The Prime Mover
Originally money was just a medium to replace barter. It represented hard work pretty much on a one-to-one basis. The blacksmith toiled for a day shoeing horses and received five dollars. The farmer harvested for a day and received five dollars. Each of them could then take their five dollars and go buy whatever they needed, understanding that what they bought would represent in a fair way the fruit of their labor. There was not much opportunity for wealth in those times since a person could only work so much.
Over time money has evolved from providing functions of exchange and units of account to taking on a life of its own through clever financial schemes of multiplication. Where there is room for corruption, for someone to cheat, get something for nothing, work the system to their advantage, you can bet somebody will figure out a way. Money provides the perfect vehicle to that end, particularly now that it is nothing more than a stroke on a computer keyboard.
Arguably it is a corruption that money can now be accumulated disproportionate to the work used to create it. The monetary world rather than serving as a measure of work or goods has become like a gigantic casino. Luck, inheritance, financial markets, working the “system” and graft can amass huge amounts of paper wealth. So too can legitimate business create wealth through the incremental profits permitted in multiplying oneself by contract with vendors, agents and employees.
We desire money not only because it permits the necessities and luxuries of life, but also because it can replace work and give us ease. More importantly, money has replaced brute strength as the means to power. Money is like the sword in the stone of King Arthur legend. Once you pull it out of the stone you are imbued with special powers. It’s also a Golden Rule whoever has the gold rules.
Because money is a medium of essentially all interactions, it can be thought of as the prime mover. Roads, schools, utilities, environmental protection, social aid, medical care, defense, industry, religion and even close personal and family relationships are affected by money. We are naïve if we think they are not. Money woes, for example, are the leading cause of divorce. Essentially all of society is now shaped by the flow of dollars.
It is important for us to realize that most modern systems and ideas are not in place because they are necessarily true or of some noble purpose or higher ideal (although they may have started from that beginning). There are always better ideas, but without a lot of kicking and screaming they will never displace the one ensconced that is shuttling money, turning profits and providing material gains. Money nails ideas in place regardless of their merit.
A good example is the gasoline-powered automobile. Born out of the need for better transportation and the ideal of bettering society (with no little profiteering enthusiasm thrown in), it remains in spite of much better ideas. Efforts to use more recyclable materials, stop the obsolescence from cosmetic model changes and create nonpolluting and more efficient engines are stymied because those who make money with the system as it is are threatened and hold the reins of power.
Modern medicine is another good example. The medical system began with the ideal of healing. With over one and a half trillion dollars annually circulating through it, it remains not because of its merit but because it is riveted there by money. For example, drugs that are known to kill remain in the market until the cost of litigating damages exceeds profits from sales. The FDA, not wanting to disturb billion dollar industries too much, may step in and do no more than require re-labeling (like a stronger contraindications warning that the drug may cause serious harm or death). In effect, foxes are guarding the medical hen house. There are far better approaches to healthcare than focusing on symptoms and naming diseases. But these ideas remain on the fringes and are not afforded the opportunity to establish legitimacy because they threaten status (money) quo. In the meantime millions die and suffer from preventable diseases.
It is tragic that the way things change once they are securely (financially) in place is not due to better ideas but because of crisis. Modern medicine will eventually change, but not because it recognizes its own deficiencies or that it is the number one killer of our modern time.
It will change, as it now ever so slowly is, because of the economic crisis of people turning to alternative practitioners. Also, you can bet that if oil ran out or enough people were gagging on pollution we would have a new form of engine. But until then (even though pollution is a problem and oil reserves are clearly finite), economic forces will keep things as they are even if things as they are clearly taking us down a slippery slope. Unfortunately, the course of history we are setting follows the money trail, not good ideas.
Old institutions die hard when shored up with the mortar of money. The motto seems to be: money first and solve no crisis before its time. Only when gross tragedy is clearly imminent do we see the light. There is nothing like facing death or extinction to create rational clarity. If it is not too late, society will survive and perhaps even advance by putting a better idea in place. If it does not, that will not be a new thing since the corruption and demise of every developed civilization in history stems from financial powers keeping things as they were. The difficulty today is the problem is global, not local. It will not continue to be isolated matters of, “too bad about over there.” “Too bad” will be us and “over there” will be here.
But economics does not have to proceed in a moral and ethical vacuum, benefit only a few nor spell our demise. Reason and principle can guide our course. Economics is no more and no less than the people who make the transactions. It is within our reach to use it to create the utopia or spend our way into environmental, social or political oblivion.
Change for the better will not likely happen voluntarily from the top down, but only from the bottom up. We the people must use money in a rational way to make a better world by supporting only those people and institutions that set ethics and principles before profit. Industry, politicians, medical and other institutions are not destroying our health and world, we are by giving them our money. Purchasing power is the ultimate power. All we need to do is exert it in the right direction.