Much Ado About Money

By Bob Litton

NOTE TO READERS:  I am in a bit of a slump right now, so, again, I had to go rummage in my files for something to fill in the time gap between more modern essays, poems, etc. This column was written in 1982, while I was editor of a small West Texas semi-weekly. However, I think it is still timely. I point out the fact that the incidents related herein preceded the development of the handheld calculator on which today’s young people are so dependent that many of them appear to be stumped by purely mental calculation.

— BL

Some people won’t believe this — in particular my boss and my brothers — but I don’t like money.  I do like books and records and nice, shiny, new pickup trucks; and those things, lamentably, cost money.  Therefore, I have to pay attention to filthy lucre.

As a matter of fact, it’s the very process of paying attention to it that makes money so detestable to me. After all, green, except in grass and trees (and football jerseys) is the most hideous color. And then there are all those numbers of incongruent sizes imprinted on the greenback.  I never did get along well with numbers.

But you learn to cope. I remember as late as my senior year in high school I was under the delusion that one had to be able to figure correct change instantaneously in one’s head. Now, fifty cents out of a dollar presented no great problem, but something like $1.23 out of a fiver gave me goose bumps.

The great day of enlightenment came to me that senior year. I was working in the afternoons and on Saturdays as a front man in a cleaners-and-launderers. One day a man came in to pick up his bundle of laundry. I put his bill in the register and gave him what I thought he had coming in change.

“That was a twenty dollar bill,” he said.

“No, it wasn’t,” I replied.

Luckily the cleaners’ proprietor was present. He stood up from his desk, opened the register and gave the man change as if he had paid with a twenty dollar note.

After the gentleman had left, my boss turned to me and said, “Here’s how you make change. Put whatever bill the customer gives you on the ledge of the register and then, starting with the amount he owes, count up to the limit of the note. After the customer has accepted his change and left, put the bill in the register.”

I was a little embarrassed at first by the episode but also greatly pleased to have such a simple, apparently sure-fire way to handle a troublesome process.

Another lesson along the same line was more indirectly taught me while I was a student at SMU.

My favorite barber of the time had his shop in the student center. Those were the days when a haircut cost $2. If you gave him a five or a ten dollar note, he would hold it up between you and himself and declare, “That’s a five” or “That’s a ten.” The idea, obviously, was to simply utter an understanding of what he had received from you. If you disagreed, then was the time to say something about it.

Now that, I thought, was quite clever, and I adopted the technique. In practicing it with other people, however, I sometimes encountered difficulty because not all people readily grasped the motive behind it. A few would smile at me as though I were on the verge of a mental breakdown and say quietly, assuringly, “Of course it is, young man!” Others, usually waitresses in fast food places, would be irritated, thinking, I suppose, that I was implying they were incapable of giving me the correct change.

Despite such little bright milestones on my path to gathering an understanding of money, I still don’t like it. My reasons in the advanced years are more philosophical than those of the teen years.

For one thing, “legal tender”, as I learned in school, does not pay a debt but rather transfers one. That is, instead of me owing the bank what I owed them in a car payment, Uncle Sam now owes them. And his credit, somehow mystically related to a huge stock of yellow metal at Fort Knox, is not too good as far as I am concerned. Every dollar bill is an I.O.U. which nobody is ever expected to cash in on.

Also, I found out with some disgust, if one has a knack for sleight-of-hand in the commodities market, one can handle notes similar to U.S. Treasury bills relating to commodities that one does not really possess. The challenge is to get “real money” before you have to prove your right of ownership.

And then, money begets money. Conceivably, one can get “salt money” from a friend or relative, say, $500, and by clever manipulation or speculation make several thousand dollars out of it in a few months. Then, you take that money and reinvest it without doing much more work than reading the financial gazettes and making a few phone calls. Some people have become millionaires that way. And these are usually the ones who cry out against the inheritance tax because it would take away their “hard earned income.”

What I would like to see would be some kind of barter system nationwide or even worldwide.

Bartering has come back into vogue on a very small scale and usually for the not very commendable purpose of avoiding part of the income tax. What the new barterers are doing is forming little clubs of about 100 persons, mostly with professional or high level trade skills. Then a dentist, for instance, will work on a lawyer’s teeth to the approximately equal value of the preparation of a will, which the lawyer then prepares for him. No money changes hands, and one’s efforts come out in tangible values instead of another I.O.U.

The only problem with that system, of course, is that the dentist may not need or want a will or anything else anyone in the group has to offer. Is the lawyer to go around with a sore tooth until the dentist decides he needs him to handle a traffic ticket?

What I would prefer is a system of work units. These would be generally agreed upon values per hour of all kinds of work — not just professional — and trade-type services. Some kind of secure and universal record system would have to be developed to keep track of an individual’s accumulated work credits; but, in whatever way that was accomplished, a person would be drawing upon the real value of his own exertion, not upon some absurd value arbitrarily applied to a stack of gold.

The Monahans News, April 29, 1982


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