Money, the mirage

The balloon took off from the time economies started moving from barter to paper money. When goods or visible services were the common tender, there was no question of a hidden value; the exchanges were purely based on need. A bagful of wheat could be swapped for a similar quantity of mud if there was a mutual need.

Now need has been replaced by greed. Avarice is notorious for its perennial appetite and this is amply reflected by the modern instruments of monetary economy. Of course, the shift from barter did not happen overnight. To cut a long story short, the evolutionary process culminated in the gold standard-linked currency a couple of centuries back. Though technically even today money supply is supposed to be pegged to gold reserves, in reality the currency in circulation has no bearing on the quantum of gold in national coffers. With the umblical cord to gold having been cut off, currencies are now connected to other currencies through a maze of economic statistics of respective nations. Thus all currencies are really rootless and always floating, tied to one another like in those mid-air acrobatic scenes that we see on Discovery channel.

And even the legal tender we use today is short lived. Plastic money and e-money are already giving hard cash a run. The bloating of the financial system beyond the confines of gold and other tangible assets gained momemtum after the Great Depression of the 1930s and today a slew of papers, ranging from receivables, to options to DRs to BRs to what not, … all pass for liquid cash. If currency in circulation was itself several times the gold in the kitty, the total ‘value’ of all these instruments exceed the gross currency chest in multiples of millions. The rupee note itself is only a promissory note, an assurance that the government will some day pay an equal amount of gold, at the prevailing rates, that is, the paradox notwithstanding. Today’s global financial system is a paper edifice built on a range of IOU promises between governments, corporates and individuals. A bulk of these promises are meant to be broken, rather, torn! The current recession is owing to many such promises in tatters!

That money is transient is not just a philosophical angst but an economic truism. The value of money is an even more shaky idea. Really, it is the imponderables associated with the value of money that actually makes it impermanent. That everyone values money and values everything, even relationships, in terms of money, is a crude reality. But is the money that is being cherished as so valuable really valuable? Let’s descend from lofty economics to terra firma. All it takes is a kilo of onions to demolish this supreme Master. Food inflation is the surest killer of the money-myth. That a kilo of cash can buy lesser and lesser of vegetables as the latter rides up the price-ladder puts to nought all the value associated with money. We have heard tales of Latin American inflation whence people use to lug around sacksful of cash just to buy a handful of peanuts. Bharath may not face that prospect: while peanuts are fine, people dont have sacksful of dough; these are parked with the politicos, who have both cash and vegetables delivered to them at home. And neither commands any value with them!

Vegetables are not the only villains that make a vegetable of the otherwise rocking cash. Take the stock markets. Ever since liberalisation in the early nineties, the bourses have been hailed as the most happening place where wealth is created. But as the senseless sensex sways back and forth as we saw just this week, the wealth created with much fanfare vanishes in a jiffy, taking with it the earlier gains too and often the investment itself. And pray what is this wealth beyond mere paper and payables that lines the pockets of a few punters or evokes the passions of the pink papers? Does a 10% rise in a stock price mean ‘real wealth’ has risen by 10%? Or does it mean a sound company has just lost 10% of its core wealth just because its stock price fell by that percent in one session? Is wealth so fickle that it can rise or fall in seconds with the stroke of the FM’s pen or his penchant to cough or sneeze? Stock markets are the proof of the bubble that the financial system is. And in the play of perception and sentiment in fixing values, the bourses are next only to art galleries.

Inflation, politicians and shares may all mock at money but this unrelenting marauder has much to show as conquests. Money’s prize catch is the human being who incidentally created it; not that it needed much effort, but the complete control it exercises over his mind is the stuff of recent history. True, men, like cattle, were bought and sold as commodities during the heyday of slave trade in the centuries past. And then there were humans who offered themselves as mercenaries in both medieval and modern times. Still, such subjugation to money, voluntarily or by force, was always looked down upon as a moral degradation. Today, however, in these times of IPL, the ‘sold out’ tag around a cricketer’s neck is a proud talisman. The dollar pricing adds to the ‘product’s’ worth, after duly adjusting for currency fluctuations. Any runs that Gambhir or sundry other ‘sold outs’ score is a bonus. After all, these millionaires need not all be winners.

The whole world may be a stage or not but it sure is a market. Here, unlike vegetables, humans and human qualities come cheap for small change. Cash and carry is still the most preferred means, but barter often stages a comeback with mutual backscratching or quid pro quos too rampant. The human sale/exchange offer straddles quite a range of ‘things’: In poll time, votes are for sale; post-poll, allies come for a price; in Parli political loyalties can be bid and bought; In judiciary, judges, like lawyers, can be ‘retained’; in Babudom, grease can push files faster; media sells space, sensational news and also scribes; Individuals can sell their bodies in full or in parts, while alive or dead; consciences are easier to purvey; educational degrees have a tariff; doctorates have a rate; In the market of religion, devotees buy blessings, missionaries scout for soul-sellers and some mad mullahs are ever on the lookout for paradise-seekers. Indeed, everything has a price, but none any value.

It would be appropriate to end with the ultimate spoof on the value of money played by Union Minister Kapil Sibal. He has authoritatively claimed that the loss on 2G scam was not Rs 1.76 lakh crores but zero! See how transient and worthless money is? Or Sibal is probably making a moot point: If nothing of that booty can be recovered, does it not amount to zilch? To understand Sibal’s logic, just buy vegetables, and check for any balance. The exchequer and your empty pocket will tell the same tale: it’s there, but not there! Money is maya!

Happy Pongal! er, is it happy new year? Well, happy both!

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Jawahar T R