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Money as a Zero-Sum Game

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In game
theory, zero-sum games are those where one person's gain is another's loss. A
poker game is zero-sum. Those busy accumulating hoards of money try to hide its
zero-sum nature by saying that the "pie" is getting bigger. Prosperity is not a
zero-sum game, though "prosperity" is too easily conflated with monetary
wealth, which is not the same thing at all. Clearly, quality of life is not a
zero-sum game-quite the contrary. The whole bodhisattva impulse of Mahayana
Buddhism stems from recognizing that individual nirvana is incomplete until
everyone is liberated.



All of the
things that we might call "true wealth": health, enough to eat, shelter,
meaningful work, diverse habitats and resources, beauty around one-natural
beauty and artistic beauty-none are diminished by all having more.


But this is
not true of money. If everyone had a million dollars, what would a million
dollars be worth? Money is a usurper, it pretends to be wealth. And its
pretension is backed up by force, creating a new type of slave: the mercenary.
And most conveniently, the mercenary, truly the oldest profession, is paid in
the money he protects. Money has power because of scarcity, and the threat of
scarcity. Without money you will starve and die, even if there is food around.
Without money you will become homeless, sleeping in the rain and shivering in
the cold. Therefore when I say I need some dirty work done, you say yes. I say
yes. We say yes.



Money is
coercive, seductive, corrupting, and exploitative, hence often linked with
diabolical power. "The love of money is the root of all evil," Paul's
first letter to Timothy. Or, as amended by George Bernard Shaw: "The lack
of money is the root of all evil." Both sayings seem true: greed for more
in the already-haves wreaks destruction on a scale orders of magnitude beyond
the petty crimes of the indigent. Still, lack of money, need for money, loads
my soul with care.



Money seems
like a natural and necessary part of the world, but, actually, it is neither.
Money has a history and a biography. It had a childhood and an adolescence. No
one knows if it has an old age and senility, unless that is now. No one really
understands money, and certainly no one, not even the governments that print
money, control it, despite their best efforts.


In some ways
money is the ultimate pyramid scheme — its value is surprisingly sensitive to
human attitudes.


money's no good here."


Others make money
their god, their master. Pragmatic. Realist.


will win. Trust me. And either you are with the haves or you are with the


But how much
"have" is enough? There seems no limit.



I hear
arguments against copyright laws — yet the first copyright law is against
counterfeiting. No one is talking about doing away with that law! If money were
a "natural" item of value, why not produce it?


Actually, this
is done all the time. Corporations create new stock, governments create bonds.
Moe Moskowitz, the late owner of Moe's Books, a used bookstore in Berkeley,
printed trade slips that looked like dollar bills, with a cartoon picture of
Moe in the center and the words "In Moe We Trust." On the back the clerks would
write how much trade you had left and initial it. Moe's Money even had an
exchange rate with US dollars-on Telegraph Avenue one could get 50 % of its
marked value in "real" money.


monopolistically inflated value of the money of national governments such as
that of the US Treasury is protected by armies and prisons. The coercive, zero-sum
quality of money is nowhere more apparent. If counterfeiting money were not a
criminal matter, but only one of public acceptance, "official" currencies would
find their true social value. It is no coincidence that the corporate economy
evolved along with the debtor's prison.



Because most
of us exchange work for money, money pretends to be a measure of work, of one's
contribution to society. This is of course ludicrous. In the 21st
century the connection of money to productive work is secondary or accidental.
In a money economy, one can work hard for a lifetime and still be poor, while
another can be rich by having money to start with, or by a few vagaries of
fortune. Fortune. And everything in between.



Fortune is a
gamble, and the big money is in gambling. Nothing is being produced: it's a


"Made a
fortune betting against Wall Street."

"Made a
fortune betting with the big money."

"Here's a
million dollars: double it."

