The Regents, New York’s public school state tests, are coming up in May, and so some of the time I’ve been spending with S, the fifth grader I’ve been tutoring, has been given over to test prep. Which is how it came to be that I was sitting in S’s living room in a primarily Polish neighborhood in southern Queens a couple of weeks ago, reading aloud to to her a chirpy Highlights for Children-style essay called “It’s Only Money!”
The essay was from the listening section of the exam from 2006, which the DOE has put on their website as a practice test. She was taking laborious notes on it as I read; she was supposed to be able to answer questions about it based on her notes. “Money,” wrote the author,
is really just a symbol. That means it stands for something else. Long ago, people did not use money. They did not go to stores to buy what they needed. People had to make or grow food, clothes, and other things they needed. They grew crops. They made clothes from wool from their sheep. They made baskets from grasses. They made pots from clay they dug out of the ground.
Later, people started trading. When people traded, they no longer had to make everything they needed. People began to do certain kinds of work. Then they would trade what they made to someone else in order to get different foods and goods…
The author describes various bartering situations: a baker trades bread for wheat, a weaver trades cloth for meat. But all is not well, in the land of bartering: “The goods might be too heavy to carry.” What if, the author asks,
the cow farmer wanted to trade a cow for a horse? Or if the chicken farmer wanted to trade ten chickens for a pig? They would have to carry their animals with them. Bartering did not have a way to make change, either. What if the cow farmer wanted to trade a cow for a chicken? A cow is worth more than a chicken. One cow might be worth ten chickens. But what if the farmer only wanted one chicken, not ten? The farmer should get “change.” But how can you make change from a cow? This is where money comes in…
S, my student, looked up scornfully. She was sitting on the floor, with a tendency to slide under the living room table; I was on the couch.
“I know how to make change from a cow,” she said, with the combination of dignity and outrage that no one over the age of twelve can muster quite as well. “You cut it in half and give the other half to the guy… Why would you even want a pig? What use is that?”
“Well, do you like bacon?”
“I never had bacon,” she said dismissively.
“How about pork chops?”
“Nope.” I don’t actually believe her; they’re Eastern Orthodox, not Jewish.
“Well, maybe you don’t need a pig, then. But–”
“You didn’t ask about pepperoni,” she interrupted. I sighed.
“Do you like pepperoni?”
“Yeah, but I don’t eat it anymore, because it’s not healthy for me. Also I don’t eat Jell-o because it’s made from pig skins. Is that true?”
“I think it’s actually horses’ hoofs.” S. looked horrified, and slid under the table again. “…what are you doing?”
“I’m looking for my shoe and my sock. With my feet.” Her voice was muffled.
“Well, sit up, we’re not done…’This is where money comes in. People used to use all kinds of small things for money. They used shells, beads, feathers, seeds, and even salt…’”
“Um,” said S, “I have a question. Did they have trucks back then?”
“Yeah, probably…” I said, absent-mindedly, looking over the rest of the passage.
“Well then WHY,” said S, outraged, “didn’t they just load the chickens and the pigs into the TRUCKS? Then they wouldn’t HAVE to carry them around!”
I backpedaled hastily, realizing the trap into which I had been led. “Well, actually, no, I was wrong; back then they wouldn’t have had trucks. I mean, some modern societies do still practice barter, and those guys might have a truck… But look, it’s very inconvenient to have to carry chickens around on a truck…”
“At least,” she said, “you get FRESH EGGS and you know that they are GOOD!”
I hadn’t– I really hadn’t– been propagandizing her. My little food radical. She comes by it naturally, and I am sure that Jörg Guido Hülzmann has been strangely troubled, recently, in his office in the Loire Valley, since an eleven-year-old in Queens came up with her devastating challenge to the traditional solution of the problem of the double coincidence of wants.
Without money, Hülzmann wrote in his 2008 Mises Institute publication The Ethics of Money Production,
people would exchange their products in barter; for example, Jones would barter his apple against two eggs from Brown. In such a world, the volume of exchanges– in other words, the extent of social cooperation– is limited through technological constraints and through the problem of the double coincidence of wants. Barter exchanges take place only if each trading partner has a direct personal need for the good he receives in the exchange. But even in those cases in which the double coincidence of wants is given, the goods are often too bulky and cannot be subdivided to accomodate them to the needs. Imagine a carpenter trying to buy ten pounds of flour with a chair. The chair is far more valuable than the flour, so how can an exchange be arranged? Cutting the chair into, say, twenty pieces would not provide him with objects that are worth just one twentieth the value of the chair; rather, such “division” of the chair would destroy its entire value. The exchange would therefore not take place…
These problems can be reduced through what has been called “indirect exchange.” In our example, the carpenter could exchange his chair against 20 ounces of silver, and then buy the ten pounds of flour in exchange for a quarter ounce of silver…Thus indirect exchange provides our carpenter with additional opportunities for cooperation with other human beings. It extends the division of labor. And it thereby contributes to the material, intellectual, and spiritual advancement of each person.
