(Week 21 - Wednesday, Dec. 31)
There is a tendency in our culture to treat "money" as a commodity of a single nature that moves about in the matrix of economic relations, conveying value from one hand to the next. Is that not what we mean when we call it a "medium of exchange," "store of value," "unit of measure" or "common currency"? "A dollar is a dollar", so we are accustomed to saying, and if we want a stable economy the thing to be done is to pin down what exactly that means in terms of some representative "market basket" of goods. The orthodox view would say that a unit of currency may for the moment pass from this hand to that, play a roll in certain public or private cash flows, or facilitate trade in either the world of real goods or "investments" in the financial sector, but it remains a "dollar" nonetheless. It is, in a sense, presumed to be the common denominator of the whole economic order.
Outwardly this may seem obvious, but it is a narrow material assessment that produces only numbers and misses the many levels, essences and meanings that attend this all-pervasive social element. Money is a multifaceted manifestation, and to even begin to master it we must come to a living consciousness of that reality.
This is a huge topic, and there is not room to do it justice within the context of this short article. Indeed, it may seem too daunting to even approach the matter. It need not be so, as the topic may be opened up and developed on a digestible-bite-at-a-time basis from thoughts and observations that are perfectly within the reach of any thinking person. We, individually and as a race, simply have not done the work. That said, it is a consciousness that must be cultivated if we are to have any hope whatsoever of attaining a healthy social order, or perhaps for civilization to even survive. The question is, where to begin?
In the column previous to this I introduced the idea that the economic order has both a micro-economic and a macro-economic domain. This is a foundational concept upon which we can begin to build a new monetary/economic understanding. Micro-economics relates to the values, fortunes and acts of the "players" in the economy, while macro-economics relates to the structure, control and aggregates of the economy as a whole. The relationship of micro-to-macro is much like the trees to the forest, or sports teams to their league. The relevant question here is, "What is money with respect to the micro-economic, as differentiated from the macro-economic, domain?" Can money be described as dollars moving around within and between spheres, or does what we call a "dollar" have a different meaning and essence in each?
In my Econ. 101 course, I was taught (correctly I believe) that the micro and macro-economic aspects were indeed different realms with their own respective rules, functions and dynamics. The problem I experienced is that once that premise was established it was seriously violated to the point where orthodox economic thought has become a mish-mash of confused thinking caused in large part by failing to follow though on the rigor required to keep the micro and macro dimensions properly distinguished from each other, and in their rightful places. One manifestation of this is that a macro-economic function (the creation and issuance of money) has been vested in a micro-economic entity (the private banking system). The result is that the United States as a whole (a macro-economic entity) has become a business (micro-economic entity) in the portfolio of a private corporation, the Federal Reserve (See Col. #38 – The United States as a Business). What is more, a whole culture of inconsistent financial thought has grown up around that anomaly to obscure the inconsistencies thereby generated.
What, then, is money with respect to the micro-vs.-macro-economic domains?
In micro-economics money can indeed be described as a "medium of exchange", "store of value", "unit of measure" or "common currency." It is the very life's blood that circulates in the economic social body, and fits in a general way many of the descriptions commonly associated with money.
In macro-economics, on the other hand, money is a structured matrix of relationships established in the law which governs how currency is created, issued and controlled. Whereas money on the micro level manifests as the blood that circulates in the economic social body, on the macro level it is the economic social body itself. It does not conform to the micro-economic processes by which it is presumed to operate, but in fact the opposite.
One place where the confusion between the micro and macro aspects of money can be clearly seen is in the current debate concerning what to do about the enormous "debt" that is mounting in the current financial crisis. The remedy that is commonly put forth is that we have to get our taxing-&-spending priorities under control. For a governmental body that is below the Federal (e.g. state government, which operates on a micro level), this makes sense. For them money is a stream that flows into and out of their operations. Public bodies that do not issue money must, like any business, find sources of revenue to balance spending.
In actuality the phrase "balanced budget" has no meaning on the Federal level, as it is a micro-economic expression that pertains to micro-economic phenomena. It would be more proper to describe the creation and issuance of money at the Federal level as a "monetization" process, which is kept in balance by the collection of "taxes." "Taxes" on the macro level are not a way to fund Federal programs, but a mechanism to remove overflow currency from the monetary pool. The issue of money, then, on the Federal level is a matter of structuring macro-monetary body in such a way that its life's blood (currency) can ebb and flow naturally through its micro-economic organs.
The failure to differentiate between the functions of money at the micro vs. macro-economic levels is at the very heart of the current financial crisis. I would venture to say that if these two levels of money were fully understood (and presumably acted upon), there would be no "national debt" crisis. Indeed, there would be no "national debt."
In the next several columns my thought is to show how this confusion plays out through some of the major issues besetting our nation, and how a simple comprehension of the distinction between the character of money on the micro and macro levels of the economy could serve as a catalyst for the resolution of the current crisis.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.