Cows and Chips

Nothing enlivens a dry conceptual essay like a cow. So, if you have to keep your readers awake long enough to follow a detailed abstract argument, hire as many cows as you can afford. Also consider providing refreshments. A bag of chips is nice (but not cow chips).

For dramatic evidence that this is good advice and that clever professionals use it all the time to good effect, breeze back through Milton Friedman’s brilliant brief essay, “The Invention of Money,” which blew our minds about the trippy-ness of currency without ever having to resort to esoteric terminology. Instead, it made excellent use of dramatic, tangible illustrations and allowed us to draw our own conclusions about the abstract thinking that underlay the drama.

We remember the shipwreck, the stone tablets as big as a car, the labeling of the drawers in the gold vaults. We use those physical objects and events as touchstones to remind ourselves of the entirely cerebral drama that makes them so significant. The concepts alone we might forget; the details stay with us and guide us back to the ideas.

I’ve been giving this advice for several days to many of you, in different language. Some examples follow.

  1. Suppose, instead of your first three sentences, you expressed yourself like this: “Ever since reading about The Invention of Money, I can’t look at a dollar the same way. These flimsy slips of linen covered with silly green symbols seem so worthless; do I really work hard at my job to earn a handful of these?” See what I mean? Readers are much more likely to be engaged with your topic (and even feel some of the alienation from their money you’ve been feeling) when you can put something tangible in their hands. Make them visualize that odd slip of paper, feel its flimsiness, and they might start to ask themselves: hey, yeah, what is this really worth?
  2. Before there were coins, barter occurred using items that could be, for example, eaten: cattle and grain. No doubt those commodities represented the work of raising the animals and crops, but were they valued for the effort put into them or for their deliciousness?
  3. I wonder if you would consider their beauty and rarity intrinsic values? Diamonds aren’t utterly useless, even if we’re being uncharitable about them. They are attractive adornments. Less defensibly, perhaps, it’s hard to understand why they’re “worth” more than extremely good fakes only a jeweler can distinguish.
  4. We mostly care about government backing for our money only when the government is our customer. If you give me money for a haircut, the government’s hardly involved; my only concern is that the sub shop will accept the money you gave me for a sandwich.
  5. The real value of any money is that the society that uses it is willing to accept it as payment. For example, cab drivers in Egypt LOVE to be tipped in American dollar bills, much more so than in Egyptian pound notes, but they won’t take a US dollar coin because they know nobody else will take a dollar coin.
  6. Baseball cards are pretty worthless pieces of paper until somebody is willing to pay a lot of money for them. And by and large the only reason they’re willing to pay is the faith they have that somebody else will pay them even more. I couldn’t use baseball cards to buy my groceries though, unless the grocer agreed to their value. So we use money for convenience in both transactions.
  7. If you want to say that our currency has no value independent of the valuable things it represents, or that it is merely a form for presenting value, readers will have an easier time understanding you if you introduce a cow. Money is not a cow, you say. Money is valuable and a cow is valuable, but a cow’s value is that it produces milk, and eventually meat, and therefore directly helps a body survive, whereas money has no nutritional value. Its value is only symbolic of someone else’s willingness to trade it for a cow.
  8. Readers love a literal clue. The dollar bill is not a pack of chips, but it’s almost as good as long as the Wawa will accept it in return for a pack of chips.
  9. This is a really important point. Wawa decides that a dollar bill is worth a pack of chips, but the government (the issuing agency of the currency) decides that one bill is worth 100 of the other bills. That relative value of the bills is the only way the government “decides what the money is worth.”
  10. Even with currency, our system permits a good deal of negotiation too, because market value is local. Today in South Jersey a farmer will get widely different prices for a squash, depending on what farmers’ market he’s attending.
  11. On Yap, stealing would have been meaningless because physical possession was irrelevant. The stone outside my house might not be my stone, so there would have been no point in rolling someone else’s stone to my house if everybody knew it belonged to someone else. Our money is different primarily because, except for the serial numbers, our dollars are identical.
  12. I completely appreciate the oddness of the wealth conveyed by that stone on the floor of the ocean, but what is it you see that convinces us we have money? That little slip of paper at the ATM that tells me my current balance is pretty flimsy evidence, don’t you think?
  13. Your first few sentences are the written equivalent of warm-up throws, or rubbing your hands together to improve your grip before picking up the sledgehammer. Both serve a purpose, but they don’t compare to the live action. We can do something else while you’re getting ready. For example, that slip of paper with numbers on it. That’s a nice curve ball. Serve that up. A good first sentence that uses it might be: “The little slip of paper from the ATM that tells us our current balance is as close as most of us get to holding our wealth in our hand.”
  14. Our dollars today are almost purely instruments of faith, I think. On Yap they would have been useless because the Yap would not have traded for them. But here Wawa accepts them because Citgo accepts them out of faith that Citibank will accept them.
  15. If you want to make a point about a concept we use subconsciously, so that we no longer notice it, you need to put something in our hands. We’re more likely to think about the unthinkable if you make us handle it than if you ask us to think about it. If it were thinkable, we’d have thought it. So, instead of a series of rhetorical questions, how about a quick illustration: If I want to build a house on the island of Yap, I hire some islanders to roll a huge limestone rock, almost the weight of the house I want to build, to the contractor’s hut and leave it there. And the islanders I hire? They get paid in limestone rocks too, or maybe one that they’ll share until they figure out how to divide what it can buy.

In-Class Assignment:
Once you’ve read through enough of these examples to be comfortable with the technique for using concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts, go back to your own Invention of Money post and find the abstraction most in need of illustration. Using the Reply field below your post, write a revision that improves your post by adding cows. Of course, I’m only half serious. Cows are often a good choice, but you can use other farm animals, semi-precious stones, warm sandwiches, an ounce of ceviche, or MORE COWBELL!


About davidbdale

Inventor of and sole practitioner of 299-word Very Short Novels.
This entry was posted in David Hodges, Exercises, Professor Post. Bookmark the permalink.

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