Review of Hearthstone’s books

When I started my formal study of Hellenismos, Hearthstone was required reading. Eir two books of interest, Devotion: Prayers to the Gods of the Greeks and In Praise of Olympus: Prayers to the Greek Gods have become some of the most well-used books in my collection. Almost daily I read a Hearthstone prayer to one deity or another. I got Devotion about six years ago, but when I bought the other recently I decided that these books deserve a review before I wear them out and have to buy new copies.

It’s with Hearthstone that I first learned to appreciate poetry. What’s otherwise stopped me is what seems like rampant pretentious behavior in and near poems and poets; these are written for the gods, which perhaps makes such ego exercises impossible. The turns of phrase make my heart flutter with their elegance. Here’s an example about Hermes:

In any land, in any age, your people prosper; in any land, in any age, you find a place; in any setting, you belong.

There’s just a flow created by the word choices which carry the reader on. That’s particularly important for reading aloud; many writers — myself included — don’t think about how long sentences challenge the voice. Yes, there’s a few really long ones among these prayers which might leave the unprepared reader gasping for breath, but Hearthstone is more than generous with commas, semi-colons, and dashes to help us through the tough times. Silently or aloud, the words drip with passion for and power from the divinities thus celebrated.

There are other things about Hearthstone’s writing to make me swoon; for one, the use of semicolons is correct. For another, the word “god” is not capitalized in any of these prayers, for Hearthstone (or her editor) knows that it never should be. It’s no wonder reading these works makes me feel faint after a day scrolling through Overcapitalized Blog Posts about Important Subjects.

At the core of Hearthstone’s work, though, is an insistent power. The reader may not feel it by browsing the book, or reading it cover to cover. It may take actually using these prayers, speaking them aloud, to sense it. It may take reading them over and over again, but the power is there, and it becomes more evident with each pass through these words. If it weren’t for my robust mustache, I’m certain I’d detect sweat on my upper lip. These are prayers that get the attention of gods in part due to their muse-inspired beauty, and in part because many English-speaking Hellenists are using them.

The author explains in the introduction to Devotion that she began writing these prayers in part because there weren’t many out there at the time. Many others — myself included — have composed and even published books of prayers to the theoi, but only rarely do these more recent offerings match the passion expressed by Hearthstone. For beginners on the path, those only passingly curious about Hellenic worship, and seasoned devotees alike, these books would only enhance a library to which they were added.


Real money magic: searching for the golden apple

Gold plays an important role in the mythology of ancient Greece. Its deposits were guarded by fierce creatures such as Myrmekes Indikoi (dog-sized ants) and Grypes (gryphons), and love of it left Midas in a difficult predicament. Its association with magical and divine power is unmistakable in the tale of the golden fleece, the union of Danae and Zeus, and the works of Hephaistos; of its daimon, Pindar wrote, “Khrysos (Gold) is a child of Zeus; neither moth nor rust devoureth it; but the mind of man is devoured by this supreme possession.” Perhaps the best example of how gold influences the “mind of man” comes from the tale of the golden apple produced by Eris, which is recounted in the Aldrich translation of Pseudo-Apollodorus thusly: “Eris (Strife) tossed an apple [at the wedding of Thetis] to Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, in recognition of their beauty, and Zeus bade Hermes escort them to Alexandros [Paris] on Ide, to be judged by him. They offered Alexandros gifts: Hera said if she were chosen fairest of all women, she would make him king of all men; Athena promised him victory in war; and Aphrodite promised him Helene in marriage. So he chose Aphrodite [which led to the Trojan War].” In short, gold was considered something that was highly valued, yet could easily bring chaos and strife.

