Jan Kregel presented a great dinner speech at the recent Modern Monetary Theory Conference, touching on some of the fundamental ways we think about money and economics. (Sorry, no recording or transcript available.) I had a brief conversation with him afterwards, and we followed up with a few emails.
The quotation in the title of this post is condensed from the final line of one of his emails — a line that made me laugh out loud:
“So I guess we start from that — in the beginning was the word, and the word was the unit of account?”
Okay, yes: money-dweeb humor. But the implications are kind of profound.
The Word. Logos. Indeed. I’ve written about this before — how writing in its earliest forms emerged from tally sheets, accounting. Even, that its emergence was the first step on the road to outsourcing our memory onto iPhones, maybe even (only somewhat tongue in cheek) causing human brains to shrink over millennia.
Jan’s great line, and our conversations, prompt me to set down some thoughts on this ever-vexed subject. Herewith, twelve widespread usages and conceptions that, in my experience, tie our money discussions in knots. Please assume that anything you don’t like here is mine, not Jan’s, and apologies to those who have heard some of this from me before.
(A proleptic response to an inevitable digression: I’m assuming a closed national or world economy for simplicity. The “rest of world” sector, and the exchange rate with Martian currency, are not considered.)
#1. Money was invented around 700 BCE. No. That’s when coins were invented — handy physical tokens making it easy to transfer assets from one person’s (implicit) balance sheet to another’s. Money existed on something like balance sheets — tallies of who owns what and who owes what — long before that; those tallies go back thousands or tens of thousands of years. Mentions of monetary values in written documents — designated in staters, drachms, whatever — were widespread long before anyone thought of using coins for asset transfers.
The earliest coins, by the way, may well have been badges of honors and offices issued by religious authorities. Somehow people started exchanging them, and voila: physical currency. This had little or nothing to do with butchers and bakers or convenient time-shifting of purchases. That’s a made-up armchair myth (though the convenience benefit is real). Wampum, likewise, wasn’t used for trade exchange until Europeans captured that “money” system and transformed it.
#2. Money is a “medium of account.” (Whatever “medium” means in that phrase…) Money was invented when some clever tally-keeper, totting up cows and horses and bags of grain, invented the arbitrary unit of account — a unit that allows those heterogenous goods to be tallied on a single sheet, in a common unit of value. We find price lists of assorted goods on some of the earliest Sumerian tablets, for instance, and price lists can’t exist without a unit of account. It’s hard to know, but it seems like this clever technology might have been invented multiple times over the millennia.