Money Is an Illusion

Daniel Suelo is a guy in Utah who gave up money in 2000 and started living in caves, eating roadkill, dumpster diving and living off the generosity of friends and strangers. Some would classify him as homeless, but are you truly homeless if you call your home a cave and live there on purpose? In watching the video below I was struck, as I always am by stories like this, that people who document these stories often fail to point out that although their subjects are living off the grid they are still dependant on the grid. Where did the dumpster come from that he's diving into? Some person or company who's living on the grid of course.

That nitpick aside I found one concept from the video to be thought provoking: when Suelo gave up money he declared that money was an illusion and the writer of his story asks, "When your house is worth $500,000 one day and $300,000 the next day where did that $200,000 go?" Indeed it seems like an illusion. 

They may be on to something. Watching PBS' excellent Frontline four-part series Money, Power and Wall Street it's hard not to think of money as an illusion when you hear about the creation of financial vehicles out of thin air. Rather than confuse ourselves trying to understand crazy things like synthetic collateralized debt obligations let's think of something as simple as our houses. We each believe our house is worth a certain amount of money; our local government believes it's worth a certain amount of money based on the (hopefully informed) opinion of a professional assessor; if we have a mortgage the bank believes it's worth a certain amount of money based on the opinon of its appraiser; rarely do these three values match, and so the true value of our house is merely an illusion.

But a house isn't money, it's an asset that is bought, sold and valued using money as a measurement. How could money, an actual dollar, be an illusion? Obviously that piece of fine paper it's printed on is not an illusion, but you could argue that what that piece of paper is worth is an illusion. Sure, we know that a dollar is worth 1/150,000 of a certain house (according to the appraiser), or that it's worth one candy bar, but that's today and that's because we think that our dollar will be worth roughly the same amount tomorrow as it is today. We trust that our government will not print one quadrillion dollars overnight and thus make that dollar in our pocket worth a penny tomorrow. That's a trust shared by all of us and all it takes is one violation of that trust for the perceived value to evaporate. So really a dollar is merely a token representing our collective opinion of the trustworthiness of our financial system – if that's not illusory I'm not sure what is.

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