Monday, May 28, 2012

Religion and Manonism

I will be writing a series of articles on money and religion.  The first one I'm offering deals with the nature of money and how various religious cultures, for our Heathen ancestors to Christianity and Islam, have treated money throughout history.

The Sacred Cow

In Luke 16:13, Jesus said One can't serve God and Manon (Money) at the same time.  Manonism, acting in service of money, being a banker where we work for the interests of money and against the interests of the fellow man, is considered immoral according to the Gospels.  The worship of money is arguably one of the main moral problems that humanity faces today. 

The first issue of the Occupy Wall Street Journal tapped into Biblical imagery of decadence when it refered to Wall Street as America's financial Gomorrah, and the worship of the golden calf was actually evoked when it was brought theatrically by Christian groups into the Occupy movement as a way of mocking the bull on Wall Street.

But the value, the dignity and the virtue of cattle is recognized even in the Bible.

Where no oxen are, the crib is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox.
- Proverbs 14:4

Hinduism encourages Hindus to fulfil their duties, work hard and earn money to support themselves and their family.  Outside of that, it does not prescribe specific fiscal regulations but it does revere the cow, and as we will see cattle have always been considered currency and items of great value.

Jonah 4:11 concludes by mentioning that the city of Ninveh was saved, in part, by God's love for its cattle.  Later in Isaiah 66:3, this other prophet mentions that He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man.

Somewhere in history, cattle ceased to be considered sacred in spite of many traditions that revered cattle in many parts of the world. 

I have had many Hare Krishna acquaintances and am personally fond of cows.  Their explanation for why the cow is considered virtuous has to do with the fact that they're vegetarian, and have a natural tendency to practice non-violence.  They are also generous and magnanimous with anyone, including humans, who wishes to drink their milk, and are happy to feed everyone.

Their copious amounts of milk can be used to produce yoghurt, cream, butter and every kind of cheese that we can think of. Oxen also have been used for brute labor, and some theories of value and currency are based exclusively on how only labor produces value and how, without labor, value cannot be extracted from mines or from the land. In this sense, oxen have added value to human society during many periods in history through their enslavement, or donation of labor.

For all these reasons, there was esentially no difference between cattle and currency to our European ancestors, and in fact the English word fee originates in fehu, which means cattle.

I am not calling for a return to the fehu currency, however, as this implies commodification of a living entity and raises some modern ethical concerns.  But I do think we should ponder the qualities that cattle had that made it useful as a currency and what might replace cattle today.

A modern alternative to cattle might be any device that may exist now or may be invented in the future to produce ENERGY, perhaps a convenient, portable generator. In fact, energy (where the currency unit would be kilowatts per hour) has been discussed as a potential alternative currency.

The reason why I say that an energy generator might be the sacred cow of the future is because the products that are derived from cow are

1. always in demand and almost universally consumed
2. non-seasonal, that is, crops may come and go throughout the year but milk and its byproducts are always available wherever there are cows and it's possible that our ancestors survived the Ice Age thanks to them, at the very least cattle helped them to survived harsh winters

This explains why it was convenient for our ancestors to monetize cattle. In the same way, energy will always be in demand and its supply in turn generates other goods, services and products, regardless of the season.  Unlike crops, energy's value would not fluctuate with the seasons and, in a sense, the ability to generate our own energy would function as the sacred cow did in the past in terms of the consistent ability to produce value.

In his article Towards a Perfect Currency, environmentalist John Erik Meyer made the case for an energy-based currency and said:
There is only one commodity which is universally produced and consumed with both the scale and resolution to represent the full scope of any human endeavour. We already measure it in tremendous detail and it is central to every economy and process.

Energy based currency would represent real wealth creation potential and would not be subject to the shifting valuation issues to which every national currency is prone. Energy represents the value of work already done as well as the potential of work which can be done.

Some 800 years ago, the Mongols avoided inflationary pressures on their currency by performing inventories of their assets and matching the money supply to it. The Mongol empire did not suffer from the boom and bust cycle generated by the currency inflation which has plagued other monetary economies. Energy based currency would eliminate this cycle by representing constant real product and illuminating actual input costs.

