THE NEW GOLD STANDARD
“All right: how much in real money?”
The cashier looked at me. “Gold or silver?”
“For that kind of price? Silver, obviously.”
She nodded. “And I suppose you'll want your change in copper?”
“Please. But I've probably got the right change”
She nodded again, sighed, and turned to her terminal. She tapped a few keys. “Seventy-five grams.”
I was surprised. It was a bit too pat Was she rounding up, or rounding down? But yes: that was OK. It was a few days' groceries: just over two and a half ounces of silver. I handed over four srang, seventy-four grams, and an old English penny. She put the coins on the belt on one side of the till, and pressed the button. A few seconds later they tumbled off the belt into the wooden bowl on the other side. The purity, size and weight of all five were well within tolerances. The till flashed up the values in pounds, dollars and euros, but I didn't really look. Why would I? The price was 75 grams of silver. The currencies could bounce around however they liked, but I still had over 100 grams of silver in my pocket, and 12 grams of gold. We smiled at each other and that was it. I loaded the groceries into the saddlebags and walked out.
As I pedalled towards the terminus I reflected that as a young man I had never imagined in my wildest dreams that we'd go back to an essentially mediaeval way of paying for stuff. I could have given her a mixture of Tibetan srang, Cornish crowns and South African Rand. Well, not for that little money, obviously, but the point is that it all works out the same in the end. The clever bit is the assay machines. US dollars, quarters and dimes actually contain a higher percentage of silver than old English “sterling” half-crowns, shillings and sixpenny bits, but for all reasonably common coins the machine can work out which coin you've fed it, from size and weight, and then automatically compensate for the actual metal content, quite apart from the X-ray assay. If it sees them often enough, it even learns new coins. All that business that the Venetians had to go through hundreds of years ago, with touch-stones and scales, has been automated away. So have variations in the relative values of the metals: it's all taken care of on line. Speculation is still possible, but with the Tobin tax, it's a lot less feasible. So variations are nothing like as great as they used to be, and in the long run they even out.
Although I hadn't thought about it in years, I realized how much it all makes sense. Gold; silver; copper; they're all reserves of value. Admittedly the relative values are only by common agreement, but since the Tobin tax came in, electronic transfers are so easy to tax that proper cash money makes more and more sense. I've forgotten what the original threshold for the Tobin tax was, but it kept coming down. All right, it still isn't low enough to kick in on today's grocery bills, and for anything over 50 grams of gold in value, you are legally required to pay electronically anyway, but I suspect there's quite a lot of evasion. In fact I know there is. But never mind. Speculation is really difficult if you have to shift kilos of gold around, and selling or buying short or long must be done electronically, so they get taxed at 0.5% coming and going; or 1% if actual metal is involved.
A lot of people predicted the end of capitalism, but they had merely conflated capitalism and speculation. In fact, capitalism is probably healthier now than it has ever been in my lifetime. The magic of it is that it was capitalism and the free market that made it possible. The cash economy and the electronic economy coexist perfectly happily. It's just a completely different capitalism from the neo-liberal version before European Civil War.
Which is odd. Even when I was in my sixties, most of us on the left had a rather different view of how things would turn out. As it was, Universal Basic Income came in a lot quicker than we expected, and so did nanopayments for internet use. Of course there were winners and losers, but the only big losers tended to be those who had been grievously financially overprivileged to begin with: mostly, speculators who added nothing to the economy anyway. Yes, it's a pretty basic life on UBI in a small council apartment, but you've a roof over your head and you ain't gonna starve, so things could be worse. Besides, in a village like mine where you can do the homesteading bit, you don't really have to work all that hard to live somewhere rather bigger and better. When I moved here 30 years ago, one of the gendarmes put it this way: “One third of the houses are occupied all year; one third are holiday homes, mostly for Parisians; and one third are for sale or falling down or both”. Today the population is probably back to where it was at its peak, a hundred years and more ago, even though families are much smaller, and so many buildings have been reclaimed and repurposed that it's a joy to see. My own apartment, that I've been in for the last 15 years, used to be part of the stables of the gendarmerie. There's an old guy who lives up near the Mairie who still owns the house he lives in, but I don't think I'd want to live there. He can't afford to heat it and from what I hear he has difficulty in keeping it clean, too. I don't know what will happen when he goes but I reckon you could make two apartments out of it easily. Good ones.