Of the items associated with gold in Hellenic antiquity, the apple is the most likely to be recognized in the modern, western world. As useful as wool is, most people don’t encounter it in fleece form, and wonders such as dogs crafted of the stuff don’t get nearly as much play on movie screens as the might Talos. It may be that Eris somehow obtained her legendary apple from the tree guarded by the dragon Lados, the same which Herakles harvested to complete one of his labors. Apples represent prosperity and abundance, and are associated with immortality, and they remain objects into which many generations have infused deep meaning. When Eris cast her apple into the midst of the gods with a cry of, “Kallisti!” (“for the fairest,” according to Robert Anton Wilson), that act can easily be taken to represent the unimaginable disruption brought into the world by the introduction of money, as represented by gold, its most successful form to date. Where the free exchange of offerings and blessings were the primary expression of kharis in pre-Helmonetary Hellas, it surely must have been a radical change to trade instead in lumps of metal which had little other purpose than to lubricate the gears of trade itself. Indeed, is not Hermes a trickster and thief, as well as god of commerce and lies? What an incredible shift of paradigm it must have been, to instead of trading wool for fish or skins for boards, one could drop a few shining bits of gold into a waiting palm, and walk out with cartloads of goods in exchange. Trade and, by extension, communication would become more extensive, and wealth could be both measured and taxed with greater ease. While money has taken many forms since it emerged as a medium of exchange, gold has time and again been used as the standard form, so it is not unreasonable to assume that the power of money is ideally expressed when it is minted in gold.

The associations gold had in antiquity point to the value placed in this soft metal, which “neither moth nor rust devoureth.” Seemingly immune to the decaying touch of Kronos, Khyrsos is also far too soft to do the work expected of other metals; gold is not beaten into swords in the forge, nor is it fashioned into helms, chains, or locks. As the power of human ambition has been gradually distilled into economic terms, gold has at least metaphorically become a far more effective weapon, shield, or prison than could ever be fashioned by the soot-blackened hands of a smith, but gold’s value was recognized long before its power became so pervasive as that. Having no need to be polished, the purity of gold could be at least estimated by the eye (and sometimes tooth, or other tool to make a notch), so anyone asked to take such a coin could be reasonably sure how much it was actually worth. That worth transcended the name and authority of whoever minted the coin, because the value of gold itself was — and is — very stable. That stability comes not only from its beauty and incredible durability, but from the fact that pulling more gold out of the ground was, and is, a laborious process which doesn’t add very much to the supply from one year to the next. Every item which is traded, even money itself, is subject to the law of supply and demand, and because the supply of gold rises slowly and decreases virtually not at all, the price of gold remains quite steady. In fact, changes in the price of gold are actually changes in the price of the money being used to buy or sell it, not the other way around. Industrial uses have been found for gold in modern times, but it remains valuable largely because it is pleasant to the eye and is as close as humans can generally get to a material which is neither created nor destroyed. Once it was universally recognized for its testable purity and reasonable amount of rarity, its role in economics was all but guaranteed. It is small wonder that the apple which Eris hurled was golden, given her role in chaos; any change, even when ultimately for the better, is a strife-bearing gift.

Hellenic tradition, however, is not one which takes its myths as literal truth. Given the number of ways that the old tales seem to contradict each other, this is probably for the best. Myths are written by humans, mortal beings trying to comprehend and explain the gods. The gods are not unknowable, but neither is a human being unknowable to an ant which clambers upon one’s foot. That ant could learn well the layout of the hairs which are rooted deeply in the human’s flesh, and the lines of old scars. It could seek to determine patterns in the upheavals which shake the vast body into motion. If others of its kind were swatted away or too their deaths, an ant might be quite concerned in ascertaining what caused such destructive events to occur. Likewise, we humans seek to propitiate the gods and please them, as well as understand them, but even our deepest knowing is unable to glimpse but the tiniest portion of the whole. An ant crawling upon a human leg may face death for causing a tickle, but it could be equally imperiled by the putting on of pants; so too is our behavior only sometimes directly related to how the gods influence our lives. Mortal understanding based on observation, divination, and communication results in myths which give a passing sense of the fullness of the gods. They are limited by the finite, linear perspective of those who write them. Ergo, while the tale of Eris and the apple may indeed contain some amount of truth, it could be off on important details, such as the sequence of events, to wit: what if the Trojan War precipitated the casting of the apple, rather than the other way around? If fixed in history, the war is believed to have taken place in the 12th or 11th century BCE, while Herodotus gives the Lydians credit for first using gold coins in his Histories, a practice which likely started sometime from 650-600 BCE.