"Lost a


High risk:
betting the dark horse, but with other people's money. Dark horse lost this
time. Hmmm. National disaster. International crisis. And the government as
insurance: "too big to fail." Send the bill to those who work.
Otherwise money will be seen as a sham. There will be a collapse. And hey,
nobody wants that. Charge all the workers a year's wages, then get tough on



The head of
Tyche, goddess of fortune, is stamped on a gold stater minted in Smyrna in the
first century, BCE. On Tyche's head are miniature walls and guard towers: the walls
of the city, the walls of the state. Or walls of a prison. Or the vault of a
bank. On the reverse there is a statue of Aphrodite, one breast exposed.
Security and pleasure. Anal and erotic. Part lottery token, part whorehouse



Maybe the two
dollar bill should be given yet one more chance. Actresses and other
celebrities could pose nude, artistically of course. Certain bills might even
appreciate beyond their minted value. Trade a Cindy for a Clara, a Greta for a
Marilyn. Or whoever is new, and hot. Whole exchanges could develop. There could
be a futures market. Money could be lent on the future value, and bundles of
the loans could themselves be considered capital credit and marketed to pay off
the national debt.



For love or
money. Will do. Won't do.

without money, honey."

"I love
you but this other man has money."

All of us

somebody killed?            Call



credits the Lydians with the invention of money, of first coining gold and
silver and electrum. The Lydians are also noted as being the first to trade
items not of their own manufacture, as having the custom of prostituting their
daughters, and of being those who first aroused the wrath of the Persians.


The Chinese
began using paper money in the Sung. Kublai Khan forbade the circulation of
metal coinage, though, as reported by Marco Polo, his notes were redeemable in
metal at his mint by metal smiths and jewelers. Exchanging worn and tattered
bills for fresh printings cost 3%.


In the West,
the first circulating paper money was created by Johan Palmstruch  in Sweden in 1661, who got government
backing by promising half of the profits to the crown. He did well for a while,
but printed too many bills. His bank collapsed. As an act of mercy, he was
allowed to go to prison rather than being executed. Fifty years later the
Scotsman John Law made a deal with the government of France to give his bank a
monopoly in printing government money, promising to pay off the national debt.
Law's scheme also worked for a while: trade soared, new industries were given
low interest loans, and Law's bank financed road building and other
infrastructure projects. Then his bubble burst, and he died penurious in exile.
Neither Law nor Palmstruch were evidently "too big to fail."


The first
issue of paper currency by a government in the West was in Massachusetts in
1690, to finance a military expedition.


Banks, states,
and wars.


War is the parent of
armies; from these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes
are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the
James Madison, April 20,


Wars, states,

The eternal



thought a national debt would be a national blessing, not only binding the
people together but creating a need for taxation which would force people to
work harder.


We labour less now than any civilized
nation of Europe, and a habit of labour in the people is as essential to the
health and vigor of their minds and bodies as it is conducive to the welfare of
the State.

Hamilton, 1781


Hamilton was a banker, and stood to make a bundle.



Paper money is
revolutionary. Printing presses (such as Benjamin Franklin's) financed the
Revolution in America, and later the revolutions in France, Russia, and China.
Inflation caused by the promiscuous printing of money tends to favor debtors-it
has an equalizing effect. The United States was born from hyperinflation. The
biggest debtor, of course, was the government itself.



Edward Gibbon,
writing at the dawn of the age of imperialism, said that money was a
stimulant — the drug that got us off our asses to rise above
"barbarism." So we run around on speed, inventing new doodads to
sell, and suffering the lash of withdrawal if we fall behind.


talk of "injecting" money into the economy: stimulus.

Like cocaine,



Hooked on
money, then held hostage. "I'm the pusher, if I fall, you'll be cut off.
Cold turkey. So you pay my bail, my tickets, and my lawyer."


Julius Caesar
borrowed large sums of money from his officers. Not only did this enable him to
pay off his mutinous troops, but it insured that the future success and
prosperity of his officers depended on his own.



Money is a
drug: if the right dosage can be found — printing just enough, not too much — it's
like magic. As long as people keep buying things they don't need. As long as
those in the business don't hoard too much — which is of course their only reason
for being in the business. As long as the real resources don't dry up, the
illusion of prosperity can be maintained with more and more IOUs. To the
future. To the earth. Like all stimulants, money steals from tomorrow.