All right, I cheated. I still cheat. Some of us are born creators and some are born consumers. I'm lucky: I'm a creator, so I earn the money to buy luxuries, instead of just bartering. When I said "groceries", that included a bottle of whisky. Enough people like my blog and my pictures that even at my age I can supplement my UBI by about fifty per cent, and I really don't consume very much. My oldest jacket, I worked out recently, is older than 63% of the people alive on Earth today. I reckon that about half my earnings over and above UBI are spent in the village, or within an hour's radius. Obviously this includes the supermarket where I'd just been buying the groceries, but it also includes the locally grown fruit and vegetables that I buy at the Neighbours' Market on Sundays. Of course I barter things as well. Not so much barter, actually: more sort of swap. Both of my fig trees and my quince tree are pretty prolific most years, and the people I give my figs and quinces to are similarly afflicted with gluts of walnuts, cherries and tomatoes. And there are always eggs, though nobody really gets gluts of those. Sometimes I come out ahead: sometimes they do. We don't really care very much. As John Lennon once put it in Yellow Submarine, “every one of us/has all we need”.
Back to right now. Years ago, I worked out my own style of cycling. Basically, it consists of going as slowly as possible without either falling off or wobbling all over the road. As slowly as is comfortable, anyway. It takes me longer to get from A to B than it does most people, but not all that much. Sure, it's about three times as long as it takes the really keen cyclists; but then, as the old song has it, “They're dead at forty with a burned-out gizzard/And I'll be ninety come Saturday.” Actually I was ninety last year, but that just means I'm a bit further ahead of the game. Admittedly I ride a tricycle nowadays, but that's OK too. It's harder to fall off and I don't wobble as much. Both panniers go in the basket between the rear wheels. Davide in the village built the trike for me. Of course he had to buy in all the parts, including the 531 tubing, but it's incredibly comfortable. If a tricycle can fit like a glove, this one does.
Georges was begging at the terminus. It's sort of hard to explain why. I mean, we all get UBI, so why does he need to beg? And why does anyone give him any money? Well, why not? I get my extra money from the web-site and from picture sales. He gets his from begging. He's a veteran of the European Civil War, so quite a lot of us older guys give him some small change. I've never worked out whether he gets more money from veterans like me or from people who never actually fought and still feel guilty about it. I think he gets more money from the oldies than from kids, but like me, he's pretty old: money from the oldies will see him out. I think of it as a sort of pension. I know that pensions represent a way of thinking that belongs in the past, but then, so do I.
In all fairness, the kids give him money too. Many years ago, I read that Sufis always say thank you to a beggar, because he gives them the chance to help someone. I've never bothered to check if this is in fact a Sufi belief, but it ought to be. I dropped a cartwheel twopence into his bowl. It's funny how many of the old coins have come back. There are probably at least a hundred that have made the Darwinian transition, but it's getting harder and harder to introduce new ones or to reintroduce old ones. The classics, like the srang, the Maria Theresa Thaler and pre-1919 English money, still rule the roost. Quite a lot are reintroductions. Why not, after all? With the assay machines you can't really forge much. Of course you can fool people if they don't check, but that's easy: you accept coin only from people you trust. If you don't trust them you can always drop by the Mairie or the post office where they'll run it through an assay machine to check it for you. As long as it's got the requisite amount of copper, silver or gold in it, it's legal tender. Weight and purity are all that matter. In California they even use gold nuggets, and they melt placer gold into slugs: it's too hard to assay otherwise.
The train was late leaving. Not very, just a couple of minutes, but enough to notice. I wonder sometimes if they do it on purpose, just to give people something to think about. Jacques had helped me get the trike on board. A decade ago I'd have ridden all the way home, on the track beside the railway, but at my age, you take whatever help you can get. That's why I have the electric assist motor on the trike, too. You don't really save much time on the train, if any. I'm so old I still think in miles per hour, and the train is about the same as cycling, at least at the sort of speeds I could manage when I was younger: 12 mph, call it 20 km/h. Add in the time between trains, and cycling is probably quicker. It takes the best part of an hour to get home, and well over two hours to get to Poiters, but again, at my age, I'm not in a tearing hurry.