It was this classical liberal model of spiritual uplift through the exchange of money that I like to think S was critiquing. You don’t need the silver bullion. All you need, apparently, is a truck. Which, granted, in a busy mixed-use neighborhood in Queens could easily be mistaken for an abundant natural resource.
They used shells, beads, feathers, seeds, and even salt. (Salt was worth a lot because it was needed to save food and to make food taste good.) A group of people would decide the worth of a kind of shell. Other kinds of shells would be worth more or less. Then people had money that was worth a certain amount. It was easy to carry. It was easy to make change.
“Wait. I have a question. How do you save food with SALT?”
“You know how meat starts to stink if it gets old? If you don’t put it in the fridge? Well, if you rub meat all over with salt and let it sit in it, then you can make it last longer, even without a fridge.” She nodded, satisfied; perhaps she was, again, thinking of pepperoni.
We eventually made it through the whole article. I was, however, not out of the woods: there was a series of questions to answer. The first one was fine. The second, though…
the positivistic conceit that only propositions concerning facts of the phenomenal world were “objective,” while judgments concerning the right order of soul and society were “subjective.” Only propositions of the first type could be considered “scientific,” while propositions of the second type expressed personal preferences and decisions, incapable of critical verification and therefore devoid of objective validity. This classification made sense only if the positivistic dogma was accepted on principle…
Oh, Eric Voegelin, how you complicate my life. “Hey, I have something important to tell you…c’mon, sit up.”
“Because if they don’t then they’d be hungry and the next day they might overeat!” she said.
“…well, I was thinking more like, you know how there are people who don’t have enough to eat at all? Even the next day? That’s bad, right?”
“Well, is it a fact that it’s bad, or an opinion?”
Her eyes were as big as saucers. “Fact,” she said very quietly.
“Fact. But for questions like that, in school, you should answer opinion, so that they know you understand what they’re asking.”
“OK, but you’re confusing me…”
Oy. I mean…I don’t want to make her life harder. She already has so much to deal with: ballet lessons and piano lessons… And her parents didn’t hire me to teach ethics… “Don’t worry about it. OK, let’s do this one: ‘Why did people change from using the barter system to using money?’
It really is very difficult not to get into metaphysics when you are talking to a fifth grader– is that just me? Others must have noticed this, too– but I do try not to be too interventionist. I do. Before Christmas I was helping her with a paper about James Madison, in which she came down very strongly in favor of the unitary state. I believe the quote (from her conclusion) was, “James Madison was important because if we didn’t have him, the British would have won against the USA in the War of 1812 and we would be British now. And also, if we didn’t have the Constitution we wouldn’t be united together.” I felt terribly odd about this, what with the Southern agrarians I’d been reading, but I didn’t feel free to challenge her ideology. Her English teacher is wonderfully conservative in her approach to grammar instruction but might not take kindly to radical anti-federalism.
makes an impassioned defense of the democratic vision as almost a holy thing, as a grand American tradition. He is like a modern Mr. Smith…who comes to Washington and gazes at the Capital building as the sacred place where the common good is (sometimes, potentially) enacted into law. Wolin condemns the attacks on national democratic governance, and he is bewildered by the success of such attacks: why, he asks, should the choice of the people be condemned as some sort of autocratic and necessarily alien thing?
even if Cavanaugh is right about the genealogy of the nation, does this mean that governments today, in every actually existing state, cannot be a place where the public seeks to promote the public good? Do things ever become what they weren’t intended to be at the outset? And if it cannot, is this due to a structural and genealogical flaw in the very ontology of the state, or is it because self-interested power always finds a way to defeat the common good, and that’s that? In other words, perhaps the same forces that prevent the common good from being enacted at the level of the state today, will also defeat any attempt at achieving it under a new order guided by the ‘Church,’ by localism, etc.
The first round of email back-and-forth went on, and the questions were in the back of my mind the next time I went for tutoring: this was the session before our most recent Natural Money Production for the Elementary School Set session. Luckily, S. had clearly been giving these issues some thought as well. “So how do you get to be president, anyway?” she had asked me, somewhat abruptly, in an attempt to distract me from comma splices.
“Actually the president works for US, actually!” She was bouncing up and down; she bounces frequently, and when she does, her hair, which is long and brown and straight, goes everywhere. “That’s fair… Do you know, Barack Obama wanted to make our summer SHORTER? He wanted to take away all of June! And a lot of July! And at my school we were like, NOOOOO! So he didn’t. My parents wanted him to also, though.”
