On The Money;
Economics for the 99%
What is Money, and Where Did It Come From?
Money is a pretty weird thing if you think about it. Money can level forests and move mountains. Money can drill for oil on the bottom of the ocean, land a nuclear powered car on Mars or hunt people down and kill them with remote controlled aircraft. Money can turn your life upside down, make your tap-water catch fire and drive you out of your home. When people talk about their problems, money, or lack thereof, is usually at the top of the list. So, what is money, and where did it come from?
For most of human history, people had no money. People still had to work to get the things they needed, but the work was much more direct. If you wanted meat, you had to hunt and kill an animal. If you wanted a home, you had to build it from whatever you could find around you. All of this stuff was just hard enough to do that you wouldn’t want to do any more of it than you needed to, but easy enough that most of us could accomplish what we needed to do to survive.
Before money, trade was a much smaller part of people’s lives. If you wanted to trade, you had to find someone who had what you wanted, and you had to have something that they wanted. This might happen once or twice a year. The rest of the time, you made do with what you could find around you, all of which was free for the taking.
Before money, nature was “the bank”. People made withdrawals, in the form of the plants and animals they ate and made their clothing from, the trees they made their homes from and the stones from which they crafted tools and weapons, and they made deposits in the form of shit, piss, food waste and eventually, their own bodies, which nature would rapidly recycle into more plants animals and minerals. The system was so well balanced that no one needed accountants, tax preparers or lawyers, and so stable that it lasted for hundreds of millions of years, including over a million years of human habitation, without outside intervention or regulation.
If the natural system worked so well, why was money invented in the first place? The answer is beer. Sure, you can find plenty of food, water and stuff to build a house from in nature, but beer is pretty hard to come by. Occasionally, people could collect enough grass seeds, soak them in water for long enough to produce prehistoric beer, but not nearly often enough to satisfy the thirsts of the ancient Sumerians, who lived in the Middle-East, where it gets mighty hot in the summertime.
The ancient Sumerians were the first people in the world to domesticate wild grasses, and begin farming. They burned huge tracts of forest land that had sustained them for eons, in order to grow wheat and barley. This took an enormous amount of work, and led to major headaches, like plagues of frogs, locusts, and flies, as well as turning a lot of habitable forest land into barren desert, but it did give them beer, and beer was very precious to them. It must have been, or why else would they have worked so hard and sacrificed so much in order to make it?
So it should not surprise you that the first unit of money was the price of a beer, the Shekel. A shekel is equal to 180 grains of barley, roughly the amount needed to produce one beer. While everything else in the natural world was free, beer was expensive. So people counted their shekels, traded shekels and bought things with shekels of barley. Making shekels was no fun at all, but everyone liked beer, so shekels became the currency of the Sumerians, and that is how money was born.
In economics classes they will tell you that money is a medium of exchange that facilitates trade. They’ll tell you that money is a technological advance that made trade more efficient, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, money was invented to facilitate alcoholism.
Many people, economists especially, overlook the central role of alcoholism in civilization. Archeologists have discovered ancient Mesopotamian recipes for beer, and friezes depicting beer drinking on Egyptian pyramids. It was only after beer-making had evolved to a high art, that people began eating the yeast-risen loaves of grain, what we now call “bread”, that were originally used to make to make individual batches of beer.
People eat cereal grains, sure, but compared to a fat steak from a wild antelope, a bowl of cream of wheat is nothing to get excited about. On the other hand, you can’t make beer out of a deer. The psychoactive effects of alcohol, no doubt, made cereal grains especially prized, and as people became habituated to alcohol intoxication, their craving for it grew.
As is the case with alcoholism, the more you drink, the less you care about anything else, until the quest for alcohol becomes the central focus of the alcoholic’s life. The more focused you become on alcohol, the more the rest of your life tends to fall apart. In order to feed their craving for alcohol, people worked long hours to cultivate grains. As grain farming expanded, farmed fields replaced natural habitat, and wild game became more scarce. With less wild game available, grain farmers increasingly traded with traditional hunter-gatherers, who themselves fell under the spell of alcoholism, making them dependent on the grain farmers for their beer. Thus, grain became a precious commodity. People who had a lot of grain, grew more powerful, and those with the most shekels, ruled.