The only feasible future of money is that it has no future.
That’s perhaps a bit extreme: but unfortunately it happens to be true.
It should be clear to just about everyone by now that the money-system on which our current economy is based is in deep trouble. I don’t think I have to go into any detail on that. The problem is that not many people seem to be thinking far enough about just how deep that trouble really goes…
One symptom here is that, because it’s so obvious that the money-economy is in deep trouble, there’s a lot of attention being placed at present on supposed ‘alternative currencies’. Some of them are just local equivalents of ‘fiat-currency‘, “currency that a government has declared to be legal tender despite the fact that it has no intrinsic value … money based solely on faith” – in other words, “it’s ‘proper money’ because we say it is”. Some of the other ‘alternative currencies’ are based on ‘energy-exchange’ – the LETS principle. Some of them try to use time itself as a kind of currency. Some try to bypass currency entirely, and go back to point-to-point barter. Many, many variations on that same overall theme.
I’ve seen dozens of these ‘alternative-currency’ schemes, maybe hundreds; worldwide there are apparently tens of thousands of them. But they all have one thing in common: none of them will work.
Not in the longer-term, at any rate, or across an entire economic scope. And if we’re talking about viable futures, we need to be thinking longer-term, and whole-of-system.
The reason why all of them will fail in one way or another is because they’re all trying to resolve the wrong part of the problem. To use the classic metaphor, all they’re doing is quibbling about the nature and position of deckchairs on the Titanic, about who has the right to possess and control those deckchairs. But the real problem isn’t the deckchairs, it’s the ship: and mistaken assumptions about the importance of deckchairs could cause the ship itself to go down – after which all of those arguments would become somewhat moot… We need to get at least some of the attention away from the deckchairs long enough to have some chance to save the ship – otherwise we’ll all go down with it.
It’s easy to get distracted here by the myths of money. From the inside, it no doubt all seems to real, so important. Yet seen from the outside, it’s just another strange religion, with its own high-street churches and gaudy cathedrals, its over-adored high-priests and attendant clergy and near-despised laity, its strange rituals and language and jargon – though all of it oddly bereft of any redeeming ethics or morals. Yet the main purpose of that religion, it seems, is to hide the only real fact here: none of it is real.
Even the very term ‘fiat currency’ should tell us that: the entire money-economy is just another inherently-absurd religion, held together by little more than misplaced faith. It’s a mere myth: nothing more than that. Yet an increasingly deadly myth, if we’re not darn careful…
It’s a myth built on top of another myth: barter.
And that myth in turn is built on top of yet another arbitrary myth: the myth of possession.
In the longer-term, the blunt fact is that none of us possess anything. Possession is a delusion, a fearful toddler’s attempt to defy the fact of change. To paraphrase a certain well-known story, the more we try to cling on to things, the more they slip through our fingers.
An economy is literally ‘the management of the household’: and the only real result of myths of possession is that they make that management that much harder. Overall, a possession-based economy guarantees ‘The Worst Possible System‘, in which all of its resources tend to drift automatically to the place of least need.
Possession is a meaningless myth: and yet somehow we try to pretend that it’s ‘real’. We talk about ‘property rights’: yet if we follow the trails of provenance and the rest, we find that those purported ‘rights’ end up in some arbitrary assertion of ‘possession’ – which isn’t real. Its actual basis turns out to be some equally-arbitrary form of theft from everyone else – a theft that is then somehow rationalised through some suitably-convoluted yet ethically-indefensible structure of ‘law’. The same is true of ‘intellectual-property’: we now know, as fact, that all thought is inherently collective: hence beyond an interesting form of theft, there is no fundamental basis by which anyone – let alone any commercial ‘corporate person’ – could claim to ‘possess’ any idea at all. The same is true of relationships: we don’t and can’t possess each other. We don’t even possess our own life, because of that one, simple, bald, inescapable fact that we die.
Responsibility, however, is real. We can build a workable economy around that. That’s actually how most real-world economies work in practice, at every scale, from a literal ‘household’ and beyond.
