The Tangled Relationship Between Wealth & Money
John Michael Greer
One of the most dangerous mistakes possible to make in trying to understand the shape of the economic future is to think of the fundamental concepts of economics as simple and uncontroversial. They aren’t. In economics, as in all other fields, the fundamentals are where disguised ideologies and unexamined presuppositions are most likely to hide out, precisely because nobody questions them.
In this and future essays here at Peak Prosperity, I will explore a number of things that seem, at first glance, very obvious and basic. I hope you’ll bear with me, as there are lessons of crucial and deeply practical importance to anyone facing the challenging years ahead.
This is, above all, true of the first thing I want to talk about: the tangled relationship between wealth and money.
Our co-host here, Chris Martenson, likes to remind us all that money is not wealth, but a claim on wealth. He’s quite right, and it’s important to understand why.
Money is a system of abstract tokens that complex societies use to manage the distribution of goods and services, and that’s all it is. Money can consist of lumps of precious metal, pieces of paper decorated with the faces of dead politicians, digits in computer memory, or any number of other things, up to and including the sheer make-believe that underlies derivatives and the like.
Important differences separate these various forms of money, depending on the ease or lack of same with which they can be manufactured, but everything that counts as money has one thing in common – it has only one of the two kinds of economic value.
The Two Kinds of Value
Economists call those use value and exchange value.
You already know about them, even if you don’t know the names. Odds are, in fact, that you learned about them back in elementary school the first time that one of your classmates offered to trade you something for the cookies in your lunchbox.
You then had to choose between trading the cookies for whatever your classmate offered and eating them yourself. The first of those choices treated the cookies primarily as a bearer of exchange value; the second treated them primarily as a bearer of use value.
All forms of real wealth – that is, all nonfinancial goods and services – have use value as well as exchange value. They can be exchanged for other goods and services, financial or otherwise, but they also provide some direct benefit to the person who is able to obtain them.
All forms of money, by contrast, have exchange value but no use value. You can’t do a thing with them except trade them for something that has use value (or for some other kind of money that can be traded for things with use value).
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