Have you seen the new $100 bills? Bought anything with Bit Coins, used pay pal, waived your iPhone at a Starbucks barista to pay for your latte? The face of money is rapidly changing before our eyes. By the 1960s, most indigenous forms of Money like cowrie shells, sheepskins, and horses—the latter of which the Kirghiz in the Russian Empire still used as Money until 1910—had largely vanished. Local, fabricated, or collected forms of Money gave way to national printed currencies. As a result, increasing numbers of people moved away from local, subsistence, and trade-oriented economies to larger market economies. Their wealth became increasingly subject to national monetary policies as a result. The population explosion of the mid-twentieth century caused huge inflation, particularly in developing Third World countries in which poverty became increasingly intractable along with rapid environmental decay.
In 2002, the European Union introduced the Euro to replace the national currencies of most European nations. In 2012, however, an economic crisis in Greece had many rethinking the wisdom of all Europe being on a common currency, as Greece’s decline weighted down neighbors in the new EU. Money’s epic story continues its strange tale of inflations, devaluations, crashes, and revaluations. Money is protean, continually shifting in its forms. Grain and herd animals gave way to gold and silver coins, which in turn gave way to printed currency, paper checks, and plastic credit and debit cards. Despite the shifting forms and fortunes of various currencies, however, something unprecedented and monumental began to occur in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries that heralds the end of Money as it has been known for the last two and a half millennia. Money has become digitized and invisible and has learned how to move at the speed of light.
The electronicizing of Money has created a massive, unprecedented shift in our culture’s relationship to wealth, commerce, and the concept of Money itself. By 1995, over 90 percent of all transactions in the United States were being made electronically. The high costs of check and coin payments were a strong motivating factor in the development of electronic payment systems both here and abroad. The Mondex electronic smart cash card debuted in 1995, and there are now numerous forms of electronic currency. The latest trend is electronic payment by cell-phone transfer to an electronic receiver at the place of purchase and other digital device–facilitated transfers are proliferating.
The now invisible current of Money is understood by very few, leaving most of us detached from any sort of solid ground or real sense of wealth. Money has transformed from a concrete, useful substance to something of total abstraction. Unseen, mercurial, mysterious, and intensely powerful, it now more closely resembles a god than any other known corollary. Even though electronic commerce and global capital markets have liberated many from the slow pace of bondage to a brick-and-mortar reality, they have also created a sense of unreality, unease, and global anxiety about who (if anyone) is really in control of Money and its future.
Historically most Money had some sort of intrinsic worth: it was either biologically relevant to human survival or representative of something that was. Money was a means to the acquisition of needed supplies. Alternatively, it was something beautiful like gold, which, as with all beauty, is a sort of food for the soul. Often Money was a tool for various activities related to survival and human development. Now, for many people, Money has become more of an object of desire itself, far beyond its biological relevancy. In this respect, it has evolved from primarily serving as a tool to being something more like a drug. The phenomenology of Money clearly displays these two major poles—a means to an end (tool) and an endlessly alluring object of desire (drug). Initially, people used Money as a symbol of worth in lieu of trade goods to barter for essentials. Over time, for some people Money itself became the primary goal and essentials became secondary. Just as coca leaves and poppy plants can be refined into the more heavily addictive cocaine and heroin, respectively, recent abstractions of Money may actually facilitate Money behaving more like a drug than a tool for increasing numbers of people.
Most of us in the human sciences have been quite limited in our understanding about Money thus far. The psychotherapist’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not list the Midas Complex. It should. I call it a complex because it has many facets. Millions suffer needlessly from this peculiar psychopathology. However, there is hope. First, as with most disorders, we must examine the shape of the wound. Then we will better understand how to proceed with treatment. One of the prevailing fantasies about Money is that a certain amount of it can make anyone happy. The next blog will examine that Midas Complex–driven fallacy in detail.
Dr. Aaron Kipnis is a psychologist in Los Angeles and author of the recent book: The Midas Complex: How Money Drives Us Crazy and What We Can Do About It.