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Friday, 19 February 2010

of money

“In the end though, maybe we must all give up trying to pay back the people in this world who sustain our lives. In the end, maybe it’s wiser to surrender before the miraculous scope of human generosity and to just keep saying thank you, forever and sincerely, for as long as we have voices.”
Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

It's the time of year again when the infamous hunger gap opens over us again. Our larder is looking worryingly empty. The last of the tomato sauce is finished as are various beans under brine. There's still quite a bit of chutney and jam, a few dried beans and sweetcorn and most importantly olives and olive oil.

Also inside my wallet a yawning emptyness greets me. Above you can see the entire current contents of it. The bank account doesn't show any more either. So this state of affairs together with the fact that outside there is a howling gale and horizontal rain leads me to philosophise a little on the subject of money.

To put it quite simply, I really do not understand the concept of money. I mean it, I don't. I can just about follow why they invented it in the first place. Back in the days when humans just roamed the countryside, life maybe wasn't exactly easy, but it was simple. All you needed to sort out was who went foraging for berries and roots and who did the hunting. In the evening they all met up again and shared their spoils.

When they invented culture you could still manage quite easily. You hunted an extra wild boar or deer, picked a few more berries and invited the guy with the interesting metal contraption from the other valley to bring along some pina colada and the other chap who manages to extract those strange sounds out of an old goat skin to join your feast and hey, you had a party!

But once people started settling down people started to specialise. There was the cabbage farmer, the goat herder, the medicine man, the carpenter and the plumber. Once the cabbage farmer got himself yet another acre of land he needed a bit of help. But soon his workmen got bored being paid in cabbages, there's only so much you can do with them. So they needed to come up with some sort of currency, some sort of token with a value they all agreed on.

Initially they started with pretty seashells, however Hungary, Mongolia and other landlocked countries felt a little left out, having to go so far to pick up seashells. So they came up with gold, which was quite a good idea, because firstly it's quite rare unlike seashells and secondly it's completely useless for any other purpose. Far too soft for weapons or tools. Now things started to become complicated though.

Money started taking on a life entirely of it's own. Initially, when they introduced money, I'm sure they said something like: "ok, one money is worth one chicken, which in turn is worth 20 eggs, unless it's an old stringy thing, in which case it'll only be worth half a money. As for cabbages, you get 5 cabbages for one money and we'll give you one free on top." But then some people got a bit greedy, especcially those with special skills like the medicine man. Instead of taking one money to make you better, he started taking two.

He saved up the extra moneys to go and build himself a jacuzzi and a snooker table in his basement. So this of course had a twofold knock-on effect. One, the guy helping the cabbage farmer says he needs more money to make his wife better. This puts up the price of cabbages and leaves others needing more money too and two everyone else now wants a jacuzzi and snooker table too. This way I imagine inflation was invented. So all of a sudden no one new from one day to the next how much his moneys were worth.

In addition you had the problem that the Hungarians had just got used to using seashells having aquired enough through trade, whilst the coastal countries had meanwhile moved on to using gold or marbles or football player collectors cards. Now if you wanted to trade with a neighbouring country you didn't only have to consider the changing value of your money against goods within you own country, but also against currencies from other countries.

All of a sudden the real villain of the story appears, the banker! I imagine the first banker as your average nerd at school. Instead of spending all his pocket money on sweets like any normal kid, he saves it all in a secret hiding place under the floor boards. At school he sells half his school lunch to his fellow pupils and maybe starts a sideline in betting on the outcome of school fights. By the time he's grown up, being quite lonely and avoided by his peers he comes up with a plan for everyone to love him again.

First he goes to the medicine man with the jacuzzi and snooker table, gives him a big smile and a warm handshake and says:
"Look Doc, you and me we've always been the best of friends haven't we? Don't answer that, it was a rhetorical question. Listen you keeping your money under the pillow like that, it's not safe, you know. Next time the cabbage farm worker calls you out to see his wife, he'll come straight to your house and take all your lovely money away. I've seen him eye up your snooker table, you know. Apart from anything else there's that inflation thing that you set off. Means your money is becoming less even if no one comes stealing it."
"How do you mean it's getting less, if I have it under my matress? What should I do about that then?"

"Ah, you see, you are lucky to have me, an expert as your friend. You just give it all to me and..."

"No, no, let me explain, I will invest it for you. I don't expect a busy man like to understand the details. All you need to know is whenever you need money, come to me and I will give you more than you have given me originally. (Subject to conditions, market variations, currency fluctuations, plain luck, the weather and other unforeseen circumstances...). I'll offer other services (for a small surcharge at my discretion...), like paying your weekly grocery bill by direct debit or you can pay at the butchers by simply writing out a piece of paper that he then presents to me. Imagine how much time and bother this would all save you!"

Having bamboozled the nedicine man our newly created banker is now off to the cabbage farm worker and puts a friendly arm around his shoulder:

"My friend!" he says.
"What do you want? I'm not putting on another bet with you, I always loose!"
"No I want to help you!! I've seen you casting an eye on that snooker table of the medicine man, I have good news for you, I can help you get one!!!"

