Money: Humanity's Biggest Illusion

If I asked you the question:

“What is man’s greatest invention?”

What would your answer be?

There’s a lot of options.

Would it be fire? Because it gives us warmth, protection, and the ability to cook our meals? Or perhaps you would pick the wheel? Because it’s the driving force being the beginnings of trade, commerce, and travel.

While both of those are excellent choices, most of the time when we think about the greatest inventions of mankind, we tend to forget one of the most important ones of all: money.

But unlike man’s other great inventions, money is immaterial. Maybe that’s why we often don’t think of it in the same breath as some of the other great inventions. Things like fire and the wheel are tangible, but not money. Money is merely an idea, an illusion whose value is non-existent, only determined by the importance we place on it… or at least money as we know it today.

However, the fact that money is an illusion does not in any way undermine its importance. Before we created money, we were forced to trade goods and services directly in what we refer to as the Barter system. People exchanging goods and services for other goods and services in return. Because there was no arbitrary value placed on these items, every single trade was determined by what each party was willing to give up for something they wanted. It was kind of like a game.

If I wanted some of your vegetables for dinner but I only reared cattle, I would have to give you one of my animals in exchange for bags of vegetables. If I wanted shoes to wear but I only made tents, I would have had to give you an entire tent in exchange for a pair of slippers. 

And immediately you can already see one of the major problems with this system of trade. It’s the asymmetry. As a tent-maker, there’s no way I wouldn’t feel cheated having to exchange an entire living space for simple footwear. 

Because there was no standardized medium of exchange, it was very difficult to get two people who needed things from each other to come to an agreement. Having to wait until a “double coincidence” of wants where two people need the exact opposite thing at the same time was also very difficult and inefficient. And that wasn’t all. 

You see, our “money” is not only a medium of exchange, it’s also considered a store of value. And before the invention of money, some people could never store their wealth for no fault of their own. 

Think about the farmer who sells tomatoes and the man who makes tents. The man who makes tents can create an entire village of real estate and barter it with anyone who needs a place to rest their head all year long, and he would probably cash out on that. But the farmer who sells tomatoes can only barter when tomatoes are in season. And because tomatoes are perishable goods, he cannot keep them for a long period of time. So, although he would be putting in the same effort into his business as the tentmaker, there was absolutely no way for him to remain wealthy all-year long.

There’s also the problem of having something that only very few people want. Nowadays, when starting a business, you’re often told to find a niche. A small group of people who are very interested in what you have to offer. Before money was a thing, that advice would have left you with nothing worth bartering. 

The people who had the most were those who owned things that everybody wanted. Things like weapons, animal skin, and salt. But then since everyone knew that everyone wanted these things, they started buying them even if they didn’t need them at the time just so they could trade with them later. And so commodity money became a thing. 

People would exchange goods and services for the most common items like salt or weapons and just use that to trade for what they want from someone else.

From salt and weapons to tiny collectibles like shells and beads, humanity had figured out a better way to trade and transact. Instead of exchanging goods and services for goods and services you may not need at the time, you can exchange your goods and services for arbitrary objects to act as placeholders of value, an IOU (or I Owe You). After that, you can use these placeholders to get goods and services you actually want from someone else. 

The idea was brilliant. So brilliant that the entire world slowly moved away from the Barter system to the money trading system.

But there was still one problem with this medium of exchange. You see, for money to be worth anything, it needs to be scarce. The more available something is, the lesser its implied value. That’s basic economics. If everyone can get their hands on something, it can’t be worth that much, right? So things like sand or shells that you could easily pick up on any beach weren’t really a good measure of value.

As a result, around the year 770 BC, the first metal coins were created in China. As a sort of homage, the Chinese made miniature versions of the tools that were once regarded as currency. They made the coins circular so it was easy to reach into pockets and take them out without hurting your fingers. Then they cast the coins in bronze. 

This was it. Money was finally worth something. You couldn’t just go to a beach somewhere and pick up bronze. It was scarce. It had value. 

