I’ve always been clueless when it comes to money. The stuff has never gravitated toward me, perhaps because I’ve never really believed in it. One of the things that first attracted me to Andrew when we met in high school was a conversation in which we each revealed to the other our secret fantasy of a world without money. I was the inheritor of a belief, from my mother’s side, that people with lots of l.s.d. (pounds, shillings, and pence, not the psychedelic variety) were greedy and corrupt; and from my father’s side, that dealing with money was a dirty business which someone had to do, but preferably not people like us. As a result I set myself resolutely against even the most rudimentary knowledge of the medium of exchange said to make the world go round; and now, with old age just around the corner, I’m wishing that I had been less arrogant in my youth and more willing to learn how the system worked, even if it is true, as I have always suspected, that the whole edifice is nothing but a big confidence trick.
In college most of my classmates, no matter what their major, took the year-long EC 10, the introduction to macro- and micro-economics that was said to be required for every educated man and woman. It was said that after one had taken EC 10 one would be able to read The Wall Street Journal. But young and stubborn as I was, I didn’t want to be contaminated by the system, and as a result the financial pages remain an alien language inaccessible to me. Every time Marketplace follows the news on National Public Radio during my commute home from work, I groan inwardly. Every time Kai Ryssdal says, “Let’s do the numbers,” I retort, “Let’s not,” and turn the volume all the way down. As a result, I am approaching retirement as a functional illiterate in financial matters. Silly me.
As soon as we started Whetstone Press in the early 1980s I was forced to revise my snobbish dismissal of the world of trade. I rapidly gained tremendous respect for the amount of effort and expertise required to run even the smallest business. Operating a business was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I was eventually forced to accept that I would never get the knack of it, never develop the knowhow to do it really well. I suppose that neither my upbringing, education, or temperament had prepared me for it.
As a child I knew that my family was neither wealthy nor impoverished, but I didn’t give money a second thought. My parents rarely talked about it, at least not in front of us children, and didn’t care much for material possessions. My father built all our furniture and my mother made all our food and most of our clothes from scratch. More often than not, when we asked for something for Christmas my father made it for us (as Father Christmas, of course). But for all their frugality when it came to consumer goods, they never skimped on food, books, education, or travel.
It wasn’t until I entered my teenage years that I started to covet those “must-have” fashionable clothes on which I knew my mother would never waste her hard-earned money and to which my meagre weekly pocket money would never stretch, matter how long I saved up. My diaries from 1969 and 1970 list the items I yearned for the most: in England, the soft woolen cloche and elegant Twiggy-slim maxi-coat that I had seen in Petticoat or Honey, teen magazines that advertised a lifestyle light-years away from my own reality but richly-inhabited in my imagination; and, after we moved to Brookline in the U.S., a hip-hugging pair of Landlubber jeans, either in denim or in elephant-grey corduroy, from George’s Folly in Coolidge Corner, which also carried Indian cotton-print bedspreads and velvety posters to be viewed under ultra-violet light. But I didn’t pine for long. My part-time summer job gave me enough spending money to buy the jeans, an occasional record album, and, on the weekends, my favorite anchovy pizza from Pino’s at Cleveland Circle. What more could one want?
Despite these small seductions of my teenage years, I inherited my parents’ priorities when it came to spending money. In my youth I bought the highest quality organically-grown food but rarely ate out; never held back when it came to buying books or concert tickets for a favorite band; and hardly ever bought new clothes or furniture, instead saving my money for plane fares to visit our family back in India and England. But compared to my parents I was extremely self-indulgent. My mother was shocked when I told her that Andrew and I had spent $7.50 each to see Bob Marley and the Wailers; and even by the time she and my father could have afforded to travel back every few years to England or India to see their family, the habit of thrift prevented them from spending so much money on mere personal happiness. This was a degree of self-denial I could not accept.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement grows and spreads, I find myself reflecting on the concept of currency as flow, as a medium of exchange with a universally agreed-upon value. As ignorant as I am on financial matters, I have come to believe that the economic crisis in the United States has sprung from two basic problems: the failure of money, goods, and services to flow freely and equitably through all segments of the society, and the loss of real value as a result of excessive speculation. Currency is dammed up as the greedy hoard it, and the whole system floods or stagnates. People no longer believe that right effort can produce right livelihood. And because, at its core, the system is indeed based on confidence, after a period of unnatural ballooning, the markets collapse.
These ramblings on currency and value would be incomplete without some of the songs that have sounded out my own values over the years: Can’t Buy Me Love, one of my father’s favorite Beatles’ numbers; Greenback Dollar, which I first heard at my friend Preet Mander’s home in Gangtok nearly 45 years ago; Pete Seeger’s rendition of The Banks are Made of Marble, which could be the anthem of Occupy Wall Street:
But the banks are made of marble/with a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver/ that the people sweated for.
And finally, The Day the Dollar Die:
No more corruption, the day the dollar die
People will respect each other, the day that the dollar die.
Peter Tosh’s prophetic song returns me to high school and my utopian dream of a world without filthy lucre and mercenary greed, in which money no longer holds sway as the medium of exchange.