The cabbage farm worker is starting to worry about the increasing use of exclamation marks, but wants to know more anyway. You have an idea how the strory ends.

Now, a few centuries later we find you're a nobody if you don't have a bank account, your bank manager has absolute power over you and they get bonuses of a squillion dollars. How on earth did that happen? Why did the medicine man and the cabbage farm worker not see straight through that first banker and told him where to go in possibly although not necessarily very impolite language?

Anyway, you can tell I'm bored, hence my ramblings. For the past few weeks we've lived on €5 a week, which we get paid for teaching this young lady out of the village some English. I know we should be charging more, but hey, it's sort of a community service. Also we know her Mum isn't exactly loaded either.
For your general day-to-day living €5 is actually enough. We even manage to feed our cats on that, as long as they are not fussy. But then things like electricity and phone bills turn up, you run out of gas for heating and cooking and the petrol in the car runs out on a small country lane a mile from home (luckily walking distance!) It's then that you are glad you haven't been as nasty to your fellow humans as the banker and people come to your rescue.

This brings me neatly back to the quote on the top. The little card under the moneys on the top photo came with a wee parcel by my dear old friend Angelika in Germany. The parcel was stuffed full of goodies such as tea and chocolate, which is keeping us at least warm. The value of friendship is something bankers try to use in their advertising, but it simply does not compare. I much rather stay poor as long as I still have friends.

So thank you to all our friends both real and virtual, I feel richer than a Russian oligarch!


Beck Middleton said...

so true

chaiselongue said...

This is a brilliant explanation of where it all went wrong! Now how can we put all those bankers to useful work - pruning olive trees perhaps? While we're not able to live on as little as 5 euros a week, and I still do paid work some of the time, we certainly feel that our life here and our friends are worth much more than we used to earn in a past life.

Enjoy your olives! And just think of all those bankers who will never taste their own olive oil.

Mr. H. said...

Oh but that we could go back to those days Heiko. I would trade you root veggies in exchange for wine, or perhaps you could tutor me in another language as I helped you prune and pick your olive trees.

True wealth will never revolve around money, that I do know..the same can be said for happiness.

Ayak said...

This is a brilliant post Heiko...and so very true. For the past 12 winters in this country we experience the same problems. Not because we are self-sufficient like you, but because there is simply no work for almost half of the year. My cupboard and fridge are also bare. I too have bills that need to be paid and an empty purse.

I also have wonderful friends who send me parcels of chocolate, custard and gravy, another who sends books, and one who keeps me supplied with worm tablets and various meds for my dogs.

We do still have a little bit of the bartering mentality here and it does help things along at times. The local shopkeeper in almost every area is sympathetic in winter, and allows people to run up tabs, knowing that they will pay up once the season starts again.

I think I can beat you on the 5 euro a day though...we are certainly living on less agt the moment.

But we're still happy aren't we? I have to remind myself at times that I'm fortunate not to be in Haiti or Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world where people are dying.

Ayak said...

Correction to my previous post...I should have said 5 euro per WEEK not DAY..that's what I meant.

Heiko said...

Mr. H., you and me could get along famously bartering without cash, however when I offered The electricity board a couple of jars of "I can't believe it's not mango chutney" chutney, som plum jam and a bottle of olive oil as payment, they weren't having any of it. They said it would be too difficult to distribute amongst their workforce. They've got a point I suppose...

Ayak, I'm sure when economists are talking about a cashfree society, they didn't have the likes of you and me in mind!

Chaiselongue, good idea, putting those wa.. sorry bankers to some useful tasks!

Beck, welcome to my blog!

Ruralrose said...

Excellent post, your best yet I would wager. Wish you were my neighbor too. Maybe we are the ones, scattered around the globe, who's sacrifices will change the status quo. Let's hope so. Peace

Kate said...

Heiko this is told so well...I laughed and laughed instead of going out and watering my tomatoes before the heat of the day. And I have put a link to it on these blogs:
http://vegetablevagabond.blogspot.com Sad thing is that the story is true... but growing food, connecting with the earth and sharing with friends makes up for it all. 

africanaussie said...

Hi I just found your blog through a link from Kates blog! Wonderful post, I always wondered where it was we started to go wrong....

Heiko said...

Thank you all! Maybe I should sell this article and get some money for it!!! I just came across this article through the Make Wealth History blog: http://blogs.worldwatch.org/transformingcultures/forget-dollars-well-take-your-potomacs-please/. Some guys have created a local currency, which is supposed to be better. I still don't get it. It makes a difference, just because a money stays nearby???

Barbara Bueno said...

Fantastic! This is one of the best articles ever. Everybody should read it... :)

Heiko said...

Thanks Barbara, I'm turning all purple here...

Gaia's Hope said...

So real post! I enjoy it so much
Greetings from Greece, summer is here we will have tomatoes again

Heiko said...

Thank you Gaia. Welocme to my blog