of accounting value. In modern times fiat money has been the dominant form, where it’s declared by the government to be legal tender. But in other times it’s what they call fiduciary money, which is generally accepted but it’s not government-declared as legal tender. That depends on the confidence of people in whatever it is, coins or notes. And then in our system, you have money created by lending through commercial banks. It can come in different forms.

So people say we’re going into debt to pay for all these stimulus relief packages, and they ask who in the end pays for it. I address that in the ecosocialist Green New Deal where we talk about how we pay for our programs. What we talk about is more progressive taxation, less military spending, and then selling public goods and services through the public sector, the things that would be built with the Green New Deal. In the long run that could pay for the whole program, but in the short term you have to raise a lot of money, more than you get from taxation and new priorities. So there you go to borrowing or the modern version of greenbacks where the government creates the money and spends it through the federal budget into the economy. What I argue there, the latter reform which is in the Green platform, is a monetary reform, basically you get rid of the Fed and have a monetary authority in the Treasury. It would create money and spend it into the economy. The limit there is you don’t want to put more money than the capacity of the economy for commerce can absorb, otherwise you risk inflation. That is a radical reform, the only two parties that I know support it are the Green Party here and the Green Party of England and Wales.

Dril:

Dril did not answer my request for comment. The next day I got laid off from VICE. Coincidence? You tell me.

Illustration for article titled What Is Money?

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DISCUSSION

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Suze Orman, financial adviser:

Money is the physical manifestation of who you are.

I wish she said more about this because on its own that’s a weird and fucked up way to think about money.