Energy underwrites all commercial and environmental activity. It is the most widely measured, consumed and produced commodity on the planet. In contrast to the gold producing club, every nation produces energy from a wide variety of sources.

... No matter who champions it, no one nation will own energy based money. It will be the first truly international, non-political currency base. No nation will be able to manipulate it to avoid the consequences of its own economic mis-steps or to beggar its neighbours.

He then goes on to share various examples of units for an energy-based currency and reminds us of the stability and universality of the value of energy.

Notice that our current energy infrastructure depends heavily on oil, which has been called the devil's gold for the many evils and wars it has brought. Oil and its monopoly, the fight over its control, has to a great extent vilified humanity. If our communities enjoyed self-sufficiency in our ability to create our own energy, these wars and monopolies would cease to exist, as there would be less of an incentive to send our troops to infest the armpit of the world in a fight over resources that are available locally. Energy currencies would add pressure to the imperative of local energy self-sufficiency wherever they are implemented.

Energy is already a type of currency and currently foreign nations control much of the oil and energy that we consume, and we are in many ways at their mercy.

The importance of energy self-sufficiency will continue to become increasingly obvious as the years go by. Oil is already such a prevalent power in our modern global economy that Chris Cook in his article Banking on Energy argues that oil is not priced in dollars: dollars are priced in oil.  We can't escape the fiscal side effects of our energy policies.

Do the Gospels Call for Popularly-Controlled Currencies?

The film The Secret of Oz makes the case that it's not so much whether a currency is backed by gold or silver, but WHO CONTROLS THE QUANTITY that matters.

The documentary also argues that one of the few instances of Jesus acting violently in the Gospels was when he ranted against the money changers in the temple and turned their tables over. This, it is argued, was due to the private control by these lenders of the only currency which was allowed to be used for payment of the temple tax: a silver shekel. Animals to be sacrificed daily by the pilgrims had to be purchased also. The temple was a major center of commercial activity in Israel. Due to the scarcity of this currency, the lenders were able to charge whatever the market would allow. This was extremely profitable for the lenders and disastrous for the average poor Jew.

In the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16), in addition to praising the shrewdness of a corrupt manager who forgives debts in order to save his reputation, Jesus mentions the use of gallons of olive oil and bushels of wheat as currency. His choice of a non-silver currency, where granaries and pantries might serve as banks, may or may not be another instance of criticism against, even a boycott of, the currency that the money lenders controlled in those days. At the very least, it points to debt forgiveness as a virtue and as a matter of common sense, and serves as an endorsement of complementary currencies in the Gospel.

Shari'a on Non-fiat Interest-free Currency

One of the aspects of shari'a law that is increasingly being praised in the West amid our current crisis is the monetary system where fiat currency is illicit. Money in Islam must have tangible value. The standard currencies, the dirham and dinar, are silver and gold based.

One of the criticisms of the gold and silver standard is that there is only so much gold and silver on Earth and that these two precious metals may not provide us with enough capital to finance a growing economy: that there is an inherent limit to economic growth. Another criticism is that most of the gold and silver might still be in the hands of a few, who may then control the amount available in the economy and create crisis that they can then profit from.

But just as in the Gospels, in Islam there are complementary currencies mentioned by Muhammad, who was quoted as saying: Gold for gold, silver for silver, wheat for wheat, barley for barley, dates for dates, and salt for salt. (When a transaction is) like for like, payment being made on the spot, then if anyone gives more or asks for more, he has dealt in Riba, the receiver and the giver being equally guilty.

Riba is charging of interest, which is illicit in Islam since it is considered an unequal exchange of similar goods. Here, we see that wheat, barley, dates and salt can be used as currency or means of exchange within Islam. In other words, in Islam gold and silver can function as a major component of a diversified currency system, where various crops and commodities are also used as currency just as we saw in Luke 16.

I will continue exploring the subject of Manonism, and issues of hoarding and of debt forgiveness, in future articles.

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