There are few things in life as universal as the concept of money. In many ways, it’s the blood of the world’s economic system. Without money constantly flowing in billions of directions at once, economies and countries would crumble, and billions of people would become quickly dislocated. Ironically though, if money is so important to modern life, then why is it the subject of so much confusion? After all, few things both enthrall and repulse us like money.
The main problem with money is that it’s often blamed for the problem of greed. Although many of us agree that greed is one of mankind’s most serious problems, blaming money exclusively for it is like blaming couches for people being lazy. In the truest sense, money is a means of exchange that allows people to acquire what they need without trading or bartering.
However, if money is just a means of exchange, then what accounts for the anger many have about it? After all, why don’t we hear more about how money allows all of us, from poor to rich, an element of freedom in deciding how to live? As many note, the advent of modern money has helped the middle-class grow by giving people the ability to make decisions about their lifestyle. Although many of us herd in common directions with purchases, we also express our individuality by purchasing items that go against popular trends. Money, and the way we spend it, is an important tool we use to define ourselves.
When life today is contrasted with medieval times, it’s clear that wealth was previously defined by land ownership and natural resources. During this time, the concept of serfdom, whereby multitudes of poor were at the mercy of rich landowners, was common. Also, as recently as 200 hundred years ago, wealth was equated mostly with land and resources. Since then, with industrialization and central banking, it’s clear that wealth as exemplified by money has become the norm.
Interestingly, it needs to be noted that till recently, the role of money in Americans lives was often seen more positively since it was equated with individual economic freedom. Whether one was rich, middle-class, or even poor wasn’t as important as the fact that America not only had upward mobility, but also respect for allowing people to stake out their own kind of life. This was shown by the fact that communitarian small business was a valuable component of American life till recently. Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, as large corporations and finance sectors have become more powerful, money as a concept is being blamed for problems associated with greed.
Currently, since both the modern corporate model and finance industry pay close attention to the bottom line, we’ve arrived at a time when money reigns supreme. This current fixation is a reason why modern finance is often seen as disconnected from the general economy as a whole.
As proof of this, we hear from all sides of the political aisle about the disconnect arising the past 20 years between Wall Street and Main Street. When talking of this, many notice that strong stock market gains the past 20 years haven’t translated to stronger economic indicators in the broader American economy. In fact, many experts say that the relatively low amount of people now working, and our high amount of underemployment, is proof a new economic hybrid’s developing. This hybrid, whatever one calls it, is resulting in the middle-class being squeezed hard. In this evolving two-tiered society, the elite finance-corporate class is making astronomically strong gains while the middle-class appears to be stair stepping down.
In a nutshell, what’s developed the past 20 years is that it’s become harder for the middle-class to not only advance, but also to stay middle-class. Some economic experts say this trend is compounded by the fact wealth inequality appears to be growing in America.
To many Americans, an economic disconnect first became apparent during the severe economic downturn in 2008 that produced “The Great Recession.” As many remember, the bailing out of major Banks and members of the Auto Industry during this time was controversial. Previously, bailing out major industries was frowned upon since it went against free-market theory.
To middle-class Americans, the bailouts exemplified there was one set of economic rules for the average person, and another for the elite. After all, many middle-class Americans struggle with the fact that their hard work and sense of fair play isn’t recognized like it should be. Interestingly, economic experts have noted that cushioning major industries from a fall has created an increase of moral hazard. In a nutshell, moral hazard refers to how some businesses take enormous financial risks without bearing the cost if they fail.
Historically, what’s made America great in the past was a unique set of rules that created a check and balance on economic power becoming too absolute. These checks and balances created an economic system where money was mostly used as a tool of expression to create the type of life one desired. In line with this, the element of freedom that one showed with their use of money created a high level of happiness in a society with upward mobility and a vibrant middle-class.
If more of us can work on recreating the economic checks and balances we had in the past, America can escape evolving into a stagnant two-tiered economic model. If this can be accomplished, America will regain the economic vibrancy and fairness it once had.