The Eleventh Round: The Roots of Consumerism
From the diverse discussion on last week's open thread, one consensus that emerged was the harmful effects of consumerism for the economy, the environment, and on our values. But what are the roots of consumerism? Is it simply that people like to buy cheap stuff from big box retailers, and so that is what the big box retailers provide?
The following story illustrates one of the deeper causes of the endless quest for growth that underpins our modern consumer society. The story and adapted comments are from the book The Future of Money (pp. 50 - 53) by Bernard Lietar. Your thoughts, comments and discussion are welcomed and appreciated.
The Eleventh Round
Once upon a time, in a small village in the Outback, people used to barter for all their transactions. On every market day, people walked around with chickens, eggs, hams and breads, and engaged in prolonged negotiations among themselves to exchange what they needed. At key periods of the year, like harvests or whenever someone's barn needed repairs after a big storm, people recalled the tradition of helping each other out that they had brought from the old country. They knew that if they had a problem some day, others would aid them in return.
One market day, a stranger with shiny black shoes and an elegant white hat came by and observed the whole process with a sardonic smile. When he saw one farmer running around to corral the six chickens he wanted to exchange for a big ham, he could not refrain from laughing. "Poor people" he said. "So primitive." The farmer's wife overhead him and challenged the stranger, "Do you think you can do a better job handling chickens?" "Chickens, no," responded the stranger. "But there is a much better way to eliminate all that hassle." "Oh yes, how so?" asked the woman. "See that tree there?" the stranger replied. "Well, I will go wait there for one of you to bring me one large cowhide. Then have every family come visit me. I'll explain the better way."
And so it happened. He took the cowhide, and cut perfect leather rounds in it, and put an elaborate and graceful little stamp on each round. Then he gave to each family ten rounds, and explained that each represented the value of one chicken. "Now you can trade and bargain with the rounds instead of the unwieldy chickens," he explained.
It made sense. Everyone was impressed with the man with the shiny shoes and inspiring hat.
"Oh, by the way," he added after every family had received their ten rounds, "in a year's time, I will come back and sit under the same tree. I want you each to bring me back 11 rounds. That 11th round is a token of appreciation for the technological improvement I just made possible in your lives." "But where will the 11th round come from?" asked the farmer with the six chickens. "You'll see," said the man with a reassuring smile.
Assuming that the population and its annual production remain exactly the same during the next year, what do you think had to happen? Remember that the 11th round was never created. Therefore, bottom line, one of each 11 families will have to lose all its rounds, even if everyone managed his affairs well, in order to provide the 11th round to ten others.
So when a storm threatened the crop of one of the families, people became less generous with their time to help bring it in before disaster struck. While it was much more convenient to exchange the rounds instead of the chickens on market days, the new game also had the unintended side effect of actively discouraging the spontaneous cooperation that was traditional in the village. Instead, the new money game was generating a systemic undertow of competition among all the participants.
This is how today's money system pits participants in the economy against each other. The story isolates the role of interest - the eleventh round - as part of the money creation process, and its impact on the participants. When the bank creates money by providing you with your $100,000 mortgage, it creates only the principal. However, it expects you to bring back $200,000 over the next twenty years or so. If you don't, you'll lose your house. Your bank does not create the interest; it sends you out into the world to battle against everyone else to bring back the second $100,000. Since all the other banks do exactly the same thing, the system requires that some participants go bankrupt in order to provide you with this additional $100,000. To put it simply, when you pay back interest on your loan, you are using someone else's principal.
In other words, the device used to create the scarcity indispensable for a bank-debt system to function involves having people compete for money that has not been created, and penalizes them with bankruptcy whenever they do not succeed. . . No wonder 'it is a tough world out there.'
In reality, we do not live in a world of zero growth population, output or money supply (as in the story). In the real world, there is typically some growth over time in all these variables...This dynamic makes it much harder than in the Eleventh Round story to notice what is actually going on. With this dynamic view, the money system is like a treadmill that requires continuous economic growth, even if the real standard of living remains stagnant. . . . This need for perpetual growth is another fact of life that we tend to take for granted in modern societies, and one that we usually do not associate with either interest or our money system.
Adapted from pp.50 - 54 of The
Future of Money, © Bernard Lietar.