November 8, 2011

The Buck Stops Here

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Recently, Andaluces por el Mundo (a Thursday evening staple on Canal Sur Televisión) profiled Andalusians living in Finland. It was summertime, and the program made Finland out to be the happiest place on Earth. And it very well may be. It’s got free healthcare and is a leader in public education as well as in European technology. In fact, the episode largely featured Finland’s high-tech usage of cell phones for just about everything. Finns use their phones instead of credit cards, to select and pay for goods from vending machines, and for just about everything that requires money. At first, this seems awesome. People don’t have to carry cash, and paying is easier, faster and uses less physical material. But something about this excessively streamlined process just doesn’t sit right. The abstraction of value through money creates a pretty picture, but it also threatens to separate consumers, producers and vendors even further from the products they buy and sell everyday.Granted, using cell phones to pay differs very little from using credit or debit cards. The transfer of money still occurs, it just occurs symbolically rather than physically. The problem with highly digitized modes of payment is not in practice — paying with cell phones does not actually change the way the payment occurs. The problem is in principle. The money system is already deeply flawed at a very basic level; further distancing ourselves from a basic system of direct payment only exacerbates its inherent problems.While I don’t propose overthrowing our current system of commerce and reverting to a world made up of small Utopian communities (at least not in this article), imagining the possibility is a useful way to put our own way of doing things into perspective. Humor me.Paper money itself has no intrinsic value; it represents value. When a loaf of bread costs $1, the breadmaker doesn’t get the value of the bread, he gets a piece of cotton that symbolizes the value of the bread. What is meant to be an exchange of value for value gets abstracted, and producer and consumer are distanced by one degree from the actual exchange: they place money in the middle. This unfortunately perpetuates the heightened social value of personal gain and wealth, as well as the notion that a product or profession could be worth any particular value at all. Instead of promoting communitarian work for the good of the society, money individualizes the notion of value.The expansion of this abstraction of money causes further problems down the line. Utilizing representations of value causes people to care about and depend on an arbitrary notion of wealth — wealth based on imagined value. This in turn leads to a system where not only do certain products cost more money, but certain types of work are worth more. Money creates inequality; although two citizens might work to serve their community, the breadmaker is valued less than the doctor. However, without the exchange of money, the notion that either profession could even have a value would not exist.In fact, the notion of exchanging values at all looks somewhat silly in comparison to what could happen in a moneyless community. Rather than working to acquire a certain amount of money, members of a community would do the work they do, contribute to the communal well-being and in turn gain access to the products of their peers. People would be more inclined to share and cooperate with each other.The breadmaker would make bread, and the doctor would help the sick. In turn, the doctor would get fed and the breadmaker would get medicine. Both jobs benefit the individual and the community and involve mutual exchange. The contemporary concept of value would not exist at all, and neither job would be valued over the other. Without our concept of and preoccupation with monetary value, perfect exchanges would be irrelevant. People would be directly connected to what they buy and from whom, because the idea of making a profit would disappear.Now, this picture surely seems idealistic. I don’t mean to argue that we should necessarily destroy the world’s money system and revert to a government-less, moneyless society. What I mean to say is that the increased abstraction of the exchange of values further distances us from what it means to use money. We distance ourselves from what we accumulate, and we never physically see the majority of wealth we earn.This distance threatens to cause us to lose sight of what actually happens when we buy something. Though flawed, a simple money system calls for direct exchange and management of money. The relationship between product, consumer and producer is direct and the value exchange is blatant. Of course more abstracted, digital versions of this exchange in fact don’t much change the actual act. However, the less we interact with the value we exchange, the easier it becomes to forget what we are exchanging and how. Not only are we distanced from the value of the products we buy, but we are also distanced from the value we supposedly own. Though automated forms of payment certainly have their benefits, digital exchanges reach the same end as paying directly with physical money, and part of me does want to start paying for everything with my cell phone, we should not allow our physical distance from money to result in conceptual distance from what it means to buy and sell.

Ruby Perlmutter is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at rperlmutter@cornellsun.com. Having Said That appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ruby Perlmutter