Possible Insight

Explaining Money: Part I

with 11 comments

I am undertaking a Quixotic quest.  I am going to try to explain Money.  I believe that hardly anyone (including me) fully understands Money.  Even economists.  A few appear to mostly understand it.  The vast majority, even some charged with running government monetary authorities, seem to get confused by Money some of the time.  Unfortunately, we are currently living during one of those times.  In my opinion, much of the sphincter tightening economic news we have been reading about is due to fundamental misconceptions about Money by the very people charged with supervising our economy.

It will take several posts for me to complete this tilt at the windmill.  But before I get started by laying out the overall plan, I would like to thank Scott Sumner.  First, his informative blog posts on monetary policy inspired me to undertake this venture.  Second, he graciously reviewed parts of my approach.  All mistakes (and there will some, I’m sure) remain my own.

Step 1 will explain how Money is an emergent phenomenon.  Step 2 will illustrate the concept of “monetary shocks”, culminating with dispelling the fallacy of commodity money’s superiority over fiat money.  Step 3 will extend this illustration to show how expectations about Money help steer the economy.  If I haven’t painted myself into a corner by then, I may try to push my luck even further.

So let’s tackle the concept of Money as an emergent phenomenon. I claim that Money will emerge out of a desire to trade.  As a didactic device, I propose analyzing an imaginary country.  All the adults are married, the women do all the selling, and the men do all the buying.  Conveniently, all the women’s names start with S and all the men’s names start with B.  The reason for this device to create an explicit need for households to coordinate production and consumption behaviors. So let’s start by examining this country back in a time before Money existed and barter was the only means of trade.

Sue is married to Bob and is shepherd.  Sara is married to Brad and is a seamstress.  Sally is married to Billy and is a metalsmith.  Now, suppose that Billy needs clothes for his children.  He must to go to Sara and trade metal objects made by his wife for those clothes.  Unfortunately, Billy can’t just go and trade with Sara.  Billy doesn’t have enough information about the relative production value of the various metal items his wife could make to trade.  Moreover, Sara doesn’t have enough information about the relative consumption value of those metal items because that’s Brad’s responsibility.  So Sally & Billy and Sara & Brad must all get together to arrange the trade.  In many cases, the expected value from the trade won’t be worth the hassle of getting them all together, so they won’t bother.

Now, let’s consider trades between the Sue-Bob and Sally-Billy households.  Sue always has a supply of wool and sometimes has a supply mutton.  Of course, wool is useless by itself to Billy.  So if Bob needs metal items from Sally and his wife hasn’t slaughtered any sheep lately, Bob has to first go to the Sara-Brad household.  As a seamstress, Sara can always use wool.  After he trades for clothes, he can go back to Sally-Billy who always have some demand for them.  Of course, he doesn’t have enough information about the Sally-Billy clothing preferences to tell Sara what he wants.  Moreover, we have the same household coordination problem as before.  So Sue & Bob, Sally & Billy, and Sara & Brad all have to get together to hash out a trade or one person has to go back and forth among the others until they converge on an acceptable series of trades.  This inter-household coordination cost is even higher than the intra-household coordination cost discussed above, so even fewer of these trades are worth the hassle.

Notice that a lot of potential trades won”t happen because the transaction costs are greater than the expected gains.  Then one day, something important happens.  Sally makes a little silver figurine for her and Billy’s daughter, Sunny.  Bob sees it one day when he’s over completing a trade and wants one for his son, Bert.  Pretty soon, all three families and everyone in their town is in the grip of a silver figurine collecting craze.  Almost everyone wants to trade for figurines.  Everyone knows almost everyone wants to trade for figurines.  So even those people who don’t care much for the figurines know they can easily trade them to people who do want them.

Billy finds he no longer needs to bring Sally along when he trades with Sara.  Sally can simply give him five figurines to trade for clothes because they know roughly how much clothing Sara will trade for figurines.  Things also get easier for Bob when he needs metal items from Sally.  He can just trade her some of his figurines for other metal items.  Even though she can make figurines herself, especially because she makes them herself, she realizes their value in terms of trades that Billy can make down the line.

