Moneylike

My September, 2022 column for Locus Magazine

Cory Doctorow

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Sauk County Fair Ticket Booth
Corey Coyle/CC BY 3.0

“Five thousand quatloos that the newcomers will have to be destroyed.”

Quatloos. Credits. Euros. Dollars. Dogecoin.

Wait, Dogecoin?

At some point in your life, you’ve probably asked yourself, “What is money?” There’s something existential about pulling a bank-note out of your wallet and asking yourself, “Why does so much of my waking life revolve around getting more of these slips of green paper?” (outside of the USA, you may ask yourself, “Why does so much of my waking life revolve around getting more of these slips of colo(u)rful polymer?” but you get the idea).

The decade-plus era of cryptocurrency has popularized the answer from Econ 101: “Money is a store of value, a unit of account and a unit of exchange.” That is: money is a thing you can use to save up for future needs (“a store of value”), a way to keep track of what you can afford, what you’re owed and what you owe to others (“a unit of account”) and something others will accept in exchange for their labor or goods (“a unit of exchange”).

There’s even a folk-tale about how money came about: in the beginning (the folk-tale goes), we all bartered with one another in the marketplace. I’d bring my fat cows and you’d bring your champion-laying hens and we’d try to arrive at a “confluence of needs” in which you offered me twenty-seven chickens for my third-fattest cow.

But (the tale continues), these confluences were hard to arrive at. What if I only needed twenty-six chickens? Would our deal fall apart? Would you have to go and trade one chicken for something else I was willing to accept, like a decorative gourd or a half-bushel of wheat? How difficult (the tale insists) our trade must have been!

Then (the tale concludes), we agreed upon some intermediate, durable commodity to smooth over these seemingly intractable difficulty: gold! We chose standard quantities and purities of gold (and/or silver, copper, etc) as a unit of exchange, a unit of account and a store of value. You could have my cow for twenty-six chickens and make change with a couple of copper coins.

In this story, money came from the people, a bottom-up consensus phenomenon in which we all agreed to a coinage…

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