I remember a time when I was in 10th grade algebra class and the teacher introduced the concept of negative numbers. She asked, “what is ‘5 – 6’?” I remember being very perplexed as to what the answer could be. The question itself seemed illogical. If I have five apples and I take away six apples – wait, how is that even possible? I can’t take away more than what actually exists – that’s literally impossible. But despite my protest, the lesson plan continued and soon my math teacher introduced further abstract concepts where some numbers became imaginary and other equations began to use more letters than numbers.
Walking out of that class, I felt confused. Nothing I had experienced in my life could ever validate what I was learning in that class. It was a concept that had no validity in the real world of physical objects. If I only have two dollars, I can’t give anyone three dollars, for the third dollar does not actually exist. When I went to college, these abstract concepts seemed to build on one another to the point where thinking in abstraction became normal. There were two worlds – the real world of physical things and an abstract, mental world that was untranslatable into the real world.
I wondered why it would be important to learn about concepts that had no connection to the natural world. It wasn’t until much later when I discovered how money was created and sourced from debt that I began to see the connection.
Understanding our monetary system
Many people really do not understand our monetary system. Our everyday experience with money tells us that money is something that is earned through your labor. If I put in eight hours of work, I might earn $100. Both the work that is performed and the money that is received is a positive quantity that jives with our experience in the world. But where did this money that was earned originate from?
I only became aware of the root source of money by watching a documentary called “Zeitgeist: Moving Forward.” The documentary explained that all money is sourced from interest-bearing debt. Whenever someone takes out a mortgage or makes a purchase with credit, new money is created and issued literally out of thin air. The money that was borrowed did not exist before it was borrowed. Literally every dollar in existence is created in this way.
An interesting problem
The problem is that our current monetary system issues all new money with corresponding interest. In addition to paying back the principle borrowed, the borrower must also pay back a corresponding interest rate of say, 5% per year. The problem is that only the principle amount is created and issued at the time the money is created, not the interest. Where is this extra money to pay back the interest supposed to come from?
The answer is other people’s future loans. And here is the reason why our economic system requires continuous, exponential economic growth to sustain itself. Every year, more money must be loaned out than in each previous year, in order for all borrowers to keep up with the compounding interest payments. This means at any given time, the amount of money owed is always greater than the amount of money that exists.
Oh my! I feel like I am back in math class again. If everyone is expected to pay back more than what they borrowed, and the extra money doesn’t actually exist, doesn’t that put every human being in competition with every other human being in an economic game of musical chairs to be able to pay back their debts? Doesn’t this system compel each of us to work and earn more than we would otherwise need? And even more importantly, what happens to the extra money paid in the form of interest? If the original money was created from nothing (i.e. with no physical effort), why should the bankers be entitled to keep the interest money for themselves when they were not involved in the actual work to earn the money?
“It is well enough that people of the nation do not understand our banking and monetary system, for if they did, I believe there would be a revolution before tomorrow morning.”
– Henry Ford
The more that I learned about our money system, I realized that the environmental devastation and continued commodification of nature stems from the pressure we are all under to compete for money that doesn’t exist. We must create and sell more products every year whether there is a need or not.
But even our best attempts to create more physical goods and services to keep up with the pressure of compounding interest are not good enough. The physical world of goods and services is grounded in the reality of a finite world but our abstract monetary system is not. Instead, it is intimately connected to that math class. All debt is imaginary – it doesn’t exist in the physical world – but its effects have a very real effect on the physical world.
A sustainable economic system must have a money that is not sourced from debt and does not bear interest. Check out LETS system, Bitcoin, or time banking for a few. The money system must be accessible to all and transparent so that it cannot be corrupted and controlled by a few people. After all, money is only valuable because of the collective belief in its value. As soon as that belief wanes, money is seen to be worthless. Soon, as Greece is beginning to show us, it will become obvious that money grows faster in abstraction than nature has the ability to replenish. It is literally impossible to pay it all back.
So why does all of this matter? The ultimate result of the current money system is a felt experience of scarcity, of there not being enough. We begin to see everything in terms of a competition for not enough resources and each other as potential roadblocks to meeting our own needs. More for you is less for me. The truth is that the resources our planet has to offer are abundant. We have the ability to create enough food to feed every human being. There just isn’t enough (debt-based) money to pay for it. As the debt-based monetary system implodes, let us welcome the opportunity to create new forms of money to create an economy where everyone has the ability to meet their needs.