Nobody is, really. Jacques is well under half my age, and he works twenty hours a week on the railway. That makes him one of the best paid people I know. Richard earns nearly as much, for ten hours a week at the sewage works. The weird thing is that they both enjoy it. At least, they say they do. I suspect that in reality, like me, what they really enjoy is the money: I find it hard to believe that they enjoy their actual work as much as I do. To be honest, I'd probably write and take pictures even if there were no money in it; though I suppose I have to earn at least some money in order to buy a decent camera. Tools of the trade. Sooner or later, potters come to the same conclusion about wheels and even kilns. The only person I know who works harder, and for longer hours, than Jacques and Richard and me is Dr. Robert. Sure, he's a very rich man. He even has servants. But why not? I sometimes think that he's no cleverer than I, and he doesn't work many more hours. And, after all, I have a law degree, another “professional” qualification, though I've never practised. Then I think: how much worse off would the village be without me, and without him? How big is the responsibility of running an international blog and a gallery, as against the responsibility of running a village surgery?
It's an odd thing, work, or rather, the need to work. Keynes called it “the old Adam”. Some people don't seem to have it. But if you look more closely, they still work. They just don't earn any money from it. Louise makes those weird lace hats and baskets, stiffened with sugar solution. Her apartment is full of them. She can barely give them away. And yet she goes on making them. Armand spends most of his time in the bar, or just sits and drinks strong beer at home, watching the television. But if you need some work in the garden, he's your man – and he does get paid for that, or at least, I pay him. Katrin only works in her own garden, but then, she's where I get my walnuts and pears; and I'm where she gets her figs and quinces. Jeff paints landscapes, with the occasional spell of house-painting to pay for the oils. One year, Muriel had so many peaches that I distilled some peach brandy. It was a hell of a lot of work for a litre and a half of peach brandy, but then, it was a hell of a peach brandy: the best I've ever had, though I says it as shouldn't. What surprised me was how easy it was. Time consuming, but easy. It makes you understand why whisky is such a bargain: there are a lot of things it's better to do on an industrial scale.
Then again, what's “an industrial scale”? An orchard? A couple of dozen chickens? It's anywhere you can sell your surplus. That's an industry. Though for that matter, “surplus” is hard to define too. Is Armand selling his “surplus labour”? What is the actual “surplus” that Davide sells? All bicycles except his own? And what about repairs?
The train hummed and hissed to a halt at the station. I pushed the trike out and looked at the sky. The rain looked as if it would hold off until I got home, so I didn't get out the rain cape. They're nasty, clammy things.
All right, I'm an old man, and I'm rambling. But I remember a speech President Obama gave, maybe thirty or forty years ago. He said something like, “If you could choose any period in history to live, then it would surely be right now.” At the time, I thought he was probably right, but only probably. As long as you were fit and healthy, and white, and male, and straight, the 1960s were pretty damn' good too. I always take the label “ageing hippie” as a badge of pride; but then, I was fit and healthy and white and male and straight in 1966. I'm still white, male and straight, but it's a pity about the fitness and health. When we had Brexit and the European Civil War, though, we looked back on the period from the 1990s to the early 'teens as a good era, or at least, as not too bad an era.
Now? Well, no era is perfect. When you're as old as I am, you know that better than most. But I like to think we're getting there. The cash economy hit the electronic economy hard, but I don't think that's a bad thing. The gamblers and money-movers, the financial find-the-lady experts, found the rug pulled out from under them. The people who do things, the people who actually produce stuff that other people want and even need: we were the ones who benefited. Do people need my stories and my pictures? The gamblers would say no. I can't help feeling, though, that we need art and entertainment, and artists and entertainers, more than we need currency speculation, property bubbles, securitization of assets and treating dead painters' pictures as investments. Once we have enough to eat and drink, and a dry roof over our heads, and reasonable confidence that even if tomorrow isn't like today, it won't be any worse; at that point, life and liberty are secured and all that's left is the pursuit of happiness.
If you've read this on line, and enjoyed it, and thought that the pleasure was worth a few grams of copper, reflect on how nanopayments work. Not so much a penny for your thoughts, as a penny for mine.
A pre-decimalization British penny weighed 9.1 grams and was made up of 95% copper, 4% tin and 1% zinc. Modern replicas are the same. If a thousand readers each give me a little over a penn'orth of copper, 10 grams, that's ten kilos of metal. This is why I find it easier to think in metal, rather than in abstract, electronic nanopayments. Ten kilos of copper is worth about the same as 90 grams of silver, or nearly five srang. Take out the taxes and commissions, and you're looking at four srang: a few days' groceries. Which is where I came in.
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Copyright Roger Hicks 2016