The Littlest Meap

Playing Backgammon as the World Burns

Posted by: meaplet on: November 24, 2008

‘I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.’

Hume Treatise Book I Section VII

So, I have this somewhat long-standing suspicion that money is a convenient fantasy that we all carry around in our heads. Scratch that. I know for a fact that money is a convenient fantasy that we all carry around in our heads. I have this long standing suspicion that any day now, the world is going to wake up, realize that it is all a wacky lie, and the entire global economy is going to collapse when people realize that money does not really exist.

You’ve got the barter system, right? That makes sense. And then you start using metal as an intermediary, and that makes sense and makes everything a lot more convenient. And then you deal with the problem of people scraping off the edges of their coins and making new money by putting all the metal in a big repository and giving people bits of paper that say, “you can trade me for some bits of gold” and people exchange those, and that works. And then you have the eighteenth century and lots of arguing about the silver standard that never seems to have come to anything.

And then you’ve got the decision in the seventies to just say, fuck that, let’s just use the scraps of paper and say that they have inherent meaning and just go along with it, ok? And people GO ALONG WITH IT. And then you’ve got the whole matter of credit cards and the stock market and really you don’t even have scraps of paper any more.

All you have is a list of numbers telling you how much money you have, and it goes up and down on the whim of the market. And people JUST GO ALONG WITH IT. Why? We all solemnly agree now that selling mortgages to people who couldn’t afford them, and then rebundling bits and pieces of bad mortgages as triple-A bonds was a bad idea and we shouldn’t have done it.

But really now. It’s just another fake piece of an entirely fake system. We look hard at that part of it, but we don’t acknowledge that maybe letting money float off into the world free of all material restrictions was possibly a bad idea?

In September or October sometime, when commercial paper was all frozen up, I grew increasingly convinced that we weren’t just going to have a recession; the entire idea of money was going to collapse and we’d go back to the barter system. Or at least the gold standard. And as much as this idea freaked me out (my entire current value being entirely theoretical with the exception of $20 in paper in my wallet and the furniture and books in my apartment) something about this excited me too.

You see, back in Modern Philosophy I never quite followed Kant’s Copernican Turn, and so, bereft of his eloquent yet obtuse explanation for why the real world exists, I turned into a Humean skeptic, never quite confident that the world as I knew it actually existed in reality, outside of my perception of it. And to a very small degree, I live in constant hope of getting some piece of evidence of this–the universe not following the natural laws that I’ve observed. The universe keeps following those laws though. Even when it comes to even more arbitrary things that don’t even have the strength of evidence to prove their existance.

If I don’t get to see water light on fire, then at least I want to see this system go up in flames. It would be so self-validating!

Things have settled a bit since September, and while more sectors of the economy are being dragged under by the mortgage collapse and resulting tightening of credit, there no longer seems a risk of anyone but me losing faith in currency as a concept.

I make these grandiose claims, but even I’m still buying into money. Damnit, I’m still bought into the whole house of cards. WaMu has collapsed, and I still have checking and savings accounts (albiet, now with Chase constantly telling me how they are staying friendly like WaMu but are now butch). CityBank looks likely to collapse, and they are still my stock brokers. I ::upgraded my credit card last week::. But I have made one concession to my convictions.

I bought a backgammon board.

5 Responses to "Playing Backgammon as the World Burns"

Addendum: During the course of composing this, I started to look up “berkeley backgammon” on Google search and found that the suggestion feature in Toolbar offered it as the first suggestion even before I finished typing “berkeley.” Presumably this is because I’ve searched for the topic before, but I don’t remember an occasion where I did so, and so can only stand in wonder at the psychic properties of Google Suggest. The search results for that term did not, however, tell me that it was Hume and not Berkeley who played backgammon to relieve his Skepticism. It only told me where to play board games in the East Bay.

You’ve read Terry Pratchett’s “Making money”, right? Because if you haven’t, you totally should. :)

Sometimes I do get weirded out by the unreality of money. But this tends to happen around the same time I’m getting vertigo over the improbability of my being an American and not something else, in the twenty-first century and not the sixteenth or the twenty-ninth, etc. Or the improbability that the United States exists and includes Hawaii, that Christianity ever took hold, and that anyone ever figured out how to eat coconuts. Anyway, the oddity of money so far has not stood out from the oddity of everything else, for me, but the way the times are going, maybe it will soon.


I haven’t, but I guess I should. Generally Pratchett’s brand of humor and mine do not mesh particularly well, but I’ll look into it.


This week on Planet Money they’re talking about the theme What Is Money? and last night’s episode, “Money is a Relationship,” ended up being really topical to this post. They had an economist talking about how “money” is the embodied concept of trust in other people–money is, in essence, a loan that you know will be repaid, generalized and held in common trust by everybody.

Which makes me think it’s a lot cooler than I normally do–I’ve been convinced for a while that it’s this precarious system of not trusting others but only trusting this big wacky system. I’m actually quite reassured.

It occurs to me that I’ve left a salaried job in order to pursue positions where labor is compensated by housing and food. It wasn’t my intention to jump ship on this whole liquid-currency thing, but…

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