Volume 1, Episode 9
Money has taken many forms through the ages: shells, wheels, beads and even cows. All forms, though, have always had three things in common. Find out what in this eight-minute episode of our Economic Lowdown Podcast Series. You will also learn how commodity money differs from representative money and how both differ from today's fiat money.
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Today I'm talking about money.
Money is something that people use every day. We earn it and spend it but don't often think much about it. Economists define money as any good that is widely accepted as final payment for goods and services. Money has taken different forms through the ages; examples include cowry shells in Africa, large stone wheels on the Pacific island of Yap, and strings of beads called wampum used by Native Americans and early American settlers. What do these forms of money have in common? They share the three functions of money:
- First: Money is a store of value. If I work today and earn 25 dollars, I can hold on to the money before I spend it because it will hold its value until tomorrow, next week, or even next year. In fact, holding money is a more effective way of storing value than holding other items of value such as corn, which might rot. Although it is an efficient store of value, money is not a perfect store of value. Inflation slowly erodes the purchasing power of money over time.
- Second: Money is a unit of account. You can think of money as a yardstick-the device we use to measure value in economic transactions. If you are shopping for a new computer, the price could be quoted in terms of t-shirts, bicycles, or corn. So, for instance, your new computer might cost you 100 to 150 bushels of corn at today's prices, but you would find it most helpful if the price were set in terms of money because it is a common measure of value across the economy.
- Third: Money is a medium of exchange. This means that money is widely accepted as a method of payment. When I go to the grocery store, I am confident that the cashier will accept my payment of money. In fact, U.S. paper money carries this statement: "This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private." This means that the U.S. government protects my right to pay with U.S. dollars.
In order to appreciate the conveniences that money brings to an economy, think about life without it. Imagine I am a musician-a bassoonist in an orchestra-who has a car that needs to be repaired. In a world without money, I would need to barter for car repair. In fact, I would need to find a coincidence of wants-the unlikely case that two people each have something that the other wants at the right time and place to make an exchange. In other words, I would need to find a mechanic who would be willing to exchange car repairs for a private bassoon concert by 9 AM tomorrow so I can drive to my next orchestra rehearsal. In an economy where people have very specialized skills, this kind of exchange would take an incredible amount of time and effort; in fact, it might be nearly impossible. Money reduces the cost of this transaction because, while it might be very difficult to find a mechanic who would exchange car repairs for bassoon concerts, it is not hard to find one who would exchange car repairs for money. In fact, without money, every transaction would require me to find producers who would exchange their goods and services for bassoon performances. In a money-based economy, I can sell my services as a bassoon player in an orchestra to those who are willing to pay for orchestra concerts with money. Then, I can take the money I earn and pay for a variety of goods and services.
Economists say that the invention of money belongs in the same category as the great inventions of ancient times, such as the wheel and the inclined plane, but how did money develop? Early forms of money were often commodity money-money that had value because it was made of a substance that had value. Examples of commodity money are gold and silver coins. Gold coins were valuable because they could be used in exchange for other goods or services, but also because the gold itself was valued and had other uses. Commodity money gave way to the next stage-representative money.
is a certificate or token that can be exchanged for the underlying commodity. For example, instead of carrying the gold commodity money with you, the gold might have been kept in a bank vault and you might carry a paper certificate that represents-or was "backed"-by the gold in the vault. It was understood that the certificate could be redeemed for gold at any time. Also, the certificate was easier and safer to carry than the actual gold. Over time people grew to trust the paper certificates as much as the gold. Representative money led to the use of fiat money-the type used in modern economies today.
is money that does not have intrinsic value and does not represent an asset in a vault somewhere. Its value comes from being declared "legal tender"-an acceptable form of payment-by the government of the issuing country. In this case, we accept the value of the money because the government says it has value and other people value it enough to accept it as payment. For example, I accept U.S. dollars as income because I'm confident I will be able to exchange the dollars for goods and services at local stores. Because I know others will accept it, I am comfortable accepting it. U.S. currency is fiat money. It is not a commodity with its own great value and it does not represent gold-or any other valuable commodity-held in a vault somewhere. It is valued because it is legal tender and people have faith in its use as money.
There have been many forms of money in history, but some forms have worked better than others because they have characteristics that make them more useful. The characteristics of money are durability, portability, divisibility, uniformity, limited supply, and acceptability. Let's compare two examples of possible forms of money:
- A cow. Cattle have been used as money at different points in history.
- A stack of U.S. 20-dollar bills equal to the value of one cow.
Let's run down our list of characteristics to see how they stack up.
- Durability. A cow is fairly durable, but a long trip to market runs the risk of sickness or death for the cow and can severely reduce its value. Twenty-dollar bills are fairly durable and can be easily replaced if they become worn. Even better, a long trip to market does not threaten the health or value of the bill.
- Portability. While the cow is difficult to transport to the store, the currency can be easily put in my pocket.
- Divisibility. A 20-dollar bill can be exchanged for other denominations, say a 10, a 5, four 1s, and 4 quarters. A cow, on the other hand, is not very divisible.
- Uniformity. Cows come in many sizes and shapes and each has a different value; cows are not a very uniform form of money. Twenty-dollar bills are all the same size and shape and value; they are very uniform.
- Limited supply. In order to maintain its value, money must have a limited supply. While the supply of cows is fairly limited, if they were used as money, you can bet ranchers would do their best to increase the supply of cows, which would decrease their value. The supply, and therefore the value, of 20-dollar bills—and money in general—are regulated by the Federal Reserve so that the money retains its value over time.
- Acceptability. Even though cows have intrinsic value, some people may not accept cattle as money. In contrast, people are more than willing to accept 20-dollar bills. In fact, the U.S. government protects your right to use U.S. currency to pay your bills.
Well, it seems "udderly" clear at this point that—based on the characteristics of money—U.S. 20-dollar bills are a much better form of money than cattle.
To summarize, money has taken many forms through the ages, but money consistently has three functions: store of value, unit of account, and medium of exchange. Modern economies use fiat money-money that is neither a commodity nor represented or "backed" by a commodity. Even forms of money that share these function may be more or less useful based on the characteristics of money.
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