A shrine to
money in a place of business is wholly appropriate: the first dollar bill
framed and on the wall by the cash register. Let's keep it straight. Let's keep
it clear. Commerce flows through here. Banks don't do that, though, nor
brokerage houses. It would be too obvious. Overstated. Money is our business
but let's say it is about your future: a warm beach, your money for nothing and
your chicks for your money. Casinos do this big time. Success counselors go
further: they say you have to attract money with your attitude and your
mantras. Repeat every morning: "I admire the rich. I want to be like
them."  Surely you don't want
to be one of the have-nots.


I, too, wish
to be paid. Will I get paid for this? Shall I dance? May this be my mantra, a
spell: "Money, money, money." Maybe just writing the word will be
enough. Invocation. Makes the world go round.


It is more easy to write on money that
to obtain it; and those who gain it jest much at those who only know how to
write about it.






Perhaps Jesus
does smile on wealth, in spite of his sandals. The Calvinists thought worldly
success a mark of the elect, and made hoarding a virtue. "Anal." The
fecal, excremental nature of money was analyzed by Norman O. Brown:


Until the advent of psychoanalysis and
its doctrine of the anal character of money, the profoundest insights into the
nature of the money complex had to be expressed through the medium of myth-in
modern time the myth of the Devil. The Devil, we said in our chapter on Luther,
is the lineal descendant of the Trickster in primitive mythologies; the evolution
of the Trickster, through such intermediary figures as the classical Hermes,
into the Christian Devil reflects the history of anality.

            —N. O. Brown, Life Against Death, p.301


grandmother, a woman who always liked to carry a wad of bills, taught me that
money was dirty and that you had to wash your hands after counting it. Which is
really pretty obvious.



And yet there
is a Dionysian quality to money, or at least to spending it. Burning money
would be very Dionysian. "His alternative worship is war." Norman O.
Brown. War or potlatch: the dilemma of late capitalism.



Burning money.
Art project for Burning Man — an offering to Dionysus, a superstitious rite to
avert bloodshed and cataclysm, to bring true prosperity, peace. A large
cage — the metal rods plated with gold and silver, set atop a wooden pyre.
Everyone contributes a dollar bill. Thousands. Large blowers whirl the bills in
a vortex, then it's burned. Gas cannons. Flame throwers.


People dance.



Aristotle said that money was meant to
be used in exchange, but not to increase at interest. He called the ability of money to
engender itself usury (?????), the birth of money from money, and
called it the most hated sort of money-making.


They have brought whores for Eleusis

Corpses are set to banquet

at behest of usura.

            —Ezra Pound Canto XLV




Is money the
best system? That lack of certain pieces of paper can condemn ordinary people
to misery and early death does not seem "best" in any way. Yet as globalization
seeks out and destroys the last vestiges of the old economy — based on barter and
networks of reciprocal obligations — poverty will be the inevitable result. A
few, of course, will find new power and privilege, and lots of new gadgets.
Everyone, in fact, will have new gadgets, even the poor. The poor may no longer
have gardens or a pasture held in common or their own fishing boats, but they will
have new gadgets.


Money is about
poverty, and the threat of poverty. It is poverty that gives money value. By
threat of poverty, one must not only work — which people have always done — but
must work for money, even if that
work has no value or is destructive. And money is about power — power backed up
by arms and prisons. Poverty, power, and prison are money's soul, flesh, and



Do I have a
better idea? No, but that doesn't change my analysis. Still, just for fun, let's
remove one leg of the tripod: legalize counterfeiting. Would the world be
better or worse? Would there be less poverty, or more? Less crime, or more


Moe's Money, sure, I'll take that."

note? Hmmm. You got anything else?"


One could
carry around whole rolls of money in case one got mugged. Counterfeiting would
naturally prey on the big currencies. Local scrips would acquire a new respect.
And while the paper value of the tycoons would drop, they would still be
tycoons-they've been printing money for years. For everybody else, actually,
life would go on just fine. Maybe there would be more trading. And maybe you'd
want to know the person you were working for, and whose money it was you were



But paper
money is a relic anyway. Money today is mostly a web of interlocking data
bases. There have been proposals in the government to phase out the hundred
dollar bill, to curb the black market. Even the writing of checks has declined.
More and more financial transactions are electronic and invisible: card swipes,
bits shifting on a hard drive. Little fees can be sliced off, the "house take"
at the gaming table.


