In the beginning, there was heaven and earth. There were lands and seas, plants and animals, moons and stars, fish and minerals, the air and sun. This was wealth. It abounded.
In the beginning, there was no money. Nobody cared. It was irrelevant.
For several billion years, rivers ran and rains fell, mountains crumbled and rose again, species came and species went. There was wealth, in abundance.
Still, there was no money. Nobody cared. It was still irrelevant.
Then came humans. Accessing wealth in small numbers, humans could dig, hunt, fish, plant and gather. Wealth abounded, but was not easily retrieved.
There still was no money. Then an ancestor supposed an easier way and found kindred spirits. They noticed this: Sometimes, they made or got extra stuff. Sometimes, they wanted some of another guy's stuff. When that happened, they had three choices: fight for it, do nothing or exchange.
The inner dialogue must have gone something like this:
"If I fight for it, I could die or get hurt. Not acceptable. If I do nothing, I don't get their stuff and I waste my stuff. Not acceptable. If I exchange, I get the stuff and I don't die. Hmmm, let me think." So then there was trade.
There was still no money, but the traders were adding to their accessible wealth. Still, most wealth was generally inaccessible.
Then somebody figured out that this trade stuff was pretty cool and that it led to more stuff for more people. Also, more trade meant more people at least appeared to like each other. Plus the more people traded and appeared to like each other, the more they did not want to hurt their trading partners. Trade seemed good for everybody, and trade got even cooler.
Of course there were people who thought "fighting for it" worked, and they fought. There were also people who thought "robbing" was better than trading, and they robbed. Even others thought cheating a bit was easier than honest trading, and they cheated. These problems persist.
Notwithstanding fighters, robbers and cheaters, more and more people engaged in honest trade. Still, they had no money. It was irrelevant because it did not exist.
Then somebody realized stuff was not only heavy but also awkward. Plus, folks in nearby places did not always have everything other people nearby wanted. Plus, they had those fighters, robbers and cheaters lurking about. What to do?
The inner dialogue must have gone something like this:
"I like trading. But I don't like carrying-especially heavy, clumsy stuff. I still don't like wasting or doing without. I like choices.
"This hard, shiny stuff is pretty. Plus, I can easily carry it. Plus, nearly everybody likes it and wants more of it. Plus, if those guys gave me some shiny stuff for my stuff, the other guys will take it for their stuff. If they don't want my hard shiny stuff, I don't really mind carrying it back and turning it into a ring or something."
They called the hard pretty stuff "gold," "silver" or "precious stones." Gold and silver became dominant mediums of exchange. This was like former exchange, but it was based on common measurement and more easily carried. They had a sort of money that enabled them to create all sorts of new wealth for themselves to go with the old wealth from the planet. Everybody worked out what they thought gold or silver was worth in terms of their own stuff and how much gold or silver they would give for other folk's stuff. Natural wealth abounded, but it was still mostly hard to get. They made more and more new wealth, and this created wealth was becoming easier to get.
Unfortunately, the fighters, robbers and cheaters could still figure out how to get gold or silver from others without trading, and they were still a problem. Plus the people wanted more stuff from more other places. The traders looked for alternatives.
The inner dialogue must have gone something like this: "I like trading. I like choices. I still don't like carrying or wasting. Gold or silver or other stuff works but is still heavy. Plus, it is especially vulnerable to fighters, robbers and cheaters. Truth is, I mostly trust these guys (X). Plus, they want my stuff but I don't really want theirs-at least right now. What if (X) gave me a promise I could get their gold or silver any time but not right now but I still gave them my stuff now? I will feel mostly like I have the gold or silver. Plus, promises don't weigh much.
"Hmmm, my stuff is going to be rotten soon anyway. I definitely don't want to waste it. What's more, since I don't get their (X) gold until someday, (X) will give me more gold or silver then than they will give me today.
"Also, I need stuff from those other guys (Y). Plus, I know (Y) will want stuff from (X). What if I traded (X)'s promise to give me gold or silver to (Y)? Then (Y) could go get their stuff from (X) and just leave (X)'s promise behind without ever even carrying it somewhere.
"Let's see: (X) gets stuff from me; we get stuff from (Y); (Y) gets stuff from (X). This is faster. It is safer. It is lighter. Everybody's happy."
He smiled to himself with satisfaction and shouted, "Score." Just like a soccer announcer.
So they had realized they could trade these promises. Then somebody else realized they could store these promises, start a bank and make even more promises. Moreover, this system worked with services, both labor and craft. Now there was real money, in abundance, in forms more available to more people without fighting, robbing or cheating. Plus more people mostly liked each other and mostly did not want to hurt each other.