The effects of reversing the sequence of events are significant, even if only considering the implications are regard to money itself and its role in the world of mortals. Rather than setting off a chain of economic consequences which led to a war tales of which have echoed down through the halls of time itself, forever changing the way life is lived on the surface of the earth, the cast apple might instead be a consequence of the actions of men — and “men” is the right word, given the gender roles of that time and place. Men plied the seas and overland routes with goods to trade. Men engaged in diplomacy between city-states. Men brought the war between Athens and Troy, and in doing so, offended Eris in some deep way, so much so that she swore to forever change their society. True to the chaos which is implicit in her nature, what Eris wrought was neither entirely curse nor blessing, but could represent itself as either, and sometimes as both. We know from what 5th-century BCE fragments of Pindar we have that Khrysos is child of Zeus, but no other parent is named. Eris could well be the unnamed mother of gold.

A mother does not necessarily visit her child upon others solely for the purpose of torment, and it is true that gold — or, more generally, money — has indeed been a mixed blessing, allowing humankind to engage in types of industry which would not have been possible in the absence of a medium of exchange. The results of that industry have included, among other things, a marked increase in the mortal lifespan, the development of new fuel sources that have accelerated human domination of the planet, and the ability of groups of people to exert economic pressure on other groups of people for good or ill. Money’s birthright of chaos is usually expressed as a result of the very human assumption that since money was invented by mortals, it must also obey rules imposed by mortals. One cannot appreciate the power of chaos fully without watching expert economists backpedal during a crisis which was not predicted by their number. It brings peace, and violence, and life, and death, and obscene wealth, and unimaginable depths of poverty. The spirit of money was given corporeal form in Khrysos, and by extension all money which is, or was once, linked to gold, and the laws it obeys were in force long before our eldest ancestors imagined that there are gods at all. To believe humans can control money with any more likelihood of success than the control of weather is, or should be, considered hubris; looking at the results of economic manipulations, it appears that Eris is no fonder of that level of arrogance than any of the theoi.

Returning to Eris is essential, for if the apple for the fairest was her greatest known act of chaos, it is only because her hand was not recognized when she took that apple back again. As with the first incident, this act can be closely associated with a war that was destined to change the course of history: the Great War, World War I, the War to End All Wars. Again, it is not entirely clear if her act was precipitated by some consequence of the war offending her, or if it was by her action that the war itself in motion. The year is 1913, the apple is the gold upon which human trade and endeavor was built, and the act was to take it away through the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank. This was not the first “central bank” created in order to give a government more direct control over the spirit of money, but the United States was about to embark on a period of war-driven expansion that would secure it as the supreme economic power, so its central bank’s acts would come to have consequences throughout the economies of the world. In fact, Eris did not so much act at this time, as choose not to prevent men (and again, in this time and place, it was indeed men making the decisions; one can only speculate how a more diverse group might have acted) from getting what they wanted. The goddess of chaos permitted the creation of a bureaucracy that would, in time, take away the gold she had introduced milennia before. For while it was not so common for gold to be used to buy and sell directly, every paper bill printed in the USA could, upon presentment to the United States Treasury, be redeemed for an amount of gold, set for many years at thirty-five dollars per ounce. Because of this obligation to have enough gold (which again, is not and never has been particularly easy to extract from Gaea’s grasp) on hand to redeem for every bill printed, the amount of money in circulation was capped. For the period of time that dollars were tied to gold in this fashion, prices as a whole did not particularly rise or fall, although the prices of individual goods and services would change based on supply and demand. That was particularly a disadvantage to anyone wishing to borrow money rather than saving towards a goal (the latter being the essence of the old American value called thrift), because borrowed money must be paid back with interest, and that becomes quite costly under such a stable currency, and is thus thoroughly discouraged.

