The Money Issue:
Please forgive us for quoting Karl Marx, whose writing is just a bit on the dense side, but he says it best: "This physical object, gold or silver in its crude state, becomes, immediately on its emergence from the bowels of the earth, the direct incarnation of all human labour. Hence the magic of money."
Little did he know then that money is magical for other reasons, too.
Special powers coming to a bill near you As printing technology becomes more accurate and accessible, counterfeiting will also become easier. Taking a turn from Hogwarts, anticounterfeiting nanotechnology of the near future may make the face on your $100 bill look like it has a mind of its own. "Squeeze Ben Franklin's face and he might smile or wink or turn purple," predicted a recent NPR broadcast. In the next decade, other molecular powers attesting to the purity of our bucks may include the ability for a bill to feel like paper while withstanding scissor blades or to become rigid when snapped and floppy when pulled. Apparently, some industries, like (big surprise) medicine and defense, are already using nanotechnologies, but they're too expensive at the moment to apply to money.
Making money literally makes money Apparently, only 8 percent of Americans realize that the United States Mint produces coins. That worries us. Where do the other 92 percent think coins come from? Super Mario Bros. machines? Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. Mint does indeed make coins (bills come from the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing) and has for, oh, the past 215 years. The Mint also holds custody of the American gold and silver supply--roughly $102 million worth--at a bullion storage facility in Fort Knox, Ky., and operates four plants nationwide, one of which is in San Francisco, overlooking the Castro.
The S.F. branch produces proofs, which are specially made collectible coins. One of these is a $5 gold coin, and technically it could buy an egg salad sandwich. But the Mint sells the coin for more than $200, directing the profits toward converting the city's historic old building, aka the Granite Lady, into a museum. One of the U.S. Mint's big moneymakers is the quarter, which in 2003 cost only about eight cents to make. That means that for every quarter the U.S. Mint produced that year it made roughly 17 cents. In 2005, the U.S. Mint posted a $1.77 billion revenue but, because it's a government agency and therefore not allowed to make a profit, contributed $775 million to the U.S. Treasury.
Money can disappear (but you already knew that) Benevolent as it may seem, the U.S. Mint nonetheless has an enemy: Coinstar. Coinstar is embodied by those green kiosks at grocery stores into which people dump the contents of their piggy banks in return for the equivalent--less roughly 9 percent--in cash or gift certificates. Coinstar's website even has a calculator estimating how much your jar of change is worth based on how many ounces the jar measures. According to the website, a 32-ounce Mason supposedly yields some $57.08.
Why does the U.S. Mint hate Coinstar so much? Because it recirculates the wealth. What the Mint and its employees count on is that about half of all change manufactured is eventually lost--under sofa cushions, in wishing wells, stashed in jelly jars, etc. In fact, about one-half of the entire U.S. Mint production is dedicated to turning out pennies, which suggests that with all the loose change out there, we especially can't be bothered to pay for goods in pennies. Better to drop them in the tulips' water or use one to rejoin the contacts of a broken coffeemaker. Sure, each penny costs more than one cent to make (estimates range from 1.1 to 1.4 cents), but more of the Mint staff stays employed as long as there are lost pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters to replace.
Animal, vegetable and mineral--like a sorcerer, money assumes different forms The Kyrgyz once used horses as money, making small change in the form of lamb skins. Like a demon, money has traveled through the ages, possessing various hosts: tobacco, cowrie shells, rum, indigo, salt, barley (in Babylon, the term shekel referred to a certain unit of barley), and even people, as during the slave trade.
But barter and commodity money (when the physical form of money is inherently useful--barley could be eaten and metal could be turned into tools) was inefficient. In ancient Egypt, receipts verifying that the bearer had a certain amount of grain at a warehouse could be used as "representative" money. This system was an early precursor to banking. Instead of grain, 17th-century England saw goldsmiths as bankers, issuing receipts that attested to how much gold the bearer had deposited for safekeeping at the smith's warehouse. Eventually, the goldsmiths' system led to the formation of banks, which each issued bank notes according to how much gold and silver filled their vaults. Betting that not everyone would come to collect at once, banks often issued notes above the amount of metal they had in stock. Most of the time, they figured right. But sometimes, they figured wrong, and eventually, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank took over the duty of issuing bank notes.
Money doesn't really exist Even before the United States dropped the gold standard in 1971, a very small percentage of bullion backed our currency. For example, in 1880, only 16 percent of currency was backed by gold. We primarily held on to the ingots to compare ourselves to other national currencies. The Federal Reserve Notes we use now are, in themselves, valueless--fiat money. Nevertheless, we use them because the feds say they're legal tender. Each and every one of us agrees to this mythic construct. Essentially, bills represent a moderated rate of inflation, based on supply and demand of goods and services.
Money is everything (at least according to Karl Marx) But the German philosopher and political economist was far from flush. His buddy and colleague, Friedrich Engels, modestly supported Marx and his family for years, mailing him £1 and £5 notes cut in half for security. In 1843, just a year before Engels began collaborating with him, the impoverished Marx wrote, "Money is the alienated essence of man's labor and life, and this alien essence dominates him as he worships it." So money isn't that great. But for those who've been offered thousands of dollars in credit lines, it gets even worse! On credit, Marx has this to say: "Instead of money and paper, my very personal existence, my flesh and blood, my social virtue and reputation is the matter and the substance of the monetary spirit. Credit no longer reduces monetary value to money, but to human flesh and the human heart." Ouch.