And the
"house" can create more money whenever it wants to-a note of obligation-which
can then be bundled and sold. Who needs a Fed? Get the US out of the money
business. Leave it to private businessmen, who know what they are doing and
have such a great record. Like banks, or insurance companies. Ha Ha. We take
your money and then we're gone.




Burned me.

Caesar burned

My partner
burned me.

I'm busted.

I need a
hundred dollars.

Now gimme

Brother, can
you spare a dime?



Back to metal?
An ounce of gold for a couple of pounds of laptop? Or further back, before
money. There are still things of value — cowrie shells, strings of dentalium,
beaten sheets of copper, herds of cattle or horses. "Big men," those with much,
give feasts, and thereby earn prestige. Ordinary people get by. Maybe a young
man has to take risks to earn the bride price if he's in love with a girl from
a big house.



It's a
question of scale and edge: before money, subsistence level was the poorest one
could be, and was the way most people lived. Money has created a poverty below subsistence. Today some "earn"
enough money in one hour to feed and shelter one hundred people for a whole
year, or to pay 20,000 people minimum wage, or to pay 4,990 people at $20 an
hour and still leave $200/hr. for oneself.


Friedman's grandfatherly voice tells us that those women in the sweat shop
aren't being exploited, they are being given a chance — they are working their
way up. After all, when they lived on farms they didn't have any money at all.
Now they can buy things. Now she'll do a strip tease. Now she'll let me fuck


Perhaps the
bottom of the scale is a better measure of the wealth of a society than the
gold and jewels at the top. We need something better than the silly and wholly
self-serving GDP, Gross Domestic Product, which really has nothing to do with
"product." A country that destroys its farming soil to force out three record
yields isn't making itself richer, it is impoverishing itself. We can save
money by not dealing with our trash-better bottom line. Put the trash in the
water. Put the trash in the air. Plastic in the oceans. Save money. Make money
with IOUs. Maybe deserts aren't so bad. I'll be dead. Broken glass on the
beach. I'll be dead, but I'm rich now. Money defines only itself as "capital,"
excluding air, water, forests, and the health, happiness, and harmony of



The first duty of every citizen is to
insist on having money on reasonable terms, and this demand is not complied
with by giving four men three shillings each for ten or twelve hours' drudgery
and one man a thousand pounds for nothing. The crying need of the nation is not
for better morals, cheaper bread, temperance, liberty, culture, redemption of
fallen sisters and erring brothers, nor the grace, love, and fellowship of the
Trinity, but simply for enough money.

            —George Bernard Shaw, Preface to Major Barbara, 1907


One of Wang
An-Shih's Sung reforms was to make low interest government loans available to
farmers, to undercut usurious loan-sharking.


Any of the
bail outs would have been better served by giving the money to the people:
$5,000 per person, $10,000 per person, $20,000 per person. Thousands of new
businesses spring up; there is money in circulation, new joint ventures, new
banks, education in neighborhood collectives-a chance to break out of the cycle
of poverty. Who knows better what is good for the people than the people? Not
Papa Banker, and his cronies at the Treasury.


The single
most successful issue of paper money in the Colonies, in Maryland, was given
directly to the taxpayers.



How to play
the game? Let's be rational, think this through.  Cooperate or doublecross? TIT FOR TAT or SCREW EM ALLTHE
TIME. Actually, let's cheat: collude, merge, monopolize the market and then
split the take. That's win-win. Let's bankrupt the company, pocket the money,
pay a couple of fines, then retire. Rational.



They dance,
out of sight, and play muted tambourines, all the way to the bank.


We would like
to quiet their laughter, and to wipe the smirks from their faces: perhaps call
them philistines, but they own the speakers and the paper. A mass of cold air
is pouring through the mountain passes: I need a jacket. No money. Zen roshi Robert Aitken once opined,
somewhat enigmatically, that it is easier to practice "true poverty"
if you own your own home.



Money, you
must realize, is a dharma. Like all things-pickup trucks, loaves of bread,
flashy jewelry-money is a part of the Buddha's body, and therefore just as
precious and as deserving of respect, as a bucket of water. "It dazzles,
and it slips us by," Gary Snyder, in "Money Goes Upstream." That
which seeks to own the source: winged Hermes, god of commerce and thieves.


Image by amagill, courtesy of Creative Commons license

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