The gold standard was actually eroded over several decades, as Franklin Delano Roosevelt demanded citizens turn in all gold for dollars (and the ownership of gold by those citizens made illegal for many years), the replacement of gold certificates with those redeemable in silver and then with notes that are stamped “legal tender” (back by the declaration, or fiat, of the government, rather than a durable commodity with an easily agreed-upon value), and the final abdication to pay obligations to foreign banks in gold in 1971 by Richard Nixon. The concept is largely now the purview of a certain subset of right-wing ideologues, and ignored by the experts of the economic community, who are quite comfortable that modern understandings of the working of money allow it to be more thoroughly controlled for the good of all. By freeing money from a standard measure, the government gives itself permission to simply print as much as is needed to pay off current debts. Money is thus subject to supply and demand: the more of a certain type of money that is in circulation, the less value it is given by those using it. Inflation, as an economic term, refers to inflation of the currency supply, not prices, despite the fact that the consumer price index is the only statistic usually cited regarding inflation’s existence. Prices are affected not only by the supply of money (which, all things being equal, would see prices of all things rise at exactly the rate the currency supply was being inflated), but by all other demands, and all other supplies. Because of the power of psychology, prices are even affected by the anticipated future supply and demand. Inflation does not affect those prices evenly, and couldn’t possibly. It does, however, make it easier to borrow, because without something to measure money against, it becomes easy to create bookkeeping gimmicks to create more out of nowhere. For example, the reserves that banks must hold, to make sure that every person seeking to withdraw money can get it, hover around ten percent. In other words, if a bank holds $100,000 in deposits, it must keep $10,000 on reserve, and may lend out the other $90,000. While a rational person might assume that this would result in a bank lending out ninety dollars out of every hundred deposited, in fact that bank may lend out nine hundred dollars for each hundred deposited, because the $100 is the 10% needed to keep on reserve out of a thousand. This kind of borrowing distorts where money is invested, and twists capitalism into a grotesque mockery of itself. Wealth is accumulated based more on being in the right place at the right time, rather than through hard work and industry; that results in the wealth being consolidated a minority that benefit from happenstance or inheritance.

Over years of reeducation, the idea that inflation is natural, or even desirable, has become commonplace. It is not. It is disrespect for the spirit of money, and results in a spiral of economic booms and busts as the supply of cheap money creates bubbles of speculation only incidentally connected to true economic activity. Moreover, the incentives to continue inflating a currency do not abate as time goes on. Granted, the United States has not suffered from hyperinflation since the days of the Continental Congress, but even the more sophisticated ways that money is injected into the economy have enduring impacts. The very concept of the need for infinite growth in capitalism is based in perpetual inflation of the money supply. Stocks are considered necessary for long-term investment because, as a class, they are most likely to beat inflation. Unions constantly argue for cost-of-living increases and minimum-wage hikes because without them, workers would see their accumulated savings eaten by inflation. Saving itself suffers, because in an inflationary system one actually pays back debts with dollars worth less than those borrowed, so with a fixed-rate loan in particular the lender is not actually going to reaping nearly as much profit as it seems, because with inflation at the Federal Reserve’s target rate of 2% a year, the dollar loses half its purchasing power every 35 years, a little longer than the standard term of a home mortgage. Deflation, which would certainly result if the country returned to fixing 35 dollars to each ounce of gold, would result in borrowers paying back more than they withdrew, which is what they actually agreed to, at least on paper. This is how virtually all modern governments actually fund their operations, particularly expensive wars, because to tax the citizens enough to support the actual expenses of a vast military-industrial complex would result in immediate and complete revolution. Instead, the money supply is increased, and that value which is lost to the citizens is transferred to the newly-created money, with which the government pays its debts. Inflation is but a hidden tax, one that impact the poorest most severely, and allows governments to carry on insanely expensive and mostly unpopular programs, such as drone warfare and enhanced interrogation.

This is the legacy of Eris removing her gift of gold: the chaos and suffering created by its introduction pale in comparison to that which has resulted by its elimination. It is possible that capitalism, were it allowed to function under the auspices of an honest money, may be salvageable, and its remaining flaws mitigated so that the markets would only be allowed to run free to the extent that it benefits all living beings. Perhaps this is not the case, but in the atmosphere resulting from Eris’s second gift, it is all but impossible to say. To truly understand if capitalism must fall, it is imperative to first seek out the golden apple, and restore it to its rightful place on the table. Finding it may require supplication to Eris and the wounded Khrysos, who may not wish to be abused any further. Without the restoration of the apple, the gold, to our system, it will not matter if capitalism is at fault for the many woes plaguing our species; for good or ill, it will inevitably fall, and what shall be generated from the resulting chaos is impossible to predict.

