This past week’s This American Life podcast is called “The Invention of Money,” tackling what host Ira Glass calls the “stoner-ish question” of what money is.
In the prologue, the discussion revolves around the confusion a reporter feels when during the peak of the financial crisis in 2008 he heard news reports of billions and trillions of dollars disappearing from the stock market. How could money just disappear, he wonders; where did it all go? His answer, which he receives from some businesswoman aunt, is that the money never existed because money is “fiction.” Cue soundtrack from The Social Network.
The podcast proceeds from this conclusion, and while the episode is entertaining the content fell short for me as a result. The main mistake is to think of money in terms of a) only coins and bills, and b) only as a medium of exchange. The reason billions of dollars can disappear from the stock market is not because the physical currency was “fictional” but because money in this case is serving as a measurement of value (the economics term is the not-so-descriptive unit of account). And value, like beauty, is measured subjectively. If I intended to buy 5 pounds of potatoes but only went home with 3 pounds because the grocer’s scale was off, it’s fair to say 2 pounds of my potatoes have become fiction. If I go home with £5 of potatoes today and discover that I can only sell them for £3 tomorrow, however, the two pound difference is reality.
In Act One, the fiction line is cast to Brazil, where its currency switch in 1994 to the real is framed as grand scheme that successfully duped the people into thinking the new money had value. This misses the real magic, which is something more akin to the food fight scene in Hook:
The real had value not because folks believed in a lie, but because they trusted the government and each other that the new currency could be used to exchange for things they wanted. When the people acted as though the bills and coins were money, they became so; the real became real.
Act Two, which is my favorite segment of the bunch (and not just because of the title), does a good job of explaining the Federal Reserve vis-à-vis the financial crisis. I especially liked how they avoided the typical journalist mistake by explaining that the Fed works with the money supply, and not interest rates directly. My quibble here is that they give listeners the impression that only a central bank can create money, when in fact any bank in the world that loans out some of its deposits (i.e. fractional reserve banking) is doing the same thing, just on a smaller scale.
For the non-pedantic non-economists among you who nonetheless find interest in the inscrutable nature of money, do give it a listen. You may also enjoy revisiting this short but content-packed interview with Niall Ferguson on the Colbert Report from a couple of years ago.