THE MONEY CHRONICLES
"It's all about money and anyone who says it's not is being paid to say so." Anonymous
How do you feel about money? Love it? Hate it? Desperately need some? Whether you're set for life or dodging the repo man, you must have noticed we live in a world defined by money. Our language reflects this reality. Sick people are "health care consumers." Children are "economic resources of the future." Art is a "financial investment." What's left of the world's rainforests might be saved if "consumer ecology" can make it profitable. Five thousand years of evolving civilization is "the global marketplace."
Other values are derided as sentimental or naively idealistic. If you stop and think about it, you'll realize we've come to a rather amazing moment in time. Today, money is the deciding measure of our culture, our community, and often, our own self worth. It determines global events and our most intimate relations, influencing sacred and secular traditions alike, affecting every aspect of our lives without exception.
How do we manage the demands of such a ruthless paradigm? Some of us manage it very well indeed, flourishing in an environment of intense financial competition. Some of us don't handle it well at all, struggling under the monetary requirements of contemporary life. Many of us settle somewhere in the middle, compromising on one end or the other in an effort to insure a modest financial security while still finding the time and attention needed to pursue other priorities and interests. However we deal with it, money is now a defining matter for all of us. It has become our common language and our common measure.
The Money Chronicles talks with rich and poor, young and old, black and white, calm and freaked out. These are our stories as we live in a world made of money.
The following case histories and comments are taken from interviews with real people. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent, the embarrassed, the shy, the bitter, the guilty, the delusional, and the doomed.
Question: What do you think and how do you feel about money?
Money is power, power and freedom, freedom of choice. They say democracy gives you freedom of choice but really, it's money. It's important to realize that and not get fooled about what's really going on. All the rhetoric about other values and stuff, it's a kind of scam, a side show that everyone is focused on but really, it's the money that decides things. And behind that scam is another one, even more far out. There isn't something real sitting somewhere that makes the money valuable, it's just us. It's this unquestioned agreement we all have that it's worth what we say it is. Maybe that's what makes it so powerful. We all believe in it, like God or something, but it's just us. It's almost supernatural.
Online Order Fulfillment
My freshman year in college, I did that thing where you light a joint with a ten dollar bill because you've learned it's not backed by the gold in Fort Knox, or by anything anymore. It's just a piece of paper. Last year I graduated with $40,000 in debt. Now I wish I had that sawbuck back.
Online Order Fulfillment
Sometimes I think they make school so expensive because that's what they want to teach you. They want you to see how important money is so you'll knuckle under and get over any ideas you might have about making things different or following your bliss or anything like that. It's like that idealistic stuff has got to go so they can get what they need out of you.
Which is a scared worker who won't make trouble cause he has to have that job no matter what else is going on. The whole thing sucks.
I went to private school and all my friends were in the same class, the same financial class I mean. We could all do the same things, go to the same places. It's better that way. It's more comfortable. You don't have to worry about saying something that gets weird. Everyone has the same assumptions, the same references. There's no embarrassing silence if you complain about the help. There's a reason people tend to spend their time with others of the same background. It's just more comfortable for everybody.
I was raised to achieve and I've done okay. Money is the measure of success in most places, in most professions. I don't mind that. It's what lets you do everything else. I mean, you can't make a donation to Greenpeace unless you have the dough, right?
Look. It's only money. It's not what really counts in life. What really counts is love, compassion, learning, being a good person. I read once where this Buddhist monk said, "Take what comes without a price tag and cherish it as a holy text." That says it all.
When someone says, "It's only money," it shows how little they know. It's only money until you don't have any, then it actually becomes food, clothing, a place to live, heat, light, and a telephone.
I freelance and for several years I was doing quite well but recently work has dropped off and I'm really worried about money. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. I'm trying to deal with it by not spending any, but it's really hard, mostly with people I see socially. Before, I didn't quite realize how almost everything we do costs a bunch of money. Someone will call and say, "Meet us at ---," and I'm thinking, "Oh god, that's going to be expensive." And if I say, "I can't go there, I'm on a tight budget," there's a pause, you know, and it's like I'm a drag on things. So I've been saying stuff like, "Oh, I heard it not that great," or something like that, which is ridiculous because I'm making it up and that's kind of weird but I'm not going to say, "Look, I can't do any of the things you can do anymore because I don't have the money." It's too hard, it's too … lonely.
