money & spirit

For that last 2 years I’ve begun a process of examining perhaps one of the most fundamental ways that I “participate in the consumer economy” and that is simply my use of money, specifically US dollars. Before this period money seemed primarily mundane. Money was just a practical thing about living life. It’s there, and I didn’t question it very much. In my mind, the connection between money and spiritual matters was mostly from biblical quotes, for example “the love of money is the root of all evil,” “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” “seek ye first the kingdom of the lord and his righteousness,” the kicking out of the money-changers from the temple, and perhaps the most influential for me is where Jesus says “look at how beautifully God as clothed the lilies of the field, not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed such as they, how much more will he care for you?” All of these quotes set up the primacy of ones spiritual life and faith in the divine provider over what ever promise of security we might find in money. In a sense, these are all more about the disconnection between money and those higher spiritual aims.

These last two years, however is bringing me to a new place. I’m now seeing that at least some of the power of money to distract us from the divine, is not inherent in money itself, but rather in the form of our current monetary system, and further that news types of money can be re-invented such that much of that power is removed from it, even more so, such that money itself will become yet another part of living a God centered life. If so, that would be a real step toward achieving that third QIVP purpose. An economy more aligned with our Quaker testimonies.

At the most fundamental level, money is the information that encodes who has how much of a claim on things of value in a community. Historically this information was encoded very simply in the the ownership of scarce metals. Later we used paper that was legally equated to that same scarce metal. Our current monetary system no longer equates the medium of exchange with gold, but it it still relies on treating that information, be it paper or numbers in a bank account, as valuable in and of itself by maintaining its scarcity. How is it possible to make information scarce? It’s difficult, but that’s exactly what our monetary system is, a large body of regulations that use the coercive force of law to create a very precise scarcity of the medium of exchange (information) so that it will “maintain its value.” That’s exactly what’s going on when the Fed changes interest rates.

The assumption behind this is that people won’t use a medium of exchange to trade if the medium itself is not valuable. In other words, the medium of exchange will only work if you can trust it, and the way to make it trustworthy is to make it valuable. Well, there’s one case where this equation doesn’t apply. Namely when you are trading with people whom you trust. If you trust the people with whom you trade, then you don’t need to trust in the medium of exchange itself. The medium of exchange can just devolve into its purest form, i.e. simply the record of who has a claim on the economy.

Here’s how it works: when you trade with another individual, money (information) is created on the spot. How? With a ledger book. If I buy something, I subtract from the balance in my ledger the price of the item, and seller adds the price to balance in her ledger book. Remember that money is just the information on who has a claim on the economy. So now, the seller has a positive value in her ledger book. That positive value represents the claim she has on the community. The negative value in my ledger represents the obligation I have to give to the economy. In this system money is created on the spot by the purchaser and given to the seller who then has a claim on the economy (as represented by the positive value in the ledger book), a claim which will be redeemed when seller in turn goes to purchase something from someone else, just as the obligation of the purchaser will be fulfilled later when he or she sells something.

So if the medium of exchange isn’t valuable in and of itself a whole world of things change: the task becomes how to enlarge the circle of people I trust so I can trade in using this incredibly available money; I don’t have to earn it, I can create it on the spot, as long as it’s being used in a circle of trust people will know that I won’t create more than I can redeem; relationships become primary.

To me this is the fundamental spiritual issue of money: Do I trust my neighbor? Do I trust that of God in my neighbor enough to transact with him or her and not have the coercive force of law in place to back up the claim I might have in my ledger book? Our US dollars say “in God we trust” but we don’t, we trust in the coercive force of law that backs the dollar.


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