But possession is a myth: a deadly myth. If we try to base a world-scale economy on a possession-based model – as at present – ultimately no-one wins: whether so-called ‘rich’ or so-called ‘poor’, we all lose. Collectively, we cannot hold to those myths of possession and still survive. There is no way to make a possession-based economy sustainable: by its very nature, it cannot be done.
And the fact is that every barter-economy is an overlay on myths of possession: barter assumes that we have the right to possess something – or rather, to withhold from others – in order to have it to exchange. If a possession-based economy cannot be made sustainable, no barter-model can be made sustainable.
And every money-economy is an overlay on top of a barter-economy: it assumes that we have the ‘right’ to possess something, and arbitrary faith-based agreement about the ‘value’ of the currency – in whatever form that ‘currency’ might take – as an intermediate proxy for multi-party exchange. If a possession-based economy cannot be made sustainable, a barter-based cannot be made sustainable, and hence no money-based economy can be made sustainable.
In short, if we wish to create a sustainable economy – as clearly we must – then one fact at least must be evident to everyone: the only future of money is that it has no future.
Or, to put it the other way round, anyone who does think that money has a future isn’t thinking.
Trying to think up yet more ‘alternative currency-models’ is just a waste of everyone’s time, effort and attention – none of which we can afford to waste right now. Arguing about currency-models, and promoting one as somehow better than others, is not going to make any real difference to anything: it’s just arguing about how to save the positions of individual deckchairs on the Titanic. Might be wiser instead to pay a bit more attention to the real problem here, and to start thinking – urgently – about how to save the ship itself, before we all go down?
People who know me would recognise that I’m no great fan of the money-economy. Yet that objection isn’t about “money is the root of all evil” and all that, but much more that it’s so incredibly inefficient. To put it bluntly, it simply doesn’t work.
Sure, at a simplistic first glance, it might seem that “money makes the world go round”. But once we start to look at the bigger picture – transactions at a whole-of-system scale – the reality is much more like “money makes the world go stop”. And nowhere is this more evident than at the moment of transaction: if you want to see where pointless, purposeless delays will almost certainly be introduced into a system, look for a place where money changes hands.
This fact was forcibly was brought home to me (more accurately, brought not-home) in yet another snarl-up on the dreaded M25, London’s notoriously problem-prone orbital freeway. “Traffic Congestion Junctions 1-4″, said the overhead sign, “80 Minutes Delay”. True, the traffic did keep moving, but at an agonising crawl: three lanes of jostling frustration, mile after mile. Delay indeed.
After almost an hour, we finally arrive at the cause of all this chaos: the toll-booths on the Dartford river-crossing. Past the stop, go, stop, go, of the toll-booth, and the £1 toll paid, everything eases up, and the traffic flows smoothly again at full speed. Yet that’s another hour of my life gone, wasted to no point and no purpose in a traffic-jam. And I’m not the only one whose life has been frittered away in this manner: all those ahead of me, behind me, and mile upon mile of lock-up for the traffic going the other way on the other side of the freeway. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that there’s something like 10,000 people stuck in each hour’s-worth of this miserable farrago. Ten thousand hours wasted in that one hour alone, day after day: how much is that costing the country’s economy?
