Anthropology is the study of human societies and cultures and their development.
How have we evolved? Does what we’re becoming look like what we were?
When I started the Anthropology of Business series I was most interested in why humans do what they do. Why do we enter into relationships? Why are we so hijacked by a good story? How does our imagination of the future factor into our decisions as a consumer? Why do we spend money and what do we spend it on?
Money, the rabbit hole we’re about to go down, is particularly interesting.
What is money?
Well, it’s one of two things.
A store of value
A medium of exchange-a way for us to make transactions
So it’s either 1 or 2 and, interestingly, if it’s 1 it will eventually become 2. I.e. If I am saving up my dollars in the bank as a store of value it eventually will be deployed as a medium of exchange like taking a trip for example.
Let’s take a look at each, then at how it’s changing and finally how it all comes back to relationship and cultural agreements.
Money is a strange thing because it can be stored and saved for the future. How much money we save is a good look at how we view the world. Is the point of money to save it and build a vision of future freedom? Or is money meant to be earned and deployed in a way that makes our life better in the here and now? Option 1 is for you to use your money as an investment-as a store of value for the future.
What most of us would say is that money is a medium of exchange. I exchanged a specific amount of money this morning for a specific amount of hot coffee and if the amount of coffee changed I would have to exchange more money-that’s how value works. In early societies there is evidence to suggest that money was originally conceived as a way to keep track of debts. The first time you visited my fire and we exchanged heat and safety for food we had currency- a way to make a transaction and create value. From there we created ideas around ‘value’ and ‘worth.’ When populations exploded we needed to make agreements at scale. The law is one form of agreement. There are socio-culural agreements. And then there was the gold standard. The gold standard was probably meant to be a consistent, society-level way to agree on what specific things were worth and thus we could trade in a ‘fair’ way. Since the gold standard, currency has always been something physical: you can exchange a certain amount of USD for an actual piece of gold. Very clunky technology.
Now money is almost all digital. Credit systems are impossible to understand for an average person and predatory bankers have been able to socialize their losses and privatize their gains for decades. Money is now numbers on a ledger. If we were to all demand our savings in cash tomorrow the banks would collapse: they don’t have it because they loan out the money we deposit to earn interest (something like 10x over in the American system).
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What I’m more fascinated by is that regardless of what you think money is, the entire system depends on cultural agreements.
I spent $3.50 on my Americano this morning because I made an agreement with the cafe that that is exactly what my cup of coffee is worth. If I didn’t agree, if I thought it was only worth $3.00, my entire life would change because I would be at the cafe down the street making agreements with them. Now, of course there are levels to this game. There will never be a cafe that sells me this Americano for $0.50 because they would be out of business. But within reason there is plenty of room for me to expose my cultural values based on how I spend my money. I vote with my wallet when I buy wholesale at Costco or at the farmers market from my neighbour. I vote with my wallet when I buy single use plastics rather than a reusable bag. I vote with my wallet when I buy a Tesla or a gas-guzzling SUV. How you spend your money is a direct reflection of what you value.
This begs many cultural questions:
Is Cristiano Ronaldo over-paid?
My morality tells me absolutely yes, he is over-paid. There should be a benchmark for value in society and it probably starts somewhere between brain surgeons, cancer/malaria researchers, early childhood educators (HUGE knock on effects) and really good politicians (controversial but nonetheless I believe this to be true: if we find all-star brains who have no intention of running for public office we need to pay them handsomely to do so).
But the literal answer is no, Cristinao Ronaldo is paid precisely what the market dictates he’s worth. The systems we’ve created have created a huge pay gap between the people I’ve listed and Cristiano Ronaldo (not to mention how much less the best female player in the world makes). BUT this is on US! WE did this. Yes, markets are complicated but we’ve valued Ronaldo at an un-godly amount of money within our system and thus the system pays him accordingly. We have codified our values into the economy and the result is a license to print money for the great ones like him. Is this right? That’s for you to decide, as I have, but it is undeniable that our cultural system of money has given him the status he no-doubt enjoys.
The Anthropology of Money fascinates me.
What agreements will you make today? What will you vote for?