You don't feel you can talk to them about it?
It's not that easy. Yeah, sure, you could say, what kind of friends are these? But I don't think it's about loyalty or stuff like that. I think money is different. You become friends with people because you share things, you share experiences and feelings. If your financial status changes you are suddenly having completely different experiences … completely different feelings. People can like you a lot but they don't know what to do because being broke is like having cancer or something. No one knows what to do about it, no one knows how to relate. I mean, what are they supposed to do? Give you some? Then what happens? You're one down, you're "in their debt." And I'm using air quotes here because no matter how much you want to think nothing has changed, it's not true. Your relationship has changed. You are, actually, in their debt. I don't think it's about loyalty, I think it's just real hard to deal with each other about money.
I do freelance work for a newspaper and I wind up dropping in on all kinds of different social circles and financial circles too; lives and worlds I'd never get to see otherwise - some real rich and some real poor and some in the middle. And the thing I notice is how my sense of my own situation changes depending on which circle I step into. Like last week I was getting pictures for a story on this place that helps homeless people and when I'm packing up my equipment to leave, this guy is standing there and he says, "Is that your car?" And I say, "Yeah." And he says, "Nice." And I say, "Yeah, it's great." Now my car is a beat up six-year-old Honda Civic someone sold to me before he moved to Montana. He didn't leave a forwarding address. Get the picture? But compared to what that guy has - which is nothing - its a nice car.
Two days later, I'm shooting a charity benefit at this really posh club in the Hamptons and I drive up and the valet points me where to park and there's nothing but Mercedes, Rolls Royces, and all these gleaming, expensive foreign cars and my little blue Honda looks like a total junker. So, I'm rich to the guy at the homeless shelter and I'm poor to the guy parking cars at that party. Its a slippery thing and even though I don't like to admit it, it effects the way I feel about myself. When I come back from the homeless place I feel like I've got a pretty good life. When I come back from the Hamptons I feel like a failure. I'm trying to find my own measure of myself, separate from money, but it's not easy. The money thing is always there.
I don't think I'm obsessive about money but I've always prided myself on being realistic and honest about it. Then one day my six-year old said, "Mommy, how much money am I worth?" It shocked me, it really did, and I realized my husband and I use that expression a lot. "He's worth X," or "That job's worth Y," or "He's got his price, you've just got to find out what it is." I try not to talk like that anymore. At least, not around her.
Real Estate Developer
I'm not ashamed of making money, not one bit. That's what I'm trying to do. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I work hard and I keep a lot of other people employed. I'm doing my part to keep the economy going. Working hard and making some decent money - that's the basic American thing. That's what all the immigrants came here for. Why not? It's a good thing and we've figured out a good way to do it.
People think there's too much greed now, but they don't stop and think how it's always been that way. Money has always been the ultimate power behind everything. It's the main thing in all the different societies, through history. Now, we're just up front about it, its more out in the open. More people have a chance to be part of the game, the money game. I think it's great. It's democracy. It's progress.
I lost my job six weeks ago. It wasn't because I'm not good at what I do. It was because my job got cut. One day it was there and the next day it didn't exist anymore. Me and about 20 other people. They just gutted the whole department. It was crazy. Our department had just had the best year in the company's history, the biggest profits. But there was a merger and some big stock deal and they cut us out even though we were doing a great job. It was like being the victim of something hidden, something that didn't care how good you were or how well it was going. Someone used that word down-sized and one of the guys said, "That's just a fancy way of saying axed." The words are there and they're bad words – fired, cut, axed. They sound painful. They also sound like you're a tree or something. Whatever words you use to describe it, it doesn't even give a hint of what it really means, what it means to the person.
