From the Editors

A few weeks ago, as I got out of my car in a parking lot, my eye was drawn to three shiny pennies lying on the pavement. “Find a penny, pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck.” But these three pennies seemed especially auspicious—bright and new, as lovely and untarnished as gold. They had none of the nicks or grime that coins acquire after being passed from hand to hand. They looked like they were fresh from the mint, virgin pennies that had yet to accumulate experience.

As shiny and appealing as they are, they barely add a cent to my net worth. Pennies are often dismissed today, just an encumbrance to be dropped in the penny cup at the cash register, hardly worth bothering with. You can’t buy anything for a penny now, not even a gumball, so what is the use of those new pennies? Ah, but what, sir, is the use of a newborn baby? Those pennies seemed the same, full of potential. It was their very newness that was exciting and endearing. Picking up those eager-looking pennies, I wondered how their stories would unfold. I was somewhat in awe as I thought about their future. I regularly find pennies in my change that are older than I, and this year’s coins could well be in circulation in 2050. How many times will they change hands in that time? What transactions, for good or ill, will they be a part of? How many lives will they touch, and what will they help bring in to those lives—cups of coffee, toys for children, books of poetry, jars of peanut butter?

If we could endow the pennies with qualities like happiness, compassion, honesty, or kindness before we sent them on their way, they could bring some of that, like a blessing, to every person who interacted with them. The same is true of the other money we spend, not just coins, not just bills, but checks and credit cards too. It’s harder to follow the flow, but the money circulates through many hands the same way. Sometimes, when I remember to, I bless a check as I write it out, with the intention that it carry some of that blessing to all the people that wealth eventually reaches. Not that I have much confidence that the blessing is carried along through the check-sorting machines and wire transfers, but I believe that such blessings and intentions do circulate some kind of positive effect, however small. Drops of water turn the mill, after all, and pennies add up to dollars. Just so can tiny little blessings accumulate to the point of beneficence.

At any rate, the exercise keeps me aware of the amazing web of interdependence and cooperation that all of us are participating in. I write a check for milk, and in doing so, I am part of a current (currency!) that flows through my life, to the store that sold the milk, the dairy that sold the same milk to the store, the power company that supplied electricity to the dairy’s bulk tank, the lineman that worked for the power company, the barber that cut his hair, and so forth. There’s a wonderful intimacy to it that we rarely notice, though sometimes it comes delightfully to our attention, like when a person behind me in line offered up his US quarter to exchange for my Canadian one that the clerk wouldn’t accept, or when someone going through a tollbooth performs a random act of kindness and pays for the next five cars as well.

Money is so invested with meaning and value because it is, more than anything, a symbol representative of human interrelatedness. Perhaps that is why so many hate it, and so many crave it, and so many lives are ruined by either the pursuit or avoidance of it. We are not sure how we feel about each other, about the people in our lives, the people who have power over us or whom we have power over. Most of the power of money derives originally from a benign source—it represents trust and mutual agreement, helping to satisfy other people’s needs. But there are other kinds of power at work, the power to control and separate, to deceive, the power to steal and deprive. Sometimes these seem like the most powerful forces in economics. The way advertising manipulates our wants, the way consumption seems to be a substitute for other kinds of fulfillment, the way a vast kind of money-laundering hides away the true human costs of many of the goods we buy makes me think once again that money is the root of all evil.

Or is it? That was the way I always remembered the aphorism, but the true quote is “the love of money is the root of all evil.”

Perhaps the quote could as easily say “The love or hatred of money is the root of all evil.” In other words, the trouble starts when we forget that wealth, like oxygen, is meant to flow in and out, to be a current. Like the Buddha taught, it is our attachment, negative or positive, that causes the problems. Money is not something to grasp at and hoard, but neither is it a noxious substance to avoid.

A friend once told me about his first inklings of doubt about the existence of Santa Claus. The whole story seemed implausible to his (then 7-year-old) understanding of the world. But he considered the alternative: that not only were his parents lying to him, but all other adults he’d talked to, as well as the post office, which never returned his letters to Mr. Claus, even the TV news anchormen, who had reported sightings of an unindentified flying sleigh on Christmas Eve. Such a vast conspiracy theory was even more implausible to him than the amazing powers Santa would need, so he went on believing for a couple more years. After I looked at it this way, the conspiracy, or the cooperation in maintaining such a myth, is awe-inspiring. Money, however, seems even more amazing—and implausible. It has virtually no intrinsic worth, and its only value comes from our collective agreement, our conspiracy, to value it. If enough other people stopped valuing it, it would lose its usefulness for me too.

To think that money, the most potent force in the world today, is a collective myth makes it easier to understand the Buddhist claim that this world—the world of form—is an illusion. But here we are in the middle of it, and knowing that it’s a collective illusion doesn’t tell us how to deal with it. Shun wealth, or embrace it? Get off the grid, or participate in the flow?

Money is arguably the primary medium by which we interact with our world now, but we often take its meaning for granted, as if it’s simple and obvious. But the “obvious” meaning would be quite different for someone in Vermont than someone in a dot-com start-up in Silicon Valley, or than a farmer in India. This issue contains many musings and perspectives on the theme of money, from the far-reaching ill-effects of international lending, to the intentionally inward-looking and small-scale economic systems built on barter and local currencies. Reading all these different reactions to the theme of Money has been thought-provoking for us. It has made us more aware of how we participate in the economic flow, and in the vast cooperative illusion that money is. We hope that the articles within this issue of PVQ prove as thought-provoking for you.

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