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On The Money

Some voices from the left have, over a lengthy period and often quite loudly, called for nationalisation of the banks. It seems they might have to move quickly as it is possible these institutions may not be around for much longer. (The reverse, it has to be said, is also possible.) In a recent issue of the London Review of Books (21/04/2016) John Lanchester’s “When Bitcoin Grows Up” suggests that new technology may change the world of money. Lanchester is one of that useful breed of thinkers who, with no specialist background in the area, leaped into the swamp of money and economics after the crash in 2007 in an attempt to find out what had happened to cause distress and puzzlement to so many, including Queen Elizabeth. The question at the heart of his essay is whether the peer to peer financial transactions possible through bitcoin mean the banks are done for. For many people the nature of money is something that is uncertain and considering it is studiously avoided. Those coloured bits of paper have something of the mystery of religion about them. In both cases faith plays a big part; despite the evidence of the senses people believe there is a major unseen reality behind the visible. So, girding our loins, we must ask what is money? Money, it transpires, is not bits of coloured paper; well it is, or it can be, but it is something else as well: a convenient and trusted means of recording everyone’s multiple debits and credits. Even very simple societies have needed currency because there are just too many debits and credits around to manage. Lanchester tells the fascinating story of the South Pacific Yaps who use a rare limestone as currency. The Yap currency is large round stones with a hole in the middle. You can have one outside your house. They are too large to move or pass around like coins or paper money. So even when you dispose of one or, presumably, part of one, in exchange  for some service or goods, the stone stays outside your door. Let us say the owner is a Mr Dan Murphy. As Yap society is an oral culture, community memory registers which bits of the stone Dan still owns and which bits are owned by others. Why, it might be asked does community memory not simply record the transactions which make up the…

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