The Value of Money

America exerts a major influence on global financial health. And our current unrestrained printing of new dollars will doubtless have repercussions around the world.

I’m no economist myself, but there seems to be growing concern among professionals of that persuasion that we’re headed for über-inflation. And, if our dollar drops in value the way some people predict . . . well, it seems many nations may be in for the proverbial “rough time of it.”

Shortly after WWII, C.S. Lewis commiserated with an American friend about the effects of inflation on the price of commodities.

I take it that your [comment] indicates not a saturation of the home market, but a shortage of purchasing power due to inflation? That is the situation with which we are faced at the moment; I see that the clothing concessions for instance have not resulted in an increased sale of home market goods.

The stuff is in the shops, but people can’t buy. Though with us the problem is complicated by the inferior quality of so much of the stuff on the home market.

Years later, in 1951, Lewis could still write “war and inflation are still the background of all ordinary conversation over here.”

. . . to which has just been added the railway jam; our new railway organization has succeeded, so far as I can understand, in blocking every goods depot in the country. The trades people are grumbling, and the effect is just becoming apparent to the consumer.

When I was in high school, collecting coins from around the world, I purchased samples of German currency when hyperinflation was destroying their already-shattered economy. These bills were called notgeld, which means “emergency money.”

So much of the worthless paper was printed that you can still purchase genuine pieces for reasonable prices. Many of them are quite interesting, and you can see a variety of examples online.

Some are quite lovely, like this 1 Mark note printed in Prien am Chiemsee in 1920. Lovely indeed, but virtually worthless in terms of its initial value.

Postwar Germany offers a cautionary example. Similarly, Robert Mugabe’s destruction of Zimbabwe after he gained dictatorial powers shows the danger. You can read about the unbelievable crisis in a variety of places, including this thorough article published in a European economics journal.

You might have thought that the picture at the top of this column was a joke. After all, what country prints a one million dollar bill? Well, Zimbabwe did!

In fact, with an inflation rate of 231,000,000% they ended up printing off one hundred billion dollar bills. That’s not a typo. $100,000,000,000 – you can see one in this Guardian article.

And we won’t even consider the one hundred trillion dollar bill.

Inflation Aside, Is Money Moral?

That’s a false question of course. Morality cannot be attributed to objects. After all, it is not money itself that is “the root of all evil.” It is a fallen human being’s love of possessing wealth that may lead “into ruin and destruction.”

C.S. Lewis expands on this truth, and wisely points out that the danger of idolatry and false security extends beyond money itself.

Christ said ‘Blessed are the poor’ and ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom,’ and no doubt He primarily meant the economically rich and economically poor. But do not His words also apply to another kind of riches and poverty?

One of the dangers of having a lot of money is that you may be quite satisfied with the kinds of happiness money can give and so fail to realise your need for God. If everything seems to come simply by signing cheques, you may forget that you are at every moment totally dependent on God.

Now quite plainly, natural gifts carry with them a similar danger. If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. ‘Why drag God into it?’ you may ask (Mere Christianity).

C.S. Lewis powerfully portrays this peril in his fiction. In Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a boy named Eustace has surrendered to his lust for treasure and the corruption of his soul becomes quite visible.

He had turned into a dragon while he was asleep. Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.

You can include me among those who like money. First, for its function – allowing free commerce, in contrast to crippled systems of barter. And, for its intrinsic curiosities – I am, after all, a numismatist.

Still, appreciating the existence of money is a far cry from echoing John D. Rockefeller who said “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can.” (To be fair to the robber baron, his full quote was “I believe it is a religious duty to get all the money you can, fairly and honestly; to keep all you can, and to give away all you can.”)

To gain riches honestly is, of course, not objectionable. But as to reconciling the keeping and the giving away . . . Rockefeller’s logic eludes me.

Bonus Insight

As I noted above, I’m no economist. C.S. Lewis declared the very same statement in Mere Christianity as he explored the concept of usury (loaning money with significant interest charges). His thoughts on the matter speak to the entire subject we have been discussing.

