Money Is Not Air
Prolonged social distancing raises some hard questions about the world’s economy.
Imagine if you had to buy air. Without producing or owning some other thing of value to trade, you would not have air. You would die.
Or what if air was not equally spread throughout the atmosphere, if some people lived in places rich with air while others lived in places made so poor by the lack of it that they eventually suffocated.
Or imagine that among the unlimited supply of air was the capacity to turn it into a currency. With the right effort, you could gather it up and make it into cash. The more air you had, the richer you were.
Or that air was not virtually unlimited at all. That like water or food it could be hoarded, owned by a few and doled out to the rest.
Air is both tangible and invisible. The first and last action we take in this world is a breath.
For most of our experience, we don’t think of it. The atmosphere is a medium in which we exist, the space in which we move. But it also has weight and push. It is the wind; it can be the hurricane. Air may be comfortable or uncomfortable, hot or cold, but it is always available for us to breathe. We can improve our atmosphere or make it worse, but the air itself, the basic stuff, is always there.
Because air is abundant and free, we don’t generally treat it as a commodity. We assume that air is a right to all human beings, rightfully so, since without it we die. Some complications come to mind. Many people live in places where the air is polluted, for example, but our response to pollution comes down to the quality of air in that place, not the existence of it altogether.
Air is everywhere.
So is money. Money is so essential to our world that we unthinkingly often treat the two identically.
Like air, money is both tangible and invisible. In today’s world, it connects all things and somehow, invisibly, sustains them. Money is this medium in which all commerce and trade, all goods and energy and even information, seems to flow and function. While one can manipulate it, gather it, amass it or lose it, without money the system would not exist at all.
A person who chooses not to avail themselves of this free stuff floating around in the imaginary ether makes a choice, not like someone refusing to eat or drink altogether, but like someone who only drinks free water from the tap and eats food so cheap it might as well be free. While the quality of a life might be dependent upon money, even people without money don’t die — as with air, they will always have enough of it to live, if poorly.
There are limited resources in our world that do require effort to obtain. We trade and barter them, pass them back and forth, consume them and produce more. The most basic are as necessary for survival as air: food, water, shelter. The medium in which they move is money. The ‘air’ of all our commerce is cash.
It’s hard to think of a more symbolic, immediate, and relevant example of this analogy than Covid-19, a virus that infects the lungs and suffocates the host. This has never been more evident than the last few weeks, as coronavirus ravages the world and we find ourselves asking if the cure is worse than the disease.
Because the ‘cure’ is removing ourselves from the moving air of commerce.
To ask this question, ‘Is the disease worse than the cure?’ is to imply that two mediums are similar. A virus rides the air and kills. It floods the lungs and denies the victim access to oxygen. Perversely, to fight this virus we suffocate in a different atmosphere, an atmosphere of commerce in which the ‘oxygen’ is money.
The cure we are speaking of is stopping the economy, the atmosphere of trade and commerce that ties together all our interactions. If we separate ourselves from each other in order to halt the spread of the virus, we simultaneously stop the flow of money upon which all our commerce rides. It is the money that vanishes, somehow.
If money is similar to air, then removing that atmosphere starves the human beings within it of life-giving forces, of the fundamental components to living. If this were not so, we would not be asking the question.
Maybe it’s true. Maybe without money we do die, perhaps not as quickly as one denied oxygen, but never-the-less. Maybe money is as fundamental to our living as water or food or shelter. Maybe more so.
But no. Hell no.
Money is not air. We don’t pay for air and we don’t breathe money.
Money is a human invention. It is not life. It is not a building block of life. It isn’t even physical at all.
A collapsing economy is not the same as losing air. The first effect is discomfort. Extreme discomfort to be sure. Painful discomfort, genuine suffering, but not death. Long term suffering even, but not death. Suffering that has a path to recovery.
If we are legitimately fearful that basic needs like food and water should vanish because the medium of the economy — all that money — stops moving, then we need a radical re-thinking of the entire system.
And if the absence of money does lead to death, then it is a very different and much more complicated mortality than one brought about by a complete lack of fundamental needs. Death from a lack of money is a system failure, in systems created and maintained by human beings.
One doesn’t die from a lack of money; they die from a lack of things that are carried through the medium of money. We are threatened by the collapse of our economy because it stops the churn of money upon which all our necessities seem to travel. Yet those necessities still exist. The planet still holds food, water, air. If the absence of money threatens our access to the basic physical needs of our lungs and bodies, then we need to take a hard look at the system we have created that has made it this way.
Here’s the heart of the matter: If the absence of money does indeed cause suffering that is comparable or worse to the kind we experience when we can’t breathe or eat or drink, then we need a profound re-examination of the entire concept of money and its role in society.
Upon the actual air rides a virus, Covid-19. In some of us it attacks the very lungs we use to stay alive. It is an enemy that we are bound to fight. If we do not defeat it, we suffocate and die.
Within the economy is a virus, but a different kind. It is a virus that has made us co-dependent upon its very existence. It has, without doubt, brought us many, many great things. It fuels the technology that enriches our world. It powers the vast global network of trade. Money is the air of our 21st Century global society.
But if halting its mere movement for a few months is a threat to our very survival, then perhaps we need to reconsider our relationship with this one.