Discussing these social aspects has become strangely taboo. The best we can do is pit two theories against each other: capitalism, Adam Smith and The Wealth of Nations against communism, Karl Marx and Das Kapital. But these two economic theories flowered in the adolescence of the industrial revolution for economies that were still primarily agrarian. Can we not do better? Is it not time for Financial Theory 2.0?

The United States is in the throes of one of the worst economic crises in its history. Certainly, the broad economy has had its share of bubbles and blues. Budget deficits, tight money, increased joblessness and escalating personal financial insufficiency and illiteracy have made their marks on us all. But so have the taboos on talking about it.

How can we be expected to make intelligent social decisions around money if we don't know what money is? If we cannot conceive of alternatives to the current domination of international trading currencies? If we have not asked how suitable money really is for the things it is asked to do? How can we make intelligent decisions about it when we continue to confuse money with "wealth" and "rich" with one year's high income. What are the critical differences? First, you cannot eat money. Second, one year's income hardly ever makes one "rich."

Money in its current form is a relatively new phenomenon, after our population moved from resource-based economies where the stuff of life was manufactured or grown close by. And yet even though it's relatively new, in the last 60 years we have built virtually all of our current social and physical structures on the foundation of it as if it were of actual substance.
We have continued to expand governmental budgets with it. We have told people they must depend on it more to take responsibility for their own financial care. No society in the history of humanity has relied so much on something so intangible like modern money.

Because of money, our basic needs have become more and more intertwined and delocalized. For the first time in history, "care" is mostly institutionalized, professionalized and monetized. Childcare, elder care, health care, social work, education, welfare and most other forms of "compassion" have been substantially removed from family and community and are now resting on foundations of money in ways unseen before World War II.

We now ask people to plan to live for an extra 30 to 40 years and to finance it primarily with unearned income or "other people's money." These issues are huge, yet we don't talk about them.

The simple fact is that "money" is actually an agreement. It is only what everyone within a particular society says and believes it is. Better still, it is a deal we make with ourselves.

As I see it, money as we know it is simply humanity's best effort at self organization to do what must be done. It is an effective mechanism for matching unmet needs with unused energies. Its chief virtues are that it is nonviolent and non-coercive. In theory at least, it enables the creation of wealth more effectively than any other incentive system. In truth, money is pretty amazing.

That being said, it is not impervious to injury, misunderstanding or misuse. These issues require our attention. If money is an agreement, it is one we must be able to discuss.

In his presentations, economist and professor Bernard Lietaer (the author of The Future of Money: Beyond Greed and Scarcity), often shows slides depicting a man trying to put an elephant to work. First he attempts to pull the elephant. No luck. Then he gets behind her and tries to push. No luck there either. Then the light bulb goes off: He tries food. It is only in the last slide that the elephant is cheerfully productive. So it is with humans and the fundamental beauty of money as our primary incentive system. Of course, money can also be used violently and forcibly to push, pull and thrash folks about. That is not money at its best. But it is another reason we have to talk about it.