Checking my pockets as I left the house, I found $17 in one and $0.97 in the other. As I compared this amount to the tasks and errands of the day, I was reminded of how I invented money.
This is how it came about: I grow vegetables and, in years when the weather is kind and I pay attention, there is more than we can eat. My neighbor teaches piano. She could garden but, being blind, finds it difficult. One day, I had the idea that I would offer her vegetables in exchange for piano lessons. Each Wednesday I picked a basket of squash, tomatoes and beans and she patiently led me through efforts at the keyboard. We were both pleased; it was a deal!
One day Paul showed up at my door. He had just finished training to be a computer repairman and wanted to know whether I needed to have my computer repaired. Well, I did, but he didn’t want any vegetables so I invented money and aid him for his work. And what do you know? Later that week he decided to begin piano lessons with my neighbor and now she can take the bus instead of walking to the Senior Center.
Of course, I didn’t invent money. Money, in one form or another has been around since the earliest periods of recorded human history. It would not seem possible for there to be anything new to be said about it, especially in relation to belief but the fact is that many UUs have odd and distorted ideas about what money is, what it can do and what meaning can be attached to if.
Money is nothing more than a tool for measuring a quality of human existence called value. The first point of confusion arise because value, unlike many other properties of objects and actions, is not fixed but relative. There can be no absolute value; value, as measured by money, is always relative to circumstances and can only be determined by jhuman interaction, in the form of transactions, which we collective call the market.
Simply put, value as measured by money, reflects two effects: the balance between the supply and demand for a good or service and the amount of money available for exchange for goods and services. The balance is measured by the price and prices can only be set by the market. The market works by selecting individuals of groups who have goods and services in excess and matching them with people and groups who have money they wish to exchange for goods and services. When the supplier (seller) and consumer (buyer) place the same value on a good or service, then the price is set and the exchange takes place. The market is made up of billions and billions of such transactions and the price moves continuously, reflecting supply and demand.
My neighbor and I agreed that the value of a basket of fresh vegetables and an hour of instruction were equal. We could just as easily agreed that I would pay her $15 and hour. Now I might not be able to sell the vegetables for $15 but money has advantages over vegetables. I can keep money without it going bad, I can never have too many $5 bills but I can have easily have too many zucchini and . Similarly, my neighbor may be aware that I have far more money than zucchinis and, if she only charged me what the vegetables were worth, then I might insist on lessons every day. And the bus fare just went up to $2 a ride!
Thus the first insight is obvious. Money is simply a tool, like a hammer or a measuring stick, and is used to enable interpersonal transactions. In relation to older ideas of direct exchange or barter, money is lighter, easier to handle, may be stored, and can act at distance or in the future. These attributes are important enablers of modern society.
The second insight is a bit more subtle. Money is more like muscle than like a hammer. Like a hammer, it can link will to action, so that nails can be driven and houses built, but unlike a hammer, it is not a fixed, limited instrument. Like muscle, it must be trained, nourished, used with care and, at times, rested. And like muscle, it can be used for good or bad purposes but is not itself intrinsically good or evil, but only as virtuous as the intentions of the buyer and the morality of the seller.
Money, for reasons which escape me, arouse many unpleasant emotions: envy, greed, jealously, etc. And UUs are not immune to these. But, the order of service at the congregation has these words on its cover every Sunday:
“The Board affirms that we are an inclusive Fellowship welcoming all people of diverse ethnic origin, sexual orientation, class, color, age, race, physical ability and/or religious background.”
Perhaps it should include after physical ability, “, financial means” For we should think no more or less of a person because of how much money they have than of how much muscle. It is just as wrong to distain the poor as to avoid the crippled; it is just as wrong to envy the rich as to admire the muscular.
So what meaning should we attach to money, or more precisely, the amount of money a person has? This is the third insight: we should view money, personal wealth or poverty, as both a record of the past and a potential for the future.
Whether we inherit money or come into the world in modest circumstances, a just society, with a free market in goods, services and ideas, allows us to accumulate money and the capabilities that accrue to it. There is a Chinese saying that even the journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. It used to be, in less self-conscious times, that business people saved, framed and displayed their first dollar.
It is popular today, among UUs especially, to distain the market and to claim that its economics are dominated and controlled by the wealthy, by the powerful. It is true, as F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked, that the rich are different, they have more money. But as I drive through so-called depressed, bighted areas, I do not see power and control but freedom and opportunity. I see people of all ages, each with inherent worth and dignity, who can start by earning their first dollar.
The difference comes about when that dollar is earned and decisions are made about how to spend it. Maslow describes the development of personality as an effort to satisfy a hierarchy of needs, of which he places security first and last.
For persons who have little or no money, we can judge their virtue by watching how they satisfy this hierarchy for themselves and for those who that care for and are dependent upon them.
In America, where food is cheap, as cheap relative to earning power as it has probably been in the history of the world and 1 in 10 receives food stamps, even the poor are overweight. Health care, of differing quality, is available to all; no one dies in the street for lack of care. Similarly free schooling, through age 18, again of varying quality, is available as a right of residence, requiring not even citizenship. Despite concerns about our gun culture, there has be no military action on US soil since the Civil War, a period of nearly 15 decades, unequaled in virtually all developed nations. There are no land mines in the fields and, despite the current post 9/11 worries about terrorism, there is domestic tranquility. In such a settling, absent untreated or untreatable mental disability, or natural disaster, poverty must be considered the consequence of voluntary acts. Thus we can judge the poor and powerless as being, like us, free to choose but lacking neither inherent worth or dignity.
There is a strong cultural basis in America against welfare, the giving of money and its fruits without fair exchange. During the Great Depression, when 25% of men wishing to wok could find no employment and, women and children normally dependent upon them were in great need, there were many moving from place to place seeking better opportunity. But, even then , a man would come to the kitchen door and inquire whether he could work for food. And in well run households there were always chores, even if only understood to be symbolic by both the giver and the receiver, before hunger was satisfied.
One of the unfortunate biases produced by this cultural value is our perceptive disparity between wages and income. We understand wages as resulting from hiring out of minds and bodies, from exchanging service and goods produced by service, for money. We fail to understand the parallel that income, interest and dividends, result from hiring out money, earned previously by work. Thus, the laborer can work while he is fit, save and invest and when old age approach, live on the earnings of his money rather than his body. We too easily forget the recent past when the inability to work meant privation, loss and even premature death.
What say we about the other end of the financial spectrum? What are the responsibilities of wealth, either earned or inherited? Wealth, money is, as I have said, simply a tool and its value is relative to circumstances. Thus, no virtue accrues to people or groups due to wealth, nor should we disparage them. What we should do is to look at their intrinsic values, in the case of UUs, the seven covenantal principles, and see how they use this tool to live out their values.