“That’s fair.” But why is it fair, according to her? There’s the procedural element: “you get the most people to vote for you.” There’s the representative element, with a focus on the idea of delegation: “the president works for us.” But then there’s an older batch of ideas: the ruler should be responsive to the outcry of the people against the violation of custom, even between elections; and the ruler doesn’t have the right to overturn elements of tradition that have nearly the force of natural law. Summer vacation is not a natural right in the Lockean sense; but it is felt to be a right because of its persistence in our culture. It’s more like one of the chartered rights of a guild, or one of the particular rights of a free city: its warrant is not, perhaps, in the nature of fifth-graders, but in its antiquity, and in its relationship to the natural progress of the seasons. You can’t, for S and her class, abolish vacation during June and July any more than you can abolish June and July themselves.
proceeds from the false statement which deceived three generations of Europe, from the French Revolution to our own day, that corporate action may be identified with individual action. So men speak of their “representatives” as having been “chosen” by themselves. But in experienced reality there is no such thing as this imagined permanent corporate action through delegation…delegation destroys freedom. Parliaments have everywhere proved irreconcilable with democracy. They are not the people. They are oligarchies.
But this was written in 1935, and Belloc was getting a touch fascist. That fact should not however, serve to discredit his acceptance of some state power:
An action by the State is one thing when it is used to free mankind and to give the citizens economic independence, and an exactly opposite thing when it is used to take that independence away. As men would have put it when property was, indeed, well-distributed and when it corresponded to a strong national monarchy, “the King is there to safeguard the freedom of the small man against the tyranny of the great.” That is the king’s main function, and there is nothing in common between the exercise of that function and the oriental idea of the King as universal owner with all men as his slaves. On the contrary, the right conception of kingship as moderator and preserver of freedom is the very contrary to, and destruction of, the wrong conception of kingship as a universal despotism.
By Belloc’s lights, the notion that Obama is a representative of the people (S’s second reason for calling the presidency fair) is absurd, and can only be an apology for oligarchy. But if we see him as a ruler, then we can judge his acts as just or unjust insofar as they uphold the substantive freedoms of those he’s ruling– such as the freedom to have two and a half months to play foursquare on the baking asphalt of schoolyards in Queens, to re-read all of the Series of Unfortunate Events books from the library across the street, to run in and out of one’s father’s grocery all day, to climb the steps to the wood-and-steel elevated platform where the M train stops and take it into the city to visit the blue whale in the Natural History Museum, to track the Good Humor truck by its song. Belloc’s assessment would find justice in Obama’s rule not in the procedures used to elect him or in the notion that he represents, in a parliamentary sense, the fifth graders of Southern Queens, but in the fact that by giving up the notion of an extended school year, he preserved the customary rhythm of their lives.
At its very end, the Regents essay abruptly shifted gears, concurring with Belloc’s assessment of government as a potential source of good, and departing from anything that sounded like Mises for Minors. If I were a die-hard Austrian, I would find its segue from natural money production to an endorsement of statism positively sneaky. “As time went on,” the author wrote,
people formed governments. The governments began to make the money. Now our bills have pictures of presidents. Some countries have money with pictures of kings and queens. Some countries have bills that are printed in many colors. When we travel, we can trade our money with people from other countries. Using money means that we don’t have to travel with chickens, cows, or clay pots!
“Yeah, but what would be easier, to carry ten bucks, or to carry ten bucks’ worth of clay pots?”
We both looked at the coffee table. There were, as it happened, clay pots there: four bowls in which her father had set out cookies for us. Wordlessly, we emptied the cookies out onto the table, and S. began tucking the bowls into the crook of her elbow. “Yeah, I guess money would be better,” she sighed, as we put the cookies back in. But she seemed a little disappointed.
I like to think that it was the myth of progress embedded in the essay that she was reacting to, and pushing back against: the Whig interpretation of economic development that blithely consigned barter to the dustbin of history. I like to think it was the same part of her that recognized justice in the President’s backing off from his proposal to violate tradition by extending the school year, the same part that was awed by the idea of “good” and “bad” being in some cases matters of fact, and not opinion.
Although it may, of course, have simply been orneriness.
I frequently can’t tell the difference in myself, either.
Susannah Black is a freelance writer. After getting her BA in English literature from Amherst College, she went on to earn an MA in early modern European history from Boston University. She is an avid schooner sailor. Born and raised in Manhattan, she is now taking her stand in central Queens. She blogs at radiofreethulcandra.wordpress.com