Needs a Title
What is money? Money can be described as anything we want it to be. If I went to the store today with only a piece of paper and a rubber band, picked out three different items, took them to the cashier, gave them my piece of paper and rubber band, and they accepted, it would be money. This obscure combination of items would still be considered currency because it was accepted by the cashier. In Robert C Kelly’s article titled What is Money he states, “Money is created by a kind of a perpetual interaction between real, tangible things, our desire for them, and our abstract faith in what has value.” To expand upon this, our idea of money is whatever we give value. The notes we use every day to pay for our gas, our meals, and everything else we think of truly have no meaning. When we take away the value imprinted on the linen, what are they good for? We can use them to squish a spider that made its way into our kitchen or maybe to clean up some crumbs on the table that may have attracted the spider in the first place, but other than that what do they do? Lives, families, marriages, and other relationships can be easily ruined by seemingly worthless dollar bills, but how did we get here?
Deep in the Pacific Ocean on the island of Yap, money takes a different form. Milton Friedman originally wrote about this economist’s paradise in his text, The Island of Stone Money, stating that many centuries ago, the people of Yap adopted currency they made out of stone. This currency was used as we use ours today, to buy materials, food, services, and other various goods, but the way it was used differs greatly. In our society we see materials such as gold, silver, or diamonds to be valuable. We view them in a way, as currency. There are no such materials on this island, but explorers from the island stumbled upon large limestone deposits one day. These were carved and the discs were brought back on boats to their homes on the island of Yap. Similar to the way this story goes in America, the people decided that they all needed to purchase things and there needed to be a way to do this. In an NPR broadcast reflecting on Friedman’s descriptions of this currency we learn that rather than trading services, cattle, or other materials maybe of similar value, they agreed they would use the aforementioned discs. This money was not used in the way we might think, however. These large blocks of stone weighed an incredible amount and could not be carried the way we might carry a pocketful of quarters. These discs were only traded in desperate times and for important reasons. For example, if you were a farmer and had recently gone through a drought. Your crops are yielding little to nothing and your family is not only going hungry, but also becoming poorer and poorer as the days go by. If you had a large piece of this concrete currency, you could trade it to get yourself in a better position. These were incredibly valuable and rare and were only to be used when it was absolutely necessary. It’s easy to hear this story and wonder what the significance of a big rock could be, there had to have been rocks found in every corner of this island, but the same can be said about our paper notes. When you take away the idea that each bill can buy you a meal at a nice restaurant or your favorite band’s newest record, they serve no other purpose which can also be said about these discs.
With all of this in mind, we can propose the question, why do we continue to use money? The answer to this can be found in Hong Kong’s cashless society. In this country there are no paper bills to be found. No loose change in the drawer or finding an abandoned five-dollar bill on the sidewalk. In America we slowly made our way from physical cash, to checks, to direct deposit in terms of being paid by an employer, but in Hong Kong it goes a step further. They have taken the idea of these bills being assigned certain values and changed the game completely, but at what cost? It may be convenient and get rid of the existential question of why are we controlled by pieces of paper that weigh as much as a single staple, but it provokes a new question to be answered; why are we now being controlled by imaginary money? Completely virtual money is even more meaningless than our regular notes with various denominations stamped on the front. Sure, this money can be used to pay for things with the swipe of a card of the press of a button, but with nothing physical to see, hold, or use, we fall further and further from working towards something with true value. It reminds me of a points system at a department store. You spend a certain amount of money at Macy’s over the course of six months and you get in return one hundred points on your account which will then get you ten dollars off of your next purchase. You work for thirty-six hours a week and check your bank account and a few numbers change. When those numbers change again you can buy yourself a new pair of shoes. There’s no recognition for hard work or easily seen negative consequences for overspending because if you don’t give someone physical cash how can you even say you spent money?
Money has no value in the end. We use our bills to trade with others and hope that the next person finds as much value in it as we do. The ideas of bartering and trading different goods and services seems much more desirable than trading numbers on a screen.
Kelly, Robert C. “What is Money?” Investopedia, 2021, https://www.investopedia.com/insights/what-is-money/. Accessed 29 September 2021.
Friedman, Milton. “The Island of Stone Money.” Diss. Hoover Institution, Stanford University , 1991.
“The Invention of Stone Money.” 423: The Invention of Stone Money. This Is American Life, WBEZ. Chicago . 7 Jan. 2011.