Blog entries: Money Monday

Some thoughts on Wozzeck, money and moralities

Much scholarly ink has been spilled about Berg's masterwork, Wozzeck, though most of it is about the work's contribution to atonal music (including debates about whether it should be so classified) and the development of modern opera. Ostensibly, Wozzeck is about a man who dies after killing his wife - not an unusual story in patriarchal societies, and certainly not so uncommon in tragic opera or theatre. That one sentence summary left out a few details: Wozzeck drowns while disposing of the murder weapon - a knife - and in the Covent Garden production, the singer is submerged in a tank of water for much of the last act; Marie was his common-law spouse; and nearly every character in the opera seems morally bankrupt. The opera consists of three acts with five scenes each but is not nearly as long as that description suggests, with an approximate running time of just over ninety minutes. Though Wozzeck is historically and artistically important, the opera also deserves consideration for its powerful critique of poverty, bourgeois moralities and inequality.

Virtual Money and Moralities

I've had a paper accepted in Distinktion about virtual monies and moral boundary drawing. Economic sociology generally avoids questions or morals and moralities - though anthropologists and historians deal with such issues under the rubric of 'moral economies'. Yet in my doctoral fieldwork (and going forward), moralities have played a very significant role in respondents' accounts of economic lives and how economies work. This is especially true with respect to money. 'Good' and 'rational' money management - as defined by a particular middle class sensibility emphasising savings, investments and debt only for purchasing durable, appreciating assets like property - are framed as a matter of morals more so than opportunities and knowledge. Such ideas circulate widely, but are especially vicious in Britain's public sphere. When Jamie Oliver criticised the 'massive fucking TVs' and poor eating of impoverished people in Britain he rightly lambasted for showing a staggering lack of empathy and understanding about poverty. But his remarks are not only a commentary on class in Britain, or a critique of sedentary lifestyles, or poor nutritional choices. They spring from a classist and moralising critique of money use. This juxtaposition of luxury goods -- big televisions -- with cheap calories -- chips and cheese -- is part of a very old story story indeed about privileged people making judgements about how poorer people use their money.

Old and New Money

As part of the research project on monies and materialities, I've been talking with people about Russian rubles, and monies more generally. Some of the discussions about rubles have been quite fascinating, especially when people talk about their first impressions of ruble banknotes and coins. The ruble is an old money, and a new money at the same time. There have been rubles in Russia for at least 300 years, so the name is old. But the current ruble has only been around since 1998. Ruble banknotes seemed a bit peculiar when I first saw them, but it was hard to describe exactly what looked odd about them. One interviewee, Simon, exactly described this very impression. He said rubles look like old money and new money at the same time. He suggested the engraving on the 5,000 ruble bill makes it look old-fashioned, as though it were money from the 1970s or 1960s. After hearing Simon's reflections, I realised that the 5,000 ruble note reminded me of an old Canadian $2 bill. Both banknotes have an elaborate style of engraving, and feature landscapes as symbols of nationhood. They're both on the red end of the colour spectrum too.

A nifty piece of lawmaking

While researching a Money Monday post on counterfeiting, I found a piece of American legislation that is both familiar and curious.

The difference between 1 and 100 is not 99

Lately I've been thinking about prices as numbers. This preoccupation began before I had returned briefly to London and realised a Green & Black's chocolate bar is no longer ₤1.99. It's now ₤2.09. Seven months away and a ten pence increase. A bit over 1p per month, but I disgress. Lately some very generous people have been allowing me to come along as they shop for groceries. They've tolerated my questions about everything from why one brand of coffee is preferred over another, to lengthy discussions about food safety and troubles trying to find good vegetables at a reasonable price in Moscow. This is an expensive city, so it's not surprising that consternation over food prices has come up repeatedly, but usually the first shock of shopping in Moscow is the number of figures, not so much the price when converted into a currency more familiar to the shopper.

Bees and Honey, People and Money

Recently I stumbled across a copy of Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater at the library. The cover of the most recent edition, from Vintage, features a piggy bank emblazoned with the title's first clause. From the very first line, it was clear that this was a book to discuss in a Money Monday post.

A sum of money is a leading character in this tale about people, just as a sum of honey might properly be a leading character in a tale about bees.

What does it mean to say money is to people as honey is to bees? What relationships do humans imagine that bees have to honey? What relationships do people have, or imagine that others have, to money?

Dragons, Moons, Stags, Stars and Groats

Last night the hit HBO drama, Game of Thrones - based on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire - returned to television for its third season. A few years ago a fellow sociologist recommended that I read the books. I think she was hoping they would be an enticement to reading more genre fiction. That plan didn't quite work out.

I have many problems with science fiction and fantasy writing. These genres tend to be highly conservative, often racist and imperialist, and almost unfailingly heteronormative. The small list of contemporary big-name exceptions - Octavia Butler, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, China Mieville - are the exceptions that prove the rule. There are of course small presses and adventurous authors who are working to change these genre conventions, but generally, it's white folks going out into space/war-torn realms and conquering the thinly racially othered aliens/magical faeries. Writers on Racialicious regularly debate these issues, and Angry Black Woman put it best when she asked 'Why is the Universe Full of White People?'

Spitting Money

I recently paid a visit to Izmailovo Market, one of Moscow's well-known tourist sights. As it was still winter, complete with sleet, melting ice and snow, it wasn't surprising that most of the stalls were empty. Matroshkas and lacquer boxes were in good supply, as were podstakannik - metal holders for glasses filled with hot tea. I even saw one podstakannik that commemorated the launch of Sputnik. There were also the usual military surplus stalls, sellers of ikon and church fittings, and a seemingly endless variety of pins, epaulettes and badges from the Soviet era. But alongside these marvels - and there really were some incredible things - were coins and bills.

A Sputnik-themed podstakannik
A sputnik-themed podstakannik similar to the one I saw.

Goodbye, pennies.

In May 2012 the last penny was struck by the Royal Mint, and last month pennies officially exited stage left. I've delayed writing about the demise of the Canadian penny as there is so much to write about: nostalgia, the penny's histories, metals and materials, worries about prices, confusion about rounding, charities and coin collection drives. Canada is not the first country to do away with one cent coins. Finland is part of the Eurozone, but one Euro cent coins are not in circulation there. On a visit in 2008 I did manage to pawn one off on a bemused cashier, but there was no place for it in her coin drawer. The coin was left over from a previous trip in the Eurozone. I think she took it just to humour me.

An economic case has been made for removing pennies from circulation. They cost more to mint than their face value. The purchasing power of a penny is now miniscule - though I can remember when three pennies could buy five swedish berries, or one sour cherry candy. Nowadays, a penny is little more than the difference between a Dollar Store and the 99 cent shop. The cost-benefit view is quite clear: pennies are a big expenditure with very little impact on the daily purchasing power of Canadian consumers.

Folded Money

While looking for an entirely different book, I stumbled across two flip books by Duy Ngyuen about origami using American dollar bills: Origami with Dollar Bills: Another Way to Impress People with Your Money! and Paper Airplanes with Dollar Bills: Another Way to Throw Your Money Away. Papercraft is hugely popular nowadays, from scrapbooking and collages to making paper models, but using bills is a specialised niche. I couldn't help but take a peek at this monetary papercraft. But, as friends from my years in Japan know, I am all thumbs when it comes to folding paper in any way other than to make it fit into an envelope. There are also no American bills in my wallet at the moment either. I offer these as my excuses for not making any experiments myself.