previous: #4: The Big Reversal
During the Age of Coin the normal relation of reality to symbols of reality was inverted for many people. This inversion permeates human culture even today, long after the Age of Coin (roughly 1400 to 1900) has faded into history.
Leaving aside human relations, possessions and their use are generally believed to hold value. Food, clothing, housing, tools, and land have obvious value. Coin, however, came to be the common denominator allowing people to think about the value of mixtures of types of possessions. A farmer could come up with a total numeric value of his land, cows, sheep, and money held in bank accounts and cash. An urban investor know how much his stocks were worth, and the shares of companies they represented in turn could be accounted for in terms of projected future profits and current assets that might include factories, inventories, and money in bank accounts, less what was owed on loans.
It was a convenient fiction that any citizen could turn all assets into a pile of coin or paper currency, stand naked beside the pile, and know his or her worth. Even more conveniently, one could come close to this by selling everything, putting the resulting money into a bank account, and looking at a single number on a bank statement.
In reality not everyone could convert all their assets to currency or even into bank accounts at once. There was not enough currency to meet the demand if too many people demanded cash at any given time. The history of the United States of America, from colonial times until the creation of the Federal Reserve, was punctuated by proofs of this. Metallic coin, preferably silver or gold coin, was always in short supply because at first it had to be imported. After about 1850, when large amounts of gold and silver were found and mined in the states, coin remained in short supply because the rest of the economy expanded at such a fast rate. The Free Silver (coinage) and Greenback political campaigns encapsulated the deadening effect on the economy of the mindset that only gold could be real money, or represent real value.
Going back to our naked ape sitting beside a pile of coin (perhaps have kept aside a knife or six-shooter to defend it with), pretty soon, except in cases of insanity, hunger or discomfort would lead to spending down the pile. If no one was willing to trade food for gold, the pile was useless, and without value. We know from history that in times of famine scraps of food came to be "worth their weight in gold."
Another problem would occur if everyone tried to liquidate their assets at once. In that hypothetical situation, there would be no buyers. The value of truly valuable things drops to nothing if buyers cannot be found. This can be true even when there is plenty of money (coin, cash, account balances, or credit) to buy the assets. Thus we have had a series of asset bubbles over the centuries, some of the most famous being the Tulip bubble, the South Seas bubble, the Florida land bubble, the Internet stock bubble, the housing bubble of 2005-2006, and (as of April 15, 2013) the Gold bubble. In a bubble money is traded for something believed to have real value, until only the most foolish citizens can't see that the money value exceeds the real value. Then, when buyers become scarce enough, bubbles burst. Tulips are just tulips again, not investments. (My favorite bubbles: tropical fish bubbles and the farmed mink bubble).
Next: #6: Counting, Coins, and Crashes
[The Accounting System, Your Fate is in the Cloud, is a work in progress by William P. Meyers, ©2013]