"The penalty good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men." attributed to Plato

"Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." attributed to Edmund Burke

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Sunday, 20 November 2011

What is money? Why do we need it?

It is difficult to define money. We have ingrained within our deepest psyche a sense that our monetary wealth reflects our success and affects our happiness.
But we know from studies that once a certain and fairly modest standard of living has been achieved any further increase in wealth does not improve our happiness. It is then influenced more by our status in society, the quality of our personal relationships and our physical health.(1)And status emphatically does not mean celebrity status. It means being valued for our own unique gifts and qualities, whatever those may be.
And if we still think that an accumulation of wealth can give us longer-term security we are deluded. Monetary wealth is a very poor long-term investment. It cannot guarantee long-term security and no investment is totally risk free. We saw this only too clearly during the global banking crisis that began in 2007 with problems in the United States over ‘sub-prime’ loans. The effect was soon felt in the UK as they reeled from the Northern Rock building society debacle, the first ‘run’ on a bank in that country for 141 years. Now we have the Eurozone crisis and the global stock markets move dizzily up and down fuelled mostly, it would seem, by alternating cycles of fear and greed, and the longer-term effects of this financial tsunami remain uncertain.

Why do we need money?
The Greek Philosopher and scientist Aristotle explained in his Politics in c 330BC why money had been invented. The art of acquisition, he said, for which a currency was required, arose out of the simpler barter of goods, and he saw this as quite natural and healthy. But when ‘The supply of men’s needs came to depend on more foreign sources, as men began to import for themselves what they lacked, and to export what they had in superabundance: …in this way the use of a money currency was inevitably instituted.’(2)
But Aristotle made the distinction, between essential and therefore laudable expenditure for the daily needs of food, shelter and clothing, and the acquisition of money for acquisition’s sake by profit associated with retail trade. The latter he censured,

because the gain in which it results is not naturally made, but is made at the expense of other men. The trade of the petty usurer is hated with most reason: it makes a profit from currency itself, instead of making it from the process which currency was meant to serve. Currency came into existence merely as a means of exchange; usury tries to make it increase.(3)

Aristotle did not trust money because he could see that it could feed an insatiable desire way beyond what was necessary for our needs and he saw this as unethical.
In addition to life’s basic survival necessities of warmth, clean air, medicine, clean water, food and housing, all human beings worldwide have a need and a human right to be free, to be respected as equals, able to choose their own destiny and to fulfill their full emotional, intellectual and spiritual potential. We are all entitled to the five basic human justices, of monetary and social justice, economic and environmental justice and of the right to peace.(4)
I believe that to really achieve such justice in our world we need to allow the healing qualities of compassion and vulnerability and spirituality to infuse our lives and our actions in our financial housekeeping.
Our present economy is flawed - in many ways. That is why I have a sympathy and empathy with the real underlying gripes of the Occupy movement.

Probably the most important flaw is that Humans are not valued
A very large number of people in our society are presently undervalued or not valued at all in monetary terms. These include the old and young, the infirm and disabled, the housewives and the many community and charity volunteers without whom many organizations would simply not survive. All of these people outside the conventional workforce often work very much harder and longer hours than many in full time employment. But they gain no financial independence or recognition within the economic framework from their toil. I know of a wife who for two decades has selflessly cared full time for an increasingly and profoundly disabled husband. Or I think of the mother who takes a career break to raise her own children. These women both lead enormously valuable lives, but feel undervalued.
We measure a ‘healthy’ economy in terms of the material wealth or prosperity that is created by and for its working citizens, expressed in terms such as the gross domestic product (GDP), gross domestic income (GDI) or gross national product (GNP). Whichever measure is used, they all put a zero valuation on the environment, on healthy citizens, social cohesion and cultural values!(5)As Robert Kennedy said:

…the (Gross National Product) does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages… It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans. (6)

1. Schluter, Michael and John Ashcroft, Editors, Jubilee Manifesto: a Framework, Agenda and Strategy for Christian Social Reform, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2005, p. 217.
2. Aristotle Politics, translated by Ernest Barker Revised R F Stalley 1998, 1.9 1257a 5 p.26.
3. Ibid., 1258a 35 p.30.
4. Based on the principle of global justice taken from the five principles of the Global Justice Movement
5. Hazel Henderson, 2001, Mapping the Transition from GDP Growth to Rising Quality of Life, in Nikkei Ecology, 2001, cited in The Path to Living Economies – a collaborative Working Document of the Social Ventures Network
6. Robert F. Kennedy, 18 March 1968.

© Eleanor Stoneham 2011 Adapted from Healing this Wounded Earth


ant0ni0 said...

I love your Post... too much undervalued.

Thanks a lot, Eleanor.

eleanor stoneham said...

Thanks Anton - more to come!

eleanor stoneham said...

It occurs to me - I posted quite a bit around our flawed economy and what to do about it in March, April, May, August, October this year! Wonder if you found those!?

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