61 years old
People say the sixties happened because a bunch of affluent kids didn't have anything better to do than take drugs and criticize the government, but that's not how I remember it. I didn't come from a rich family and none of my friends did either. We weren't just being contrary. We were really serious about the Vietnam War being wrong and the civil rights movement being right and we cared about those things. We really did. The main thing I remember from then was that we - I mean the so-called "hippies" - we were saying: "Life is about something other than money, man." And the straight establishment was saying: "I have just one word for you - plastics." And you know what? They won and we lost. Now the world is ruled by the plastic guys with plastic money and plastic food and plastic principles. Turns out it is all about money, after all. Pretty wild, huh?
Anxiety about money has been a consistent theme in my life, ever since I was a kid. For me, all of the usual anxieties of childhood extended into money. I tried selling lemonade. I took a box, put a cloth over it, made a sign, had this nice pitcher of lemonade, little paper cups, the whole thing. Nobody bought any. This reinforced my fear that I couldn't do this. To me money was something very mysterious. Still is.
Computer Software Consultant
I was at a dinner party the other night, in a friend's apartment with five other people sitting around a table, talking about lots of things, including who was sleeping with who. My mind was wandering because I've been having money problems lately and that's what I'm thinking about most of the time. I found myself wondering just exactly how much money everybody there was making. More than me? Less than me? How do I compare? I became filled with curiosity.
Apropos of the conversation someone made the crack that there were no virgins in our generation and we wound up actually going around the table with each person revealing the age and nature of their first sexual experience, which is certainly a private matter, but we all did it. We all showed different degrees of candor but we joked and teased one another with ease. Nobody got uptight or anything. Now if I had said, `Let's go around the table and everyone tell how much money they have,' it would have brought the evening to a dead standstill and I would never have been invited anywhere ever again. That's how weird it is.
Remember when the whole Bernie Madoff thing happened and how everyone was shocked that he could convince people he was legit when it was so obvious he wasn't? It wasn't shocking to me. The first thing is, if you're making money from something you don't look under the cow's tail, as they say. The second thing is, Americans admire outlaws. In the Madoff case, yeah, he was a criminal but there's some kind of respect hidden in there somewhere. It's like everyone wants to be rich and it doesn't matter how you do it. If you get away with it, Americans admire you. That's why it won't change. These last couple of years, when everyone saw that the whole financial industry is full of corruption, it didn't matter. There'll never be a real outcry that really changes anything because, on some deep level, it's accepted. Lying and cheating don't matter if you're making money doing it.
Trucking Office Manager
I commute every day in my car and I listen to the radio and I'm asking you, when did the Dow Jones Average become the weather report? All the news stations have this traffic and weather thing every ten minutes, which is helpful if you commute. You need to know where the pile-ups are and if it's going to snow or not. But the stock market? The Dow Jones, the S&P 500? I need this all day? Why? The guys who work on Wall Street have all that information right in front of them. They got computers and monitors showing them what's happening every minute, all day long. Why is it broadcast to everyone else? Constantly? I think it's because they want us to think that what Wall Street is doing is the most important thing there is. So when they crashed everything, everyone sort of felt like, yeah, they have to get bailed out because it's "the economy." But it's not. It's just these slimy guys gambling huge amounts of money on schemes that fail and then they get my tax money to save their ass. Money that could have gone to my kid's school or social security or whatever. And they get it. Because they've managed to make everyone think it's the fucking weather.
It's disappearing you know.
How do you mean?
What we think of as "money." It's disappearing. It's already gone on some levels. Computerized currency trading has changed the whole game. There are massive amounts of money funneled around the globe every day … just blips on a screen. The currency market has no borders, it operates 24-hours a day, and it moves immense quantities of this pure entity back and forth across the planet with the speed of light. And it is pure. By that I mean, it doesn't represent anything else, just itself. Markets used to be where you invested your money based on the value of something else. Now it's just the money. It's really beautiful in a way. And that's just the beginning. As soon as they develop a broad-based, workable and secure mass digital money system, all financial transactions will be done that way. It'll all be blips on a screen.
High School Teacher
I just wonder, if the whole financial system disappeared, if money didn't exist anymore and everyone was in an equal position financially, what would we look like to each other? Who would we see as important? What would be valuable and not valuable? What if the most valuable thing turned out to be music, or the ability to make people laugh? If power and worth weren't based on money, everything would be completely different. Don't you wonder what we'd do with that?
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