Fungible

So I’ve been thinking about money. Not how to get more, although that thought probably crosses my mind from time to time, but the very concept of money itself.

In my younger days, I received coin of the realm: allowance; gifts; lawn, pet and newspaper delivery jobs; visits from the tooth fairy — although now that I think about it, giving up teeth for money is kind of bizarre. One really great day I put on my winter coat from the previous season and found $5 in the pocket. This was in an era, mind you, when I recall lamenting with a classmate that the price of candy bars was rising from 10 cents to 15, which is a pretty darn steep increase, percentage-wise.

My sister Terri was especially good at finding money on the playground. She would dutifully turn it in to the school office, and when it went unclaimed she became monetarily as well as morally wealthy.

But in my dotage it’s just striking me, over and over, how little we actually see money anymore. I still carry it with me at most times, but Lynn doesn’t even know what cash is. It’s when I start moving money around at work that it really strikes me that we’ve set up this system that may involve a piece of paper or two but mostly relies on a bunch of airy promises.

The first of a month has recently passed, which is always a big day for money at work. I sit in front of a computer and with a few clicks tell my vendors — who keep consolidating into bigger and fewer companies, almost by the day — here is electronic money to cover all the shirts you have sent to us in the past month. We get shirts; they get a keyboard stroke telling them it’s okay to figuratively reach into my bank account and put money figuratively into their bank account.

Then with another spin at the keyboard, I can tell my bank to move money from one account to another, to cover the slips of paper I write telling employees I am giving them money. They take these slips of paper to their banks, and while some employees may get some actual cash, I’m betting most of them just give their bank the paper to credit their own accounts, so they can write their own pieces of paper to mortgage companies or hand over a small piece of plastic for groceries and household goods.

The number of places that actually have to keep something backing all this air must be minimal, maybe even non-existent, given our society’s lack of issue with indebtedness. All we need is a detailed tally system, and we’re good to go. No Scrooge McDuck (or Mr. Krabs from SpongeBob) wallowing in a vault filled with cash and jewels.

Sometimes this strikes me as weird, usually as I’m writing checks or “paying” people electronically. For something as momentous and ubiquitous as money, it seems like we ought to see it as we trade it around.

But even then money can be weird. Since I was a kid I have read about Romans being paid in salt, which I believe is from whence we derive the term “salary,” and probably the expression about people being worth their salt. Salt, something that you might be able to find on your own, has always seemed to me to be an odd thing to use for money, especially since you’re liable to consume a portion of your pay rather than passing it along to your mortgage holder and grocer. Consume as in “sprinkle liberally over your food.”

I suppose salt must have been harder to come by back then, and had to be mined, which is why people who go to work used to put that in terms of working at the salt mine, but this old concept of mining for money has taken a new turn that I don’t understand in the least, this notion of “mining” online for cryptocurrency.

Don’t even try to explain bitcoin to me: any number have tried, and all have failed. I assume it’s really my failure, but I don’t feel bad at all. Maybe someday I will, when I’m the only one in the universe with quarters in my pockets and the rest of you have been busy using enormous amounts of the world’s resources to “mine” something no one can see, hear, smell, taste or feel, but not today. Today the bitcoin types are the ones who strike me as weird.

And while today the bitcoin (yes, I know there are now lots of cryptocurrencies, and I assume I could start my own tomorrow if only I understood the first thing about it) crowd is still pretty small, and the outcomes appear to be far more variable than many of the other electrons we all trade around — so out there that even Elon Musk gave up on trying to let people buy his problematic cars in that manner — other people, people more like me, seem to be buying into the latest fad of buying air: non-fungible tokens.

“Non” I understand: that means “not.” And “token”: well, that’s what we’ve been talking about this whole time, using items like coins versus just telling people you are giving them money and them taking you at your written or electronic word. “Fungible.” It’s fun to say, and it says so right there in the word: fun-gi-ble.

Here’s Merriam-Webster definition number one: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account. “Oil, wheat, and lumber are fungible commodities.

Once again, with non-fungible tokens, we’re back to things you can’t touch, taste or smell, but you can see them, and apparently you can hear some of them. And in this last year or so, they seem to have become all the rage, even though you are buying something that doesn’t seem to technically exist, and you further have to buy some online “wallet” in which to store it.

I did hear something, early in my introduction to non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, that kind of made sense to me: all those baseball cards people value so much? They’re simply pieces of cardboard, with no real intrinsic value.

Not that I own any baseball or any other trading cards, but I am aware of the concept. While I am frequently astounded at how much value some of them command, I understand that it’s a means for fans of the game to connect to it. I suppose, then, buying a computer image, even if it’s one you can find all over Youtube, might be the digital-age version of the same thing.

I guess, when you come right down to it, it’s all about trading, whether it be bits of metal, pieces of paper with value stamped on them or written in check form, or even the polished shells known as wampum. (Like salt, I still wonder why people couldn’t just happen upon their own supply.) And now we’ve reached the point where we’re trading bits of air, or pixels, or something that I’m sure is equally meaningful.

It may not be fungible, but some people seem to see it as fun, and I’m already aware that any resistance I put up will be regarded as token at best.

This is nine minutes long, but it explains better than anything else I’ve come across how an NFT can function as a collectible, even if I’m still not buying. I have to confess: I had absolutely no idea “Uncle Paul” wrote “Hey Jude” for young Julian Lennon.

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