I am thinking about Greece defaulting on its financial responsibilities. And I am wondering, “What if everybody did that?” – Bought stuff and later said, “Sorry, can’t pay for it.” But without the Greek accent and the telltale aroma of olive oil.
Then I recalled addressing that exact issue in my “Where It’s Near” column for a Toronto newspaper back in 1969. (“Where It’s Near”, as opposed to “Where It’s At.” Get it?)
For those who missed it, I am reprinting that column today. I shall try to restrain myself from rewriting. Although sometimes you see something from forty-six years ago that needs improving and you can’t help yourself.
Anyway here it is. Reprinted without permission from the “Toronto Telegram”. (Which went out of business in 1971, so who am I going to ask?)
“Tell us about money, Grandpa,” begged his twin 23rd Century grandchildren as he tucked them into their glass-domed “Rock-A-Beds” which would shortly massage them into ethereal slumberhood.
“Aw, not again!” complained Gramps, actually their great-great-great grandfather on their mother’s side, to whom medical science had awarded 243 years of remarkable robustness. “Wouldn’t you rather hear about ‘Little Griselda and the Dancing Flounder’?”
“Nooooo!!!” bleated the twins discordantly. “Money! Money!”
“All right,” he reluctantly agreed, “but you have to promise to go to sleep right after. Deal?”
“Deal,” they lied, exchanging clandestine winks. Some things never change.
“Well, now, let’s see,” began the ancient babysitter. “Many, many years ago, before they invented sitting around and doing nothing, everyone used to work. You remember what work is, right?”
“Yes, Grandpa. Work was what people did so they could, um…‘pay’ their rent and, um…‘buy’ top grade veal cutlets for their families.”
“Exactly. And the reason why working allowed them to buy things was because when they worked, they were paid…”
“MONEY!!!” unisoned the children. This was their favorite part of the story.
“Keep it down, will ya? – This is supposed to be a bedtime story. You want your Grandma to come in here and sing to you?”
The twins solemnly shook their heads “No”. They adored their Grandma, but “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” had lost its appeal hundreds of years ago. Plus, she did not sing it that well.
“Okay. Now back then, you could not buy a moldy apricot without money. Which was not only necessary but very easy to use. You could make a dollar six different ways, from a paper ‘Dollar bill’ to a hundred little, brown pennies.”
“Tee hee”, giggled the twins. The idea of brown money struck them as hilarious.
“Of course, a penny even back then could not buy you anything. They just kept them around so that five of them could make a nickel. Not that a nickel was a vast fortune when it came to buying big things, like a house. But two nickels made a dime, and five of them made a quarter."
The children mouthed these denominations reverentially. “Penny.” Nickel.” “Quarter”, their personal favorite, the adorable little “dime.”
“Didn’t they just get houses, Grandpa?”, returning him to the subject at hand.
“In those days, you didn’t “get” anything. You had to earn everything you wanted.”
“What does “earn” mean, Grandpa? Did it hurt?”
“For a lot of people, it did. Workers were unhappy spending their entire lives doing boring jobs that machines could do better. But that was the only way they could earn money, and without money, you can’t buy anything.
“Though nobody wanted to do those jobs, the economic system needed them to, so it rewarded workers with money to buy things, and called people who avoided work nasty names, like ‘deadbeat’ and ‘malingerer.’”
“That wasn’t nice.”
“You had two choices: Doing something you didn’t like, or getting yelled at for saying ‘No thanks.’ But then something changed. It turned out, not enough people were buying things. That’s when the people who sold things invented “credit.”
“Credit is when you get things without paying the full amount for them until later. Money was soon replaced by credit cards. And everyone said…"
“You bet your bones!” said the Old Reminiscer. “People no longer had to wait to buy things until they could actually pay for them. It was almost like you weren’t paying for them at all. Of course, when the credit card bill came, the chickens came inevitably home to roost.”
“There are chickens in this story?”
“Metaphorical chickens. Which means, when the credit card bill arrived, Mrs. ‘Charge-It’ said to Mr. ‘Charge-It”, ‘Can we pay this?” and Mr. ‘Charge-It’ just laughed in her face. You remember what happened then?”
“They tore up the credit card bill and threw the pieces up in the air.”
“Nobody paid anything.”
“They couldn’t. Maybe some people could. But they figured if everyone around them wasn’t paying, why should they have to? So they didn’t pay either.
“At first, a lot or collection agencies sprang up, hiring freelance wrestlers to force people to pay. But as the saying goes, ‘You cannot put a hammerlock on an overdrawn account.’
“Is that a famous saying, Grandpa?”
“I just made it up. Anyway, no one could pay. So nobody did. Finally, machines were brought in to do everything, and as we always suspected, they did a wonderful job. Now, even if you wanted to go back to work, you couldn’t. The machines had taken the jobs. And they were not striking for bathroom breaks.”
“What happened then, Grandpa?”
“Well, you know how you flip a switch and the lights go on?”
“You understand how that works?”
“Neither do I. Not that, and not this. Everyone buys things, nobody pays for them, and the caissons go rolling along. Which is a song from before my time.
“I can’t explain it. We fell off a cliff and nothing happened. We got bailed out, I suppose, but I have no idea how. It’s been a tricky adjustment. When nobody has anything, you have no idea who to admire and who to look down on.”
“Is that bad, Grandpa?”
“Maybe not,” said the venerable bi-centenarian. “But it’s sure hard to get used to.”
Then he kissed them goodnight, and stepped out of the room.
Returning later to slip a vintage quarter under each of their hypoallergenic pillows.
Greece may in fact not be an outlier; it may instead be the Future. According to a 24 year-old pundit from 1969.