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|Grand Illusion - Page 2|
A Peculiar Obsession
What is money, anyway? We think we "know" money—this substance so material and yet so maddeningly abstract—but our definitions of it seem to evaporate as soon as they're articulated. It should be simple: money is just "a medium of exchange," no? But the more you think about the subject of money, the more mysterious it becomes, like something vaguely perceived in drifting fog—one shape emerging, disappearing, reemerging in another. Money has been called a universal language, perhaps a kind of pecuniary Esperanto, in which all peoples are fluent. The flow of money throughout the body politic has been compared to the physical systems of the human body: the circulation of blood, the transmission of nerve impulses, the lubrication of the joints and sinews by body fat. Money is the acknowledged bulwark of worldly power, the engine of modern civilization, a guarantee of independence, the means for doing good works. But the desire for money is a notorious trap, a form of slavery, a wicked temptation, a drug, an addiction, the root of all evil. People live for money, they kill for money, they die for money.
But why does anybody accept something clearly useless in itself—a piece of paper or, for that matter, a gold coin—and give you something "real," like food, clothes, a goat, in return? In 2008, American families lost $11 trillion in household worth. Even billionaires had a hard time. According to Forbes magazine, 1,125 of them in 2008 were whittled down to 793 in 2009, for a collective loss of $1.4 trillion. Where did that money go? What was it that went? Was it ever there in the first place? Ponder such questions too long and there seems to be no intrinsic reason why the whole gigantic money edifice doesn't just collapse from the weight of its own implausibility.
Cash. Open your wallet and count the bills. Notice the slight uptick of mood when you find that unexpected $20 hiding behind the sheaf of paltry $1s, or the pang of dismay when you realize you've gone through most of the $100 you withdrew from the bank only the other day. Look at the $20—the delicately incised whorls on the top and bottom edge, the august and handsome face of Andrew Jackson with his luxuriantly tousled silver hair, the pale serial washes of springlike green, peach, and blue over the bill, the faint, nearly invisible watermarks, like little hovering ghosts, the words "In God We Trust," a benediction over the whole. Rub the bills between your fingers and thumb and feel the crisp, dry, parchmentlike texture of new ones, the soft, limp, almost velvety touch of old, grubby ones—like small, ancient manuscripts in an unknown language, passed from hand to hand to hand, place to place, year to year, linking you to an endlessly receding chain of human trade and exchange.
Money can be virtually anything that people consider worth exchanging for something else—gold and silver ingots, copper blades, bronze bracelets, cowrie shells, cocoa beans, decorated belts, feather coils, animal teeth, but also alcohol, cigarettes, cannabis, candy, rice, and barley. Anthropologists have long remarked on the ritualistic, fetishistic quality of money. Even today, we feel as if money carried some talismanic power, some juju in itself. As indeed it does, for this thing so intrinsically worthless, a symbolic piece of merde, can get you anything you want. It's the genie that makes wishes come true, with the magical property of instant convertibility into something real and desirable—an almost metaphysical act of transubstantiation.
As if reflecting its elusively sacral quality, governments usually see to it that their currency is quite pretty in itself, each piece a little work of art. A good deal of thought obviously goes into designing and producing bills—finely engraved images of national landmarks, ancient legends, noble animals, impressive feats of construction like hydroelectric dams, historical personages, current royalty (or dictators)—often in vivid colors.