The Superiority Complex of Concepts of Money
When someone goes to a different country, they are inevitably going to experience culture shock, or some sort of reality check, that forces them into perplexity. It’s the idea of ethnocentrism. We, no mater where we are from, may believe that our customs and norms are superior to others. It may be as simple as a rolling of the eyes at having to explicitly ask for the check after finishing a meal in a restaurant in Paris. Or, it could be a feeling of fear when an old, haggard gypsy forces herself into one’s personal space, begging them for money outside of an H&M in Milan. These instances are examples of mindsets that one may adopt when learning or experiencing things in another culture. They may think of the customs as odd, illogical, or incorrect; yet in reality, they face similar instances everyday in their own culture. This feeling of ethnocentrism relates to all aspects of differences in culture. A specific example would be different currencies in cultures, like those in America, the island of Yap, and Brazil. Although there are diverse forms of currency, the concept of transferal is similar to other cultures around the world.
To modern Americans, the idea of using huge rocks for currency seems illogical, but it’s no more abstract than our own money. Milton Freidman explains this in his essay; “The Island of Stone Money.” On the island of Yap, the form of currency is limestone. Although it is not in the form of a tiny rock, instead, the Yap wields gigantic, care-sized slabs of limestone. Using such large means of currency seems redundant to us, since spending small pieces of linen is so simplistic in our culture. American currency pales in the size of fei, yet we find a delicately flimsy hundred-dollar bill immensely valuable than a huge slab of rock. Imagine pushing around a large piece of limestone to ShopRite to buy groceries versus carrying a crumpled piece of green paper that lives in the depths of a pocket in a pair of jeans, the latter is obviously less ridiculous. Friedman explains that since the fei was too large to transport, a new owner would simply claim acknowledgement of the fei, thus the rock would remain in physical possession with its previous owner. This may appear as unfair since the fei was not physically in the new owner’s possession, but this concept is not much different than that upheld in America. When someone gets a paycheck from their workplace, they do not physically receive the cold hard cash they earned. They instead have a piece of paper, or an acknowledgement that they own more money. This acknowledgment is similar to the Yap, in that they are not given the gigantic rock to prove their worth, they just know. Acknowledgement is in the place of ownership in both instances of the Yap and Americans, meaning that even though there are different means of currency, the concept of ownership and transferal remains the same.
The problem Brazil faced is another true example of how regardless of the type of currency; there are great deals of similarities in financial systems across the world. In the article, “How Fake Money Saved Brazil” Chana Joffe-Walt explains that four economists created the Unit of Real Value, or the real, to attempt to fix the inflation issue in Brazil. The URV was used as a conversion rate between cruzeiros, the actual currency of Brazil. Soon enough, the problem of inflation was solved because the people of Brazil started thinking in the ways of the invented currency. The invented currency was not a physical object, like fei or a U.S. dollar. It was an intangible idea that people learned and adopted. It seems rather absurd that a “made up” currency would fix a problem a whole country had faced for many years, yet it’s the same idea of acknowledgement that is seen with the fei and American money. In America, when we pay for our groceries or a new pair of snow boots, we can hand our plastic credit card to the seller and an intangible amount of money is transferred. It is a belief, and numbers on a screen, that supports the idea that we paid for a new object, even though there is no tangible evidence. With the Yap, if a family pays a dowry with fei, the accepters of the dowry acknowledge that the large piece of rock is now theirs. They do not physically touch the fei, but they have a belief that they own it. Although the people of Brazil were still using cruzeiros, they did not physically have the new currency, the real, in their physical possession. They instead had a belief that acted as an acknowledgement of the real. So, while Brazil had an unusual form of currency, the ideology of the monetary system is comparable to the rest of those in place in other cultures.
It is an automatic response to find other culture’s norms and techniques as irrational and outlandish. But looking at the grand scheme of things, it’s also easy to discover similarities between our ways and theirs. We, as Americans, use physical pieces of tiny material as currency, but we also use intangible numbers on a screen to communicate and transfer. The Yap use substantial pieces of limestone as their currency, as well as an intangible acknowledgement or belief for means of transferal. In addition, Brazilians used tangible pieces of material, or cruzeiros, along with the intangible idea of URV’s that solved the country’s biggest economic problem. Overall, there are clear contrasting means of currency with these examples, yet we are able to view certain similarities within the economic systems. From these similarities we are able to understand that no one concept of money is better than another.
Freidman, Milton. “The Island of Stone Money.” Diss. Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1991.
Joffe-Walt, Chana. “How Fake Money Saved Brazil.” NPR.org. 4 Oct. 2010. 30 Jan. 2015.