As for the entire section you can find Lewis’ position at an interesting site called Generosity Monk, which “is committed to serving the Church by providing spiritual and strategic guidance to help people understand and practice biblical generosity.”

14 thoughts on “The Value of Money

  1. I recently handled some currency printed by the Confederate States of America back in 1862 and 1864. In one sense, that money has no value now; but collectors have assigned value to that currency based on quality and rarity. What I held was worth, to a collector, about seven dollars, although the face value of the two bills was ten dollars and one hundred dollars. However, a collector probably would not offer even seven dollars for those two pieces of paper, because around 1875 someone had typed across the back of each of them a joke about them being worthless. J.

    1. Interesting. Actually, if you could prove the (old) dating of the added comments, it could make the bills worth far more than they would be otherwise.

      When I collected coins, I included some currency. A couple of Confederate bills are found among my (1) foreign currency, (2) military currency, (3) fractional (U.S.) currency, and (4) notgeld.

      I really should dig that stuff out and show it to my grandkids…

      1. If someone famous had typed those words, they might add value. I have a cover letter that proves the date of the comments, but I doubt collectors would care much. Besides, they don’t belong to me; they belong to the public library. J.

      2. Ah, you would be surprised what adds value to collectibles. But, as you say, it’s a moot point.

        Even things like “hobo coins” that no longer resemble their original nature become vastly more valuable. (Some of them are actually extremely artistic.)

  2. I remember the valueless currencies in Mozambique, Angola, Brazil, etc some years ago. In Brazil their banknotes could be found on their magnificent beaches and shallows, drifting around in the surf and totally useless. Frightening! Thanks to you and Lewis for pointing us once more in the right direction as to biblical stewardship and generosity. We’ve got our own problems in South Africa, being pegged to the US dollar. What with huge unemployment and rocketing oil prices, believers here need much wisdom in handling money. At the same time we must count our blessings in comparison with neighbouring Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabweans have made their way into our country – we have one lady in our house church and try and help where we can. In general, so many of our citizens still imagine Mammon is the answer…

    1. I sympathize with countries like South Africa whose currencies are linked to ours. Right now our leadership is treating the dollar like a personal piggy bank for spending waaay beyond a responsible level. The debt we are bequeathing to our children and grandchildren is truly sinful.

      Similarly, global oil prices would not be soaring to the levels they are at if our current president hadn’t ended America’s brief energy independence. Now we have to return to the international market and create the competition that allows OPEC to gouge everyone around the world.

      I am what we call an “independent,” and don’t belong to any political party. And my concern here really isn’t political… or, particularly, religious. Our self-induced inflation is simply about (1) lack of common sense, and (2) a lack of ethics (e.g. the willingness to live within one’s means).

    1. Sounds like the “not so ‘good old days.'”

      The sort of desperation caused by things like this inflation and rationing primed the Germans to welcome the changes promised by Hitler.

      I hope God spares us from increasing turmoil and chaos that might make “enlightened” people susceptible to accepting totalitarianism.

    1. Interesting. No, I think Wesley would have deemed Rockefeller’s life to have betrayed his words.

      The millionaire/billionaire was supposedly quite regular in his church attendance though. And he must have read Wesley…

      1. I’ve known several advocates of the “social gospel” who think they are following in Wesley’s footsteps, but ignore the fact that, for Wesley, anything we would now call “social activism” grew out of a devotion to the love and holiness of God. Rockefeller probably fell into a similar trap.

      2. You’re on to something. Things done in Christ’s name–to God’s glory–include all sorts of social concerns. However, when it’s done in an utterly secular mechanism (e.g. our taxes that go to welfare, etc.), it’s obviously not the same.

        Secular philanthropy (for beneficial activities which improve society) can be good too. But there’s nothing “Christian” or “Gospel” about it. If Jesus’ name is severed from effort, it’s an altogether different activity.

  3. Pingback: Narnian Numismatics « Mere Inkling Press

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