It came to pass money worked wonders. It enabled trade at great distances. It enabled people to do what they did best and get what they needed most. When supply and demand imbalances developed in markets ranging from corn to copper, money became the instrument to reallocate resources.
Of course, it also allowed people to get stuff they did not need. Plus, the fighters, robbers and cheaters figured out how steal some promises and reap some rewards. In addition, sometimes exchange rates got weird. Certainly people did not always get the stuff they needed, or accessibility was an issue. Plus, sometimes, money equivalents outpaced rationality, and we always needed orderliness and reliability-so we got both manias and law (another story). Plus sometimes people spent more money than they had or they got especially weird about money-and bad things happened. Meanwhile, it all worked well, considering. Folks could get stuff from far, far away. They could do what they did best and get stuff in exchange. Like magic.
It came to pass that trade got more complex. Money got more complex. Fighters, robbers and cheaters became more complex. Of course, laws also got more complex. Passing through the dynamic spiral, money became the instrument of mythic hierarchies. Then it became a prime organizational tool. Then it rewarded the exceptional achievers. Then it became our fundamental source of personal interface, and subsequently, the primary blood supply for the body social.
Money became the planet's most powerful secular force-and single greatest source of peace, harmony and human love, as well as the key source of discontent, mutual abuse, irrational power and threat to the common wealth.
Here we are today, monetizing wealth, alchemizing heavens and firmament, water and light, land and sea, plants and animals, moons and stars, fish and minerals, air and sun, time and talent. Water is often dirty and not always in the right place, but it is worth much money. Land becomes infertile and unhealthy, its uses altered, but market values rise incessantly. Seas and skies are polluted and heating. Some plants and animals and fish and minerals are gone, never to return. As for air ... ha! Oxygen bars. So, although there may be less wealth, money abounds, unequal but abundant. Still, everybody cares about money. In our daily lives, nothing is more relevant than money.
Money enabled humans to be fruitful and multiply. Yet, it has been a source of unspeakable cruelty. Yet, its absence makes survival problematic. Yet, understanding it is nearly impossible. Yet, it reflects our most intimate selves and challenges our relationships with the Divine. Yet, it is embedded in every significant psychological or social decision we make. Yet, we can count it and measure it. Yet, we can analyze it a thousand ways and advise upon it a thousand more.
Yet, money is not wealth. It is only money.
Only for the last couple of thousand years, maybe, has there been money. And several thousand years from now, there may be no money again.
But now there is money. Money is a human creation. No humans, no money. In contrast, wealth existed before we got here; it will survive our demise. No humans, still wealth.
At its base, wealth comes as natural resources or conversions of human spirit into manmade resources like buildings, ports, mines, farms, art, literature, furniture, schools, businesses, homes, technology, theory-whatever retains wealth's salient qualities of quasi-permanence and value sufficient unto itself. Wealth requires stewards in order to be used most effectively. Money requires only believers. Money can vanish faster than a Las Vegas sunset.
True wealth has enduring qualities. We can destroy ownership, but the thing owned will generally remain in some form. Wealth tends to survive its stewards ... even their inadequacies. Wealth is often usable by nonowners, miscellaneous stakeholders, at least in some form. Money tends to be more singular in its nature.
We confuse money with wealth at our peril. It is only money.
Wealth and money can be sometimes interchanged, but they are not synonymous. They are both relevant.
At its base, money is merely an exchange medium; at its most complex, it's an ultimate existential challenge. Between, it enables miracles or destruction, justifies a healthy society or reprehensible tyranny, allows productive organization or shameful oppression, rewards excellence or fraud and facilitates sharing or intolerance in manners unprecedented and unequaled. Now, it is inherent to human function.
Money may access wealth, but it is not wealth. You can't eat, stay dry or become warmed with it. Money does not talk, cuddle, excite or satisfy, or otherwise provide meaning or substance to human life. In the 21st Century, money intersects life at every juncture, enabling, destroying or challenging. Consciousness of the money/wealth paradox is critical to our times. Our inner dialogue might go something like this:
"When it comes to money, we can fight with it or over it; we can do without it, waste it or destroy with it; or we can understand it and work with it. If we fight with it or over it, some of us will die or some of us will get hurt. Not acceptable. If we try to do without it, waste it or destroy with it, we will jeopardize our very capacity to function. Not acceptable. If we try to understand it, we can get its good stuff, and realize that we mostly like our trading partners and we mostly don't want to hurt each other, plus we don't die or get hurt. Plus it will enable us to create, preserve and access wealth."
Richard B. Wagner, JD, CFP, is the principal of WorthLiving, LLC, based in Denver. He has been a practicing financial advisor for more than 18 years and is a national past president of the Institute of Certified Financial Advisors.