Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Making Money"

Our language has many peculiarities that shape thought in hidden ways. One example is the phrase "make money."

Strictly speaking, nobody "makes money" in this country except the mint. Money is legal tender, and neither private individuals nor corporations are authorized to "make" it. To do so is a felony. When we say that someone "makes money," what we really mean is that the person takes money: he persuades other people to give him money in exchange for something else, be it goods, services, promises, or deception. No money is actually made in these transactions, by which I mean that the overall money supply does not increase; what money the person who is "making" it gains, his customers lose in an exact one-for-one correspondence. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the customers, since money also has no intrinsic value whatsoever; it gains value only in exchange for other things that DO have intrinsic value, and the only reason anyone is willing to take intrinsically worthless money in exchange for intrinsically valuable things is because the money so acquired can then be given away to someone else in exchange for other things of value. Money is at root a confidence game in the literal sense of requiring a faith in the system of government that backs it and a confidence that it can be exchanged for items of value, even though it has no value of its own, and because of this disconnect, this one-off between the medium of exchange and the items of actual value, it can also be a confidence game in the figurative sense.

Really it all comes down, not to money, but to stuff: goods, services, promises, or deception. Money is not wealth. Goods and services are wealth; money is only a token exchangeable for wealth. One cannot "make money," but one can make wealth, by making goods or performing services. Ideally, that is how a person or a corporation "makes money" -- by making wealth, and exchanging the wealth for money, which can then be re-exchanged for more wealth. The amount of money doesn't increase, but the amount of wealth does. As a straightforward exchange, there is nothing objectionable about this. But the fact that we employ money rather than barter -- the fact that we exchange wealth not for wealth but for tokens exchangeable for wealth -- means that the potential for abuse, and for confidence games in the figurative sense, creeps in.

Start with the fact that goods and services are, almost without exception, produced collectively, not individually. That is, their creation requires the cooperative effort of more than one person. Most of the people who work to create the wealth have no ownership interest in it (as I explored in an earlier post) and must accept (or reject) a payment in money for helping to create it according to the terms that the owner (usually a corporation) is willing to offer. The potential for abuse in that transaction is of course well known to anyone who has studied the history of the labor movement.

Then there's the fact that money can be exchanged not just for real wealth, but for potential wealth. This is called "investing." Money is paid not for goods or services, but for the potential of being repaid more money than one paid out in the future, which can then be re-exchanged for real wealth. Investments, however, don't always pay off. Sometimes an investor loses money instead of gaining it. This means that a person or a corporation can "make" (or take) money by attracting investors rather than by offering wealth in exchange. To make things more wonderfully and woefully complex still, the person "selling" the investment can then turn around and re-invest the money so gained himself in the hopes that it will pay off more than he ends up paying back to the original investor. And so on, in a tangle of investment and reinvestment. There are whole industries built around this sort of thing, producing no wealth whatsoever but "making" lots of money.

Now the justification for this sort of financial goings-on is that at least some of the money is ultimately used to fund the production of wealth, which, under the rules of our economic game, requires money in order to be done. But it doesn't have to be done that way. All that's really necessary in order for an investment scheme to "make money" is that people who have money be convinced to invest it. A financier can "make money" all day long without producing a damned thing, merely by moving around intrinsically worthless tokens, taking money from others in exchange for promises or, in some cases, for deception.

Even when the money that is being "made" is acquired in the more straightforward fashion, by producing actual wealth and selling it, there is still plenty of room for practices that are anything but straightforward. British Petroleum, for example, is certainly producing wealth (or it intended to anyway) from its deep-water oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. But it acquired ownership of the oil it hoped to pump through a process of leasing the mineral rights from the government that involves a highly questionable exchange of value. Arguably, since the land in question is government property, it belongs to the people of the United States, yet the people get precious little return for it; if BP had to buy the rights for something approximating their real value, that could fund a lot in the way of public services, tax cuts, and/or deficit reduction. On the other end, as what actually happened with that well demonstrates, the law requires the people to pay to clean up any messes that result, after the corporation pays out an amount of money limited by law and, in the instant case, only a tiny fraction of the actual damages. In this particular case, due to the publicity involved and the magnitude of the disaster, BP may find itself unable to make use of that sweetheart deal, but the Gulf oil leak is only a larger-scale version of similar environmental accidents that happen all the time, and other damage that isn't accidental at all.

Running through our economy are rules and practices that twist and warp what should be a straightforward process of producing wealth and distributing it to people into one sort or another of theft. Theft of people's earnings, their savings, their livelihoods, their hopes and dreams, their health, and their lives. And yet, because of the peculiarities of the language we speak, we call all of that "making money."

A curious thing, I say.

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