Sep 152017
 

Today is Free Money Day, an annual, global event held since 2011 as a social experiment and to promote sharing and alternative economic ideas, advocated by the Post Growth Institute (PGI).  You can find details about PGI here:

http://postgrowth.org/

Free Money Day is held annually on September 15, the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers’ 2008 filing for bankruptcy. Participants offer their own money to passing strangers at public places, two coins or notes at a time. Recipients are asked to pass on one of the notes or coins to someone else. 68 events were held in 2011. On one past Free Money Day, according to the official website, 138 Free Money Day events were held in 24 countries. The money is given without obligation; it is hoped that the event and the transactions will stimulate conversations about the role of money in society, increase awareness about debt and make people think about their own relationship with money.

This is from the FREE MONEY DAY facebook page:

Our economy can work for everyone!

How? The same way every healthy system works, through good circulation. For the body, it’s blood; for the environment, it’s oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen; for our economy, it’s money.

If your heart stops pumping blood through every part of the body, tissue dies. If vital elements don’t circulate appropriately throughout the environment, our ecosystem collapses. When money accumulates at the top, instead of circulating freely through every economic level, a sick economy is inevitable.

Free Money Day is an opportunity to encourage money to circulate more freely through our economy. Whether you leave a little money with a note on a park bench, or hand money to complete strangers, know that by sharing money more freely you are helping to create a more caring, sharing economy.

I can’t find a reference to it now, but I remember my father telling me a story about a man in the 19th century standing on London Bridge offering free money to strangers (guinea coins, I think), and no one would take them. They assumed they were fake, or there was some kind of catch. Sheer, unadulterated altruism with money just raises suspicion it seems. Getting people to think about their relationship to money is the whole point of the day, and my own experiments over the years have been enlightening to me.  Money is such a fraught subject for so many people.  For some time when I was a university professor I would teach once in a while about the emotions and beliefs surrounding money, and, on occasion, to illustrate a point I would offer a dollar bill to a student – free. It’s hardly a king’s ransom, but you’d be surprised at how few people wanted to take the money.

I’m not rich by any means.  In fact I’ve had times in my life when I have had zero in the bank and had to scrounge a meal.  Once as a young professor I had to collect empty cans on my campus and get the deposit from them just to pay the toll to cross the bridge to drive home.  Nowadays I have enough to live on and not much more, and that’s fine.  If I have a little extra and someone needs help with money, I give it to them. I’ve gathered over the years that that attitude makes me a bit of a weirdo.  So be it. Money is not important to me as long as I have enough to live on. I’m not interested in accumulating wealth.  As far as I can tell, accumulating wealth corrupts people, or, at least, distorts their perspective on life.

One of the most profoundly influential ideas that I got from Marx is the notion of “exchange value” versus “use value.” In monetary terms (exchange value), a dinner that costs $20 and a shirt that costs $20 are equivalent, but if you are hungry a shirt is not much use to you. In that sense, money is a false common denominator, and if you see items in terms of their monetary value instead of their use value you are dehumanizing yourself (as well as those items) by reducing them to a scale that is ultimately meaningless – or, more precisely, has the meaning you bestow upon it because it has no intrinsic meaning, or value. Money has no use value: you can’t wear it or eat it; you can only exchange it for things you can wear or eat. Yet money gets invested with immense power despite its lack of intrinsic worth.

I could not participate properly in Free Money Day today because I live in Myanmar and don’t speak Burmese (even a little).  Consequently, it would have been impossible for me to go up to a stranger, hand him two notes (there are no coins in Myanmar) and explain what I was doing. Instead I chose a teacher at my school and gave her two 5,000 kyat notes (about $4 dollars each) and explained to her about Free Money Day: she could keep one of them and had to give the other one away. Her first response was “Really ?????” and wouldn’t take the money. I had to offer it three times before she would take. Finally, she gave in.  Then periodically throughout the day I added some comments and a few questions.  I told her that she had to give away one note today (my invention to push the issue).  I got “Really ?????” again.

After a while she told me that she was thinking carefully about it, but had made no decisions. The thing is that this is a very strange act for Myanmar. Myanmar is a poor country where most people work long hours for little money. Giving away hard-earned money for no reason is not only unheard of but also completely illogical. Eventually she asked me, “Why did you pick me?” I replied, “Because I like you?” Again I got “Really ?????” Telling people your true feelings is as unheard of in Myanmar as giving away free money: if not more so.

My wife related a story about money her therapist told her that leads to our recipe for the day.  Apparently he was in therapy as a young man, and one day he was really down in the dumps about a lot of things but lack of money topped the list, and at the time he was hungry with no money for a meal. His therapist took him out on the streets and panhandled a little money. Then he went to a convenience store, bought two cups of instant noodles, used the hot water at the store to heat them, then sat on the street with my wife’s therapist, and they ate them.  His simple comment was, “You see, you’ll always have enough if you have faith and a little imagination.”

Your dish of the day, therefore, is a cup of instant noodles. They’re not gourmet food they fill a chink and they teach an important lesson about the value of money and the value of life.

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