So Money has emerged.  It didn’t have to be figurines.  It could have been turquoise, salt, or leather.  The key ingredients were that it was relatively portable and a group of people began expecting everyone in the group to accept it in trades.  Within the group, the item’s trading value became common knowledge (in the game theory sense of the term).  In this case, a collecting craze precipitated this mutual agreement.  In other cases, it could arise out of established tradition, explicit negotiation, or random discovery.

Notice that Money adds value.  It’s not merely an accounting fiction.  All sorts or trades that weren’t possible before become possible, creating new sources of value.  Moreover, a lot of trades that did occur previously now produce more value because they cost less to make.  So there’s a lot of “pull” for Money to emerge.  Once it happens, there’s an equilibrium that will tend to hold unless perturbed.

Moreover, once Money emerges, it’s like any other technological innovation such as electricity or steel.  It becomes embedded in the pattern of trade across the economy.  People will be out and about more often because there will be more trades to make.  Hey, that means more restaurants and hotels.  Smaller trades become possible.  Hey, that means whole new markets for accessories to larger items.  Trades across larger distances become practical.  Hey, that means more regional specialization of industries.  And so on.

But what happens to this network of effects if something undermines common knowledge foundation of Money?  We’ll explore the possibilities in the next post.

a small country where all the adults are
married, the women do all the selling, and the men do all buying.
Conveniently, all the women's names start with S and all the men's names
start with B.  The reason for assuming such a fantasy world is to create
an explicit need for coordinating production and consumption behaviors
in households.

Written by Kevin

September 10, 2010 at 1:09 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Nice start, looking forward to the series.

    Aaron Davidson

    September 12, 2010 at 10:42 am

  2. I think you nailed it. In my mind the keys (which you explain either explicitly or implicitly) are:1) Value has the potential to be created whenever there is an asymmetry; in economic terms this manifests as the “law of comparative advantage”2) Value is created via coordinated activity (i.e. cooperation)3) Money emerges when mutual knowledge (about personal value relationships to goods and services) becomes common knowledgeHere are some related musings of mine:http://emergentfool.com/2009/04/10/asymmetry-is-the-root-of-all-value/

    Rafe Furst

    September 12, 2010 at 5:27 pm

  3. At its core I think money is simply a marker of human energy (both physical and intellectual), but debt vehicles misappropriate and skew that original relationship.


    September 18, 2010 at 1:37 am

    • So did you actually read the post or did you make a comment solely based on the title?


      September 22, 2010 at 1:21 am

  4. After you explain Money, can you please explain Wealth? It really feels like economists are not measuring it very well.


    November 30, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    • I will put it on my list of topics to explore. I agree that it is also a slippery concept. I once had a crazy idea of trying to back into a measure of wealth using the “wealth effect”. The basic idea would be to propose a bunch lotteries to people but alter their endowment before each different lottery–not just be giving them money but other items that seem somewhat qualitatively valuable.


      December 4, 2010 at 9:04 am

    • The best book I’ve read on this is The Origins of Wealth, which takes a complex adaptive systems approach. It also gives a great history of economic theory and complexity theory before it tries to combine the two. His conclusion is that wealth derives from “fit order” where “fit” refers to an evolutionary landscape and “order” refers to business models.

      Personally, I’ve come to a more nuanced view where wealth is a measure of value, which has three dimensions to it: scarcity, abundance, and flow. These can be thought of as matter, potential energy and kinetic energy respectively. In the science of value these correspond to extrinsic, intrinsic and systemic value respectively.

      This is not different fundamentally than “fit order” except that like all evolutionary theory it lacks an explication of emergence (as an integral part of the evolutionary dynamic). And without this it’s impossible to understand (or even fully see) abundance/intrinsic value. It always gets conflated with the other two, which have different mathematical cardinality.

      I know this is obtuse, I plan to do a series of posts on it to explain at some point.

      Rafe Furst

      December 13, 2010 at 6:16 am

      • Is it ‘Origin’ (singular) by Eric D. Beinhocker? I’ve put it in my cart.


        December 14, 2010 at 4:07 am

      • yep.

        Rafe Furst

        December 14, 2010 at 6:20 pm

  5. […] Part I, we saw how Money is an emergent phenomenon.  In Part II, we analyzed how changes to the supply […]

  6. […] 4 comments In our last episode, we examined how Money might emerge in a toy economy. The key turning point was when we achieved […]

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