“You’re a slave to the money then you die.”
– “The Verve”
The music group “The Verve” describes money – and our servitude toward it – in the postmodern classic “Bittersweet Symphony.” The group sings these almost hauntingly prescient lyrics: “You’re a slave to the money then you die.”
This not a new phenomenon. Mankind has been obsessed with money from time immemorial.
Other ancillary cultural products addressing mankind’s love of money include the film “Oh, God!” In this cinematic jewel, the late actor George Burns (playing God) laments to the late actor (and singer) John Denver (adroitly playing a supermarket clerk in the starring role) that he (God) regrets creating pockets.
God explains, “If you have pockets … then you have to put something in them.”
And what goes inside of pockets? Money. This generic Supreme Being (Burns) – speaking through Hollywood and the world’s then-foremost Country Western music star (Denver) – has spoken a plain truth both succinctly and eloquently.
The sacred religious texts of Western Civilization, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, warn humanity against becoming enamored with money. We are told in no uncertain terms that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” We’re reminded that “the borrower is the servant of the lender.”
Moreover, we are also commanded to “store our treasure in heaven,” somehow safe from cankerworms, nuclear war, financial crashes, tsunamis, earthquakes and even cosmic disasters like a gamma ray burst. Despite such warnings, the love of money seems to transcend time and space itself.
Those little pieces of paper you put in your wallet are, in fact, merely pieces of paper – fiat currency. Those dead presidents dominating U.S. currency tell the stories of the founding and forging of our nation. Did any of them imagine they’d be still be passed back and forth between hundreds of millions of people on a daily basis centuries into the future?
In ancient times, gold, silver, concubines, slaves, ivory, salt and opium were all used to store “wealth.” One would be remiss not to mention spices. The Spice Islands of Indonesia come to mind. During the Dark Ages, “the sale of indulgences” helped to enrich those in control of the dominant religious European worldview of the time. Men actually sold salvation in the afterlife. And people bought it. Purgatory and hell were at the forefront of the public consciousness.
Manhattan Island was purchased for a song, based on strings of beads so favored by the American Indians. P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute and two to take his money.” Was Barnum onto something? The value of money is “real” only because there exists a shared agreement within and amongst nations about what constitutes “money.”
That said, you can’t do much without it. Cash is used to facilitate barter. In the film “Margin Call,” actor Jeremy Irons explains that money is used “so we don’t have to kill each other in order to get something to eat.”
My late mother, Viola, grew up during the Great Depression. That generation was inculcated with very different views of money compared to the 1950s “Mad Men” boom and the ensuing 1960s “Woodstock Generation.” The 1930s featured truly hard times. There was real hunger in America. The Dust Bowl of Oklahoma choked away the American dream as drought ruled the land. Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and the Japanese Empire were on the rise. Fascism seemed to be the wave of the future. Many believed Hitler was the Antichrist and the new Social Security number issued under FDR was “The Mark of the Beast.”
The reason the “War of the Worlds” fiasco of Oct. 30, 1938 – in which millions of Americans actually believed a mock/dramatic radio broadcast about aliens invading the United States – was so effective was because things had been so bad for so long, and many lamented, “Why wouldn’t an invasion from Mars” be next on the list of disasters? History.com recounts “War of the Worlds” here. Deconstruct these events for yourself. This is where our attitudes about life, the future and money are all triangulated. Pearl Harbor, Chernobyl, 9/11, Katrina, Sandy, BP in the Gulf of Mexico and Fukushima were all real events. Who can say for sure what’s on the horizon? And can your money save you from such things?
One can only speculate about how the average American would react in the face of a real national emergency dwarfing those listed above. What would happen if the ATMs were no longer spewing cash, perhaps because of an EMP event embodied in a solar storm? Such a storm happened in 1859. It was called “The Carrington Event,” so named after the astronomer who deduced its origins. Back then, telegraph wires caught on fire. If (and when) it happens again, because of freak space weather, what would it do to the satellites and our overly complicated, computer-driven society?
The United States basically enjoyed uninterrupted material and financial prosperity from the end of World War II through the 2008 financial meltdown. How the mighty have fallen. Since the subprime mortgage debacle, it seems many businesses have closed their doors. Homelessness in Los Angeles is endemic. Most Americans have little or no savings and exist only one disaster away from homelessness themselves.
Everyone will face a time of great struggle at some point. The storms of life are sure to come. These days, people might find themselves in dire need of an infusion of capital. Where might one turn? One possible alternative is LoanMart, which offers a solution to financial emergencies with title loans. When times get really tough, what can you do but tie a knot and hang on?
As noted, tens of millions of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. Family ties are fraying. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many Americans still lived on small family farms. Many people left the urban areas to go live with relatives on these farms. People worked, suffered and overcame together. They found a way to cope. World War II stimulated the economy, and millions of soldiers marching off to war ended the unemployment problem. While Europe, Japan, Russia and China were in ruins, the U.S. emerged unscathed. In that unipolar moment, America financed the Marshall Plan and established a new international order based upon the World Bank, IMF, NATO and the supremacy of the U.S. dollar.
Perhaps the real value of money comes from what each of must go through to get those little pieces of paper. Financing a car, an education and/or a home is an integral part of postmodern life. For those born on third base, acting like they hit a triple, or with a silver spoon in their mouth, life is a walk in the park. For others, life can be a dangerous and difficult struggle.
For example, a few weeks ago, I met a nice young African-American man, Terry, who spent years in the Navy landing fighter jets on the deck of an aircraft carrier. This might be the most dangerous job in the entire world. At the DMV, I met a Vietnamese woman who had been a “boat person” fleeing Vietnam in 1979. She recounted for this writer a beautiful and moving story. She and her family were cast adrift for many days. They had no nautical charts and (of course, back then) no GPS. The waves were high and terrifying. Sharks circled their vessel. She said she was “throwing up the entire time.”
Then, to make matters worse, pirates happened upon their vessel and took all their money and jewelry. Yet they did not harm the women or children. In fact, before they disembarked, they left this Vietnamese woman and her family all the drinking water they (the pirates) had.
Speaking on the seemingly endless line at the DMV, this Vietnamese woman concluded: “The greed of the pirates, on one hand, was terrible. They took from refugees on the high seas. They took from women and children and even a little baby. But they did not harm us. And by giving us all of their water, they actually saved our lives. Of this, there can be no doubt.”
Eventually this woman and her family landed in Malaysia at the conclusion of their open launch. In time, she found a home in Oakland, California.
They say blood is thicker than water. It should also be said that water can be more precious than gold. Perhaps “The Verve” should insert an asterisk for those among us who are not “a slave to money till we die.” For in that salient nugget of truth, one may find much rest, solace and comfort.