Tuesday, 23 April 2013
The price of everything but the value of nothing
Good news! - Well for you guys anyway, I managed to think of a subject on my way into work this morning.
For the past two million years, ever since Homo habilis threw a rock at some strange proto-duck with the intention of making it her lunch, the human race has been fascinated by shopping. In these early times of course, you could argue that that was more hunting and gathering than it is what we understand as shopping now. But the theory's essentially the same.
I need something, so I'll go and get it.
In its most simple form, that-there is shopping. Oh it's evolved over the past couple of millenia, I mean certain economic structures have come into play. Early man would go out hunting and take half a dozen spears with him in order to kill, let's say, an antelope. But if he got lucky, he might only use two of them. Now, he's all full of adrenaline from the hunt and he uses three more to bring down another one. And now, he's got a problem, he's got two dead antelopes, that weigh about as much as he does. It's two miles back to his mud hut / cave (delete whichever's least geographically apposite) but he doesn't want to waste it, or leave it to attract the smilodons. So, he enlists the help of another person to help him in an;
'Urk, you help carry this back home, I give you half for your trouble,' stylee
Our hero is happy, he has one and a half antelopes, Urk is happy, he has half an antelope for doing essentially a bit of humping and dumping with none of the associated chucking sharp sticks at things.
So we've arrived at bartering... I have something you want, you have something I want, as long as they're of equivalent value to each other, let's swap. In the above example, Urk swapped the sweat of his brow for a nice antelope butt, and who wouldn't do that given the chance, they have a multitude of uses don't they? Still technically shopping.
This of course has its own inherent problems... What if I want something you've got, but I don't have anything that you want?
Well, I could go hungry, but what I'd probably do is fall back on that staple theme of computer adventure games and childrens' television and find someone that had something that you want, but also wants what I have. There's no limit to amount of times you can do this, it's common for there to be six or seven 'swaps' before you get what you want.
In fact you might have heard the Japanese folk tale of the Straw Millionaire, where a peasant makes a series of trades, starting with a piece of straw and ends up marrying a millionaire's daughter, or if you're slightly less classically educated, Kyle MacDonald, and his website One Red Paperclip, where he managed to trade the titular paperclip up to a house in Canada.
But this extended bartering system falls down because people are, in the main, lazy. You might have a pretty stone, and want a new hat, which I have. But what I really want is a chicken. So you go to the nearest village to try and find a nice lady (because we all know how much nice ladies like pretty stones) who has a chicken. You can't find one, but you do hear from a different nice lady who wants your stone, and has a club, about a nasty man who lives in the forest, many miles away, who has a chicken and deserves a lump on the head. The time has come where there's something that you're unwilling, unable or just too lazy to do.
So you lose out on my nice hat, and die of pneumonia during the next rainy season when you go out with wet hair.
So, what we need to find is something everyone wants. Yes, OK, I know, everyone wants THAT, but there are certain cultural taboos, not to mention problems with spreading infectious diseases that are the reasons why THAT isn't currency in many places (Except under certain, special, circumstances).
I'm talking about fiat money, or just 'Money' as we've come to know it. Fiat money is money that isn't worth anything in itself. The metal in a £1 isn't worth a pound (it's worth about 5p if I remember correctly) but you can swap it for £1 worth of anything you want. Solves all the laziness problems you see, you can just wander down to the shops and give the nice guy behind the counter a number of £1 coins and wander home with your antelope or hat or pretty stone, whatever you like.
Have you noticed on paper money (which is worth, in itself, even less than metal money) it says, and I quote;
'I promise to pay the bearer, on demand, the sum of X pounds'?
In the olden days, you could wander into the Bank of England, wave a crumpled fiver at them, and they would give you five pounds worth of pure gold. Try that now and they'll just look at you as if you're stupid.
If you kick up a fuss, start frothing at the mouth, and give it the old 'But it says here...' and point to the tiny writing on the note, they might just give you a new fiver to get rid of you. It's more likely that they'll call security and turf you out on your backside avec le grande vitesse. If they did give you the gold, which they wouldn't, you'd get about 1/210th of an ounce, or about .14 of a gram (I think, but maths was never my strong point) Which you'd probably lose on the way home anyway.
If we evolve the system again by one degree of laziness, you get online shopping. You can swap money that has never physically existed for real-live goods. I hear you cry 'What do you mean money that has never existed?!?!?!? I am confused and angry at your uncomfortable suggestion!?!?!?!'
Well, let's think about it, those of us who are lucky enough to be employed, or to receive benefits for that matter, get paid for the work we do. That pay goes from our employer's bank, directly into our bank in the form of a series of electronic impulses. When we pay for our book, or CD or porcelain statuette of Kate Middleton riding an Aardvark, it goes from our bank to the seller's bank in the form of a series of electronic impulses. It never exists in the real world.
Effectively, you're directly swapping the sweat of your brow for a badly modeled anteater... Change that anteater for an antelope's butt, and you realise that the last 100,000 years, as far as shopping is concerned, may as well have never happened.
Welcome to the 21st Century Urk, make yourself at home.