At this time, money wasn’t yet an illusion. The value of a coin was determined by the value of the metal the coin was made out of. If you had a coin that was made of 1 gram of gold, it was worth 1 gram of gold. You could easily measure it and see for yourself that it is, in fact, 1 gram of gold. 

However, Kings and Rulers quickly discovered the power of money. They realized that the more of these tiny precious metals you had, the more power you could control. And so in 600 BC, Alyattes, King of Lydia, created the first official money mint. 

He created the coins using a mix of silver and gold and stamped an image on the coin to act as denominations. Now people could easily tell the value of the piece of metal they were holding simply by looking at the picture on its face. 

But the Kings of the world wanted more money and precious metals were too expensive. To produce more money, they started slimming down the coins, then mixing the more expensive metals with cheaper metals. Soon, all the coins in circulation were worth less than what the image on their face said they were worth. And so the illusion of money was born. 

The value of the coin was no longer determined by the value of the metal. The value of the coin was now simply what the rulers and the bank said it was. So one British Pound Sterling represented one pound of Sterling Silver. 

However, when international trade became a thing, people realized that metal coins were too heavy to log around. And so Kings started issuing IOU certificates for long distance trading. Because these pieces of paper were stamped by the King, people trusted its value and believed that they could use it to get back whatever it was worth in coins. And that was true for the time being. 

As more of these IOU certificates flooded the market, people needed coins less and less. Until finally, the paper was worth what we believed it was worth, even if we no longer exchanged it for physical pieces of gold and silver. 

From Ancient Kings to modern day governments and Central Banks, money has remained an illusion. A mere representation whose value is determined by the importance people place on it.

The most valuable banknote in circulation today is the ten thousand Singapore Dollars note. Although not being produced anymore, this single piece of paper worth seven thousand three hundred and forty-five US Dollars at the moment, is still regarded as legal tender. So you can still use it to buy things, valuable things like houses, cars, and even metals like gold. 

The banknote itself costs less than 20 cents to produce, but the illusion of the fiat currency system means it’s as valuable as 120 grams of gold.

“Fiat” is the fancy word we use to describe the modern-day illusion. It’s a Latin word that translates to “let it be done.” It’s a decree by the government that, in the case of money, determines what its value is and enforces it as legal tender.

The illusion of money is one that we never really think about. But just like the Kings of old, the governments of today understand the power of money and, as always, want more of it. 

They know that the more of these pieces of paper you have, the more power you have. So what do they do? Well, they can simply create more pieces of paper out of thin air. Yes, if for example the United States government wanted $340 million dollars for, I don’t know, maybe another F-22 jet, they can simply print the money to do so.

But there’s one problem with this: inflation. 

The thing about money is that primarily, it needs to be a means of exchange to be considered valuable. So, the amount of money in circulation needs to reflect the output of the goods and services that are being provided. 

When more money is printed than there are goods and services, all other things being equal, the prices of these goods and services increase and the value of the money itself drops.

This is why many economists and even everyday people like you and me are worried about the current global reserve currency: the United States Dollar.

2020 was a terrible year for the entire world. In the wake of the pandemic, most economies had to be shut down. The goods and services available and the general output of the economy was reduced to mere trickles, and the world kind of came to a halt for a while. Because there wasn’t as much money flowing around, to keep the economy from going under and basically our world falling apart, the US government started printing money at a rate faster than has ever been printed before in its entire existence.

Right now, 40% of the US dollars in existence today were printed in the last 18 months alone. That’s... outrageous. And because the output of the country hasn’t really increased by that much, eventually, the prices of goods and services might start to skyrocket. 

You can see this taking place in the price of commodities, such as lumber, which had as much as tripled in price from just a year ago. If you haven’t noticed, some of the prices of things at your favorite restaurants are now slightly higher than they were last year. It’s an ever-so-small increase, maybe the guac at Chipotle is 20 cents higher, but it’s happening there right under your nose.

On the surface, it seems like a good thing that governments decided to send out stimulus and unemployment checks to their citizens. But the reality is, it’s a double-edged sword. Of course, it helps those most in need, and that’s a good thing. 

