The Ecology of the Economy
When I was a student in France I had a scholarship to study at a small provincial university, and I managed to find a position as a live-in nanny, caring for three children in exchange for room and board. I loved it there: a sweet little attic room looking onto a cobble-stoned street, children I adored and their parents, who offered me an additional stipend for teaching English to the two boys. Since I now had all and more than I needed for the year I decided my scholarship was superfluous and offered it back to the university for some needier student.
Well! Such a kerfuffle that caused! The faculty had no idea what to do with me, and after many heated discussions behind closed doors, begged me to keep my scholarship. If I did not, they assured me the money would be sent back to the government to pay for bombs. Feeling very foolish, I had no choice but to accept as graciously as I could. So I went shopping and bought a gorgeous quilted coat with a fur-lined hood . . .
I can laugh now at the naive and idealistic girl I was then, but in fact I might be inclined to do the same thing today. Why not share my good fortune with others when I find myself with a surplus? That makes a lot more sense to me than runaway global capitalism, or a banking system so complicated nobody can understand it. And who can comprehend the fact that while some people are billionaires, others squat on our sidewalks begging for spare change?
Like the child who asked why the emperor wore no clothes, I will ask a few deliberately naive questions, such as:
- What is money?
- What do banks do?
- Does the money system serve us, and if not, who does it serve?
- Are there creative alternatives to the money system?
Why is it that even as our economy is derived from what the natural world produces, and we humans take from it everything we need to survive, we give so little back in exchange? Some obvious connection seems to have gone missing—the exchange part—and something self-evident seems to have gotten misconstrued—the value part.
In a natural ecosystem every plant and animal, weather system, and soil provides value for everything else. An ecosystem is a shared enterprise in which all organisms benefit, from the tiniest mite in the ground to the air, earth, and water around it. Nothing is wasted, and no organism consumes more than it needs.
Leaves drop to the ground, providing humus that feeds the soil in which the plants grow. Insects and animals feed on these plants and, in return, drop their poop and used-up skeletons to add to the fertile soil. The plants breathe out oxygen, which the creatures breathe in —including ourselves—and the web of tree roots filter the rainwater that falls to feed the streams that provide life for all of us.
It is a perfect feedback loop that keeps every part of the earth in dynamic balance and interdependent with every other part. Any organism that grows out of its proper proportion with everything else destroys this balance, and disaster ensues. We know about this: in the human body we call it “cancer.” Whyever would we imagine growth and more growth to be a healthy way to organize our economy?
Where does money come from in the first place? The answer seems to be that money is simply printed out, like money for a Monopoly game. Nothing of value stands behind it. The idea that money has value is something we have all bought into, allowing our lives and our culture to be defined by it. Accepting this, we accept such notions as:
- there is not enough to go around;
- some of us will have it and some of us will not have it;
- the poor will always be among us;
- in order not to be one of those poor, we’ve got to compete with each other for what there is.
In case you thought the Federal Reserve System was a governmental agency, it isn’t. While the Federal Reserve Board is an independent federal government agency, the Federal Reserve System is a privately operated corporation owned since 1913 by 12 select top banks across the country that print out money—our money, to be exact—and lend it back to us with interest. How much money is printed out, and under what circumstances, is not entirely clear, but the effect is that some of us tend to get the short end of the stick. Often, the result is that we then have to borrow money to get by, having to pay interest on money that was our own to start with.
Naturally, in order not to be among those left out, those who are in the know take more than others. This cannot help but create a mindset of scarcity in many people. Remember the game of Musical Chairs, in which one chair—and one player—were removed after each round, causing everyone to try and grab one of the remaining seats when the music stopped? Remember being nervous as you circled past those chairs?
It seems that bankers make their millions by taking away one chair after another, leaving us in their debt. The way it works is that we owe the banks, with interest, more than they have lent us. It goes by many names and schemes that nobody (except perhaps the bankers themselves) seem to understand. We hear about derivatives, credit default swaps, subprime mortgage-based securities, stimulus cash, gamed accounting, carry trades, TBTF bailouts, TARPS, TALFS, shell-game BLS reports . .
This scares the wits out of most of us, as well it should, because we don’t have a clue what’s going on. But the secret bottom-line that nobody is copping to is this fact: If we were all to pay up our debts tomorrow, the whole economic system would collapse in a day leaving you and me in the dark of an invisible marketplace we had no idea how to get out of.
So what is happiness, and what is real wealth, and what has real worth? It is children cherished and fed; it is old people warm in the winter. It is a healthy natural world around us, and enough to eat and the pleasures of eating it together. It is water we can drink and swim in, and work that is meaningful, and love, and getting along with each other even when we don’t love each other so much. It is dreaming up new things and creating beauty and having bright ideas and laughing a lot.
Wealth and worth and value is, more than anything, this precious opportunity we have each been given to be alive in the world right this minute. We’re here NOW. Our life won’t last forever. There's not a moment to waste.
Value comes from living well; wealth derives from the opportunity to do so, and from spending the treasure of time with generosity and deep joy.
Money? What’s that?
by Carolyn North
June 2011/July 2011
Vol. 25 • Issue #3