If we take those calculations a bit further, things start to get seriously scary. (I can’t remember if it’s a public utility or a private corporation that runs that toll, but it doesn’t actually matter for this purpose – the sums come to much the same either way.) We’re only dealing with ball-park figures here, so let’s allows ourselves some simple assumptions for this. Let’s say that there’s one person per vehicle, and every vehicle is charged the same flat £1 toll; that there are ten toll-booth operators per side; and that everyone involved in this one-hour scenario is charged out at the same flat £10 per hour. This gives us the following:
- company income: 10,000 vehicles at £1/vehicle: £10,000
- company labour-cost: 10 staff x 2 sides x £10/hour: £200
- company gross profit/loss: £10,000 less £200 = +£9,800
All looks good so far, doesn’t it? As long as we think only of the ‘transactional system’ from the company’s perspective, it all seems to make economic sense. But when we widen the scope to include the overall context, we gain a very different picture:
- total transaction income: £10,000 vehicles at £1/vehicle: £10,000
- total transaction labour cost: 10,020 people at £10/hour: £100,200
- total transaction gross profit/loss: £10,000 less £100,200 = -£90,200
Not so good, is it? And that’s not including the resultant future medical and other costs from all those people stuck in that mess, which could well be many times that figure. Ouch…
Everywhere we look, we find the same problem at the point of transaction. Classic economic measures such as GDP show only the direct monetary profit; but whenever we remember to include all those ‘externalised costs’ in the calculation, what we’ll find is a huge overall loss at the larger scale. All those hours spent waiting in supermarket queues, or waiting on hold; all those days that magically disappear between the time a bank takes the cheque compared to when the money actually appears in the account: it all costs someone. And in the kind of globalised economic system we have today, those costs don’t disappear: they’re real, and they have to be accounted for somewhere in the overall system. The blunt reality is that it’s only by keeping all those all too real costs hidden away in the ‘imaginary’ realm that the money-economy can be made to seem to work – when in fact it doesn’t work well at all.
So to me it’s always interesting to note where some ignored ‘someone’ finally loses patience and starts to fight back, highlighting the fundamental flaws in the system. One well-known example is Marilyn Waring’s classic critique of conventional economics, If Women Counted: A New Feminist Economics. But it’s perhaps even better illustrated in a post that came through on Twitter today, pointing to Paul McCrudden’s website #sixweeks:
For the six weeks from mid-June to end-July 2009, I recorded all the time and money I spent as a consumer. And, having invoiced over 50 companies, I’m now waiting for them to pay me for this time I’ve spent with their brand.
The way I see it, my time on this planet is limited and as such I want to spend it as wisely as possible. It frustrates me therefore that every day of my life I have to waste time standing in queues waiting to buy some product or service that, in the big scheme of things, I don’t really care about.
What riles me is that all this time ultimately helps the company’s bottom line and market share – and I get nothing back for my time as a result. The fact that I’m in [one shop] and not [another] on any particular day results in the former having my attention – and wallet – dedicated to their brand, as opposed to their competitor’s. And yet this time and attention is not reflected in the cost of these companies’ products and services. Prices instead are dictated by raw costs, overheads and item mark-up, with a calculation made as to the number of customers, covers, viewers or users who will support that brand over a period of time. At no point in this calculation is any credit given to consumers for spending their time with a brand – and I believe it should.
So he’s billed those companies for his time – at a generous 75% discount. Most, of course, have treated him as a rogue nutcase; but a few have recognised that there’s a real issue here, especially in terms of its impact on the parallel attention economy and reputation economy, which can indeed destroy “company’s bottom line and market share” if they’re not treated with respect. It may sound like a joke at first: but fact is that it’s not a joke at all.
The money-economy doesn’t work: we know that now. The catch is that as yet we don’t have anything to replace it – a fact that’s seriously scary in itself, given that there’s a very real risk of global economic failure here. And by definition it’s far larger than we are, so there’s not much that we as individuals can do to change it. Frustrating indeed: like so many other aspects of the business world, it doesn’t work, but we’re stuck with it. Oh well.
What we can do is take a closer look at that point of transaction – the moment where money changes hands – because in practice that’s where so many of those pointless delays will occur. Irritation and frustration can cost a lot, especially when potential clients and customers start to take proper account of the effective monetary-cost and life-cost of their time. So if it takes longer to pay for groceries than it does to select them from the shelves – as happens all too often in the local supermarket here – you can be sure that some of those people stuck in line will give up in disgust: they’ll take their business elsewhere, to places that do respect their time. How long are you willing to be stuck on hold, listening to that repeated pretence that “your call is important to us”? How much money are you willing to spend with a company that spends your time as if it was worth nothing? Then turn this round: how do you spend others’ time in their transactions with you?
So think side-wise for a while, and take a more ‘whole-system’ view of the overall time expended in overall transactions: not just the time your own company pays for, but the time of everyone in each transaction. No doubt it’ll be an eye-opener at first: not comfortable at all. But worth it – in every sense of the word.