We’re at the point where, because of inflation and a slowed economy, people really aren’t able to get the right jobs at the right times. Sometimes it’s not even because they don’t want them, but because it’s simply worse than the alternative.

For example, in the United States at least, if you’re a waiter or waitress, you aren’t required by law to be paid even minimum wage. Some are literally paid $2 to $3 an hour, with the rest of their income coming from tips. But with a lot of restrictions and rules in place around the country, and not as many people going out, there’s less customers. Less customers with less money means less tips. If your employees aren’t making enough money, they’re going to quit, simple as that. If your business doesn’t have employees to help you run it, you’re going to go under; it’s a domino effect. 

But what can you even do? When you can earn more money from unemployment and stimulus checks than you would from being employed, why even look for a job in the first place?

You see, the Federal Reserve of the United States is a very sneaky way for the government to essentially create money out of thin air and pump it into the economy without people thinking too much about it. 

Before 2020, the United States was $29 trillion in debt. It’s an unbelievable and inconceivable amount of money to begin with. This debt is obtained in the form of bonds and treasury notes, which are basically just pieces of paper that says the government will pay you so and so amount plus interest. Right now, a 10 year US treasury bond will return you 1.23% on your investment at expiry. So if you put in $1,000 today, you’ll have made $12.30 by 2031. That sounds terrible already, but to add the icing on the cake, it doesn’t even keep up with inflation, which is targeted to stay at around 2% a year. It’s a lot higher than that, but that’s for another time. By investing in government notes of your own country, which issues the currency you use every day, you actually lose buying power over a decade. It is weakened by the day.

But regardless, banks, businesses, and individuals around the world buy these bonds and treasury notes and the government uses all that money it gets back how it sees fit. 

However, when it’s time for the government to pay its debt, all the money they made has been spent. So they buy back all the treasuries and bonds, but only from the big financial institutions, and then pay them back with new money created out of thin air. Since March 2020, the Federal Reserve has bought back over $1 trillion in bonds, and is planning to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. 

With all the new money pumped into them by the government, banks can now give out more loans to people, earn more interest, and help grow the economy. But this increases the total amount of money in circulation, reducing the value of each dollar. With multi-trillion dollar stimulus payments and infrastructure packages, it makes you wonder how long this can go on for.

New money steals value from old money. The amount in your bank account doesn’t change, but because of the new money the government has just printed out of thin air, your money is no longer as valuable as it once was. Basically, every second you store your wealth in any fiat currency, such as the US dollar, it is being devalued. You could stare at your bank balance, and day by day, you’ll be able to buy less and less things with whatever you have left.

The reality that money is nothing but an illusion is one that we must all embrace. Because only then will the path to financial freedom become clearer. 

It’s all a game, a game that never truly ends. Understanding that money does not have any intrinsic value in itself, but instead only inherits the value we give to it, will prevent you from trying to store up your wealth in currency. Instead, using that money to acquire assets that appreciate faster than inflation is the only way to “win” the game. And it’s not really winning, it’s avoiding total loss.

As more money is printed each and every day, the value of each dollar in your pocket will continue to decrease, but the dollar value of assets around the globe will continue to appreciate in value. But it’s all a mirage, it’s smoke and mirrors. A stock market that is literally in up only mode may make it seem like all is okay, but it isn’t. It’s all denominated in the same currency that is slowly dying each and every day. For example, if you were to denominate the DOW Jones, which is just a performance measurement of 30 large United States companies, in terms of Gold instead of USD, you’ll see that we’re basically at the same place we were in 1997.

Smoke and mirrors.

But what’s the end goal of all of this? With fiat and an unlimited supply of money, will the value of each currency just continue to decrease until the end of time? Will the gap between the rich and the poor continue to grow wider? Or are we going to finally fix a problem as old as man itself, and stop placing our financial success in the hands of those who are destroying it day by day?

Only time will tell, but just know, there is a way out.

- EE, MM