June 12, 2022
By Stephen Stofka
Economics students learn that money is a complex function, a multi-tool that plays three roles in our lives. Lawyers study the role of money in contracts. Psychologists study how our beliefs and personal history shape our distinct attitude to money. Our use of money embodies our expectations of the future and our perceptions of risk. The financial crisis demonstrated that money connects us and separates us. The struggle between cooperation and distrust is the foundation of our experiment in democracy.
Money is the Swiss army knife of most societies. As a medium of exchange, it saves us the cost of matching our needs. We can store our labor in a unit of money, then trade it for the things we want. The law regards an exchange of money as a “consideration” that distinguishes a contract from a gift. Current Supreme Court precedent has held that money is speech. Because we use money to store purchasing power, we want it to be a reliable container that doesn’t leak value. Money’s role as a unit of account requires legal institutions to administer the rules of that accounting.
We buy insurance to mitigate risk but to do so we are herded into risk pools based on age, sex or occupation. Those under age 25 pay higher car insurance premiums but lower health insurance premiums. Because they make less money as a group, they have a higher loan default rate and must pay higher borrowing costs. Roofers pay higher workmen’s compensation premiums than police. Heights are more dangerous than criminals. Before Obamacare, health insurance companies charged women of childbearing age higher premiums for individual policies (Pear, 2008). The premiums reflected the higher expected costs of pregnancy regardless of whether a woman had any intention of getting pregnant. We are Borg.
Companies may classify our risk profile but we have a unique relationship with money, a composite of personal experience and inclination. “Me” and “my” are appropriately contained in the word “money” because our attitude toward money is as unique as our fingerprints. In 1984, British psychologist Adrian Furman (1984) led a study to assess people’s attitudes toward money. The questionnaire included 150 questions grouped into five areas that probed the subjects’ beliefs, their political attitudes and affiliations, their sense of autonomy and personal power. An argument about money can be as complex as that questionnaire.
Many political debates involve money. Each party tries to gain control of the public purse to fund its priorities. After 9-11, the debate over money intensified. The hijackers had attacked a money center as a symbol of American hegemony. While Americans debated the justification for an invasion of Iraq, the budget surplus of the late Clinton years evaporated. For some voters, the choice was a stark one – spend money to blow up people in a foreign land or spend it to strengthen American communities. To calm his critics, Mr. Bush promised that Iraq would repay American war expenses with its oil revenues. This was one of several follies that turned voter sentiment toward Democrats in 2008.
The financial crisis showed us the complex nature of money and tested the values that we attach to money. In the last months of a flailing Bush Presidency, the crisis exposed the corruption, greed and stupidity of the country’s largest financial institutions. Billions of taxpayer money had created and fed a thicket of regulatory agencies that were either corrupt or incompetent. The crisis ignited a strong moral outrage that intensified when Democrats fought to pass Obamacare.
The debate may have ebbed during the decade that followed but the Republican tax cuts of 2017 reignited public disdain and distrust. While many American families struggled to recover from the crisis, the politicians and their rich patrons fattened their fortunes.
Money is the heart of the American experience. The American confederacy of colonies that had won independence from Britain could not pay its debts or borrow money. The writing of the Constitution was sparked by the urgent desire to resolve that crisis or risk becoming subjects again of a colonial power. To reach consensus, the colonies had to overcome their distrust of a central government with the power to levy taxes. The colonies distrusted each other and the regional coalitions that might take the reins of that central government. The founders built their distrust into the Constitution and its governing institutions. In grade school we learn them as “checks and balances,” a euphemistic phrase for distrust.
On social media we argue about the many aspects of money. Our experiment in democracy will be over when Americans stop having spirited discussions about money.
Furnham, A. (1984). Many sides of the coin: The psychology of money usage. Personality and Individual Differences, 5(5), 501–509. https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(84)90025-4
Pear, R. (2008, October 30). Women buying health policies pay a penalty. The New York Times. Retrieved June 7, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/30/us/30insure.html