Real money magic: thrift

In a fascinating post that examines the impact of free events on the economic viability of the Pagan community, Sable Aradia uses the tongue-in-cheek subheading of, “Pagans are . . . Thrifty” to drive home a point about one of the ways we struggle with financial issues. What she means is that we’re cheap. While I won’t take exception with that — heck, I come from a long line of tight-fisted folks which I could probably trace back to the invention of money itself — I do wish she would take another look at what the word actually means.

I think she would find that thrift is a sincerely Pagan value.

The word stems from þrift, a Norse word meaning “thriving condition, prosperity.” The Institute of American Values defines thrift as “the ethic and practice of wise use.” Intentional spending falls under its purview, but the word includes all manner of disciplined conservation of resources. While the thrifty person intentionally chooses when not to spend eir money, the cheap person chooses not to spend even if it is to eir detriment, or that of those e cares about.

Thrift is a value which encourages more savings and less accumulation of debt. The result is more money at one’s fingertips, where it can be channeled into projects which reflect one’s values. It flows into another value that I daresay is near universal under the umbrella of Paganism: supporting community.

Thrift also inspires recycling, upcycling, reuse, and living outside of the purely consumer culture. Spending more on a higher-quality item because it will replace many inferior ones that would be tossed in the trash over its lifetime. Not buying something at all if the perceived need is based purely in an emotion of the moment. Tree-huggers are thrifty, and so are adepts. The roots of the word are Heathen, and the practice is very much in keeping with the Delphic maxim, “give a pledge and ruin in near,” among many others. Magical and earth-focused Pagans deepen their practice with thrift; I can’t think of any sort of Pagan who couldn’t do the same.

I support the idea of a healthier relationship with money in the Pagan community. Many of use have seen money used to work serious mischief, and some of us want nothing to do with it. While I respect and understand that choice, I walk a different path. I have felt shame when I have needed to ask for a scholarship to a festival or money to solve a serious domestic problem, but no more: that shame stemmed from my lack of generosity when times weren’t so tight, from judging others who needed a hand, from being cheap, not thrifty. I am not controlled by fear of scarcity any longer. I am thrifty, but I am not cheap.

The Boy Scouts listed “thrift” first among its values when the organization first formed. It dovetails quite nicely with leave no trace, a value which the scouting movement shares with many Pagan ones. Isn’t it time we reclaim this value as our own?

A version of this post appeared on in 2014; it has since been removed by the publisher.

Real money magic: respect

Respect is one of those values which often feels lacking in our society. There is too little respect for human life, and there’s also not enough for the non-human lives lost due to human needs. Respect for the environment — whether untouched wilderness, urban streetscape, or anything in between — also frequently falls short of the mark. Self-respect, for many of us, is completely out of the question. Some people have no respect for education, or the experience of others; some withdraw it wholesale from entire swaths of people: the young, the old, women, those with too much melanin, those with disabilities, those who can’t speak the local language without a strong accent. It’s no wonder that respect for unseen spirits and beings without a voice is hard to muster among many populations, given the number of people who struggle with giving it to other human beings.

I cannot solve the problem of respect overall. Each of us must begin by cultivating it within ourselves, for ourselves. The tide will turn if and only if we choose to turn it.

What I would like to have, on the other hand, is a conversation about respect for money. How we value money and how we value ourselves are related, but that relationship can vary. For most people on the planet, it’s extremely difficult to have no relationship with money at all, but how emotionally invested an individual is in currency depends on eir experience and values. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that money, once it touches a life, rarely leaves it unchanged.

Many people loathe money, or fear it, or crave it, or would do terrible things to obtain it. Sounds a whole lot like alcohol or heroin to me, and the problem is the same: a lack of respect for the relevant spirit, often due to a lack of understanding. Indeed, addiction can be one of the ways an unhealthy relationship with money manifests, just as it’s how it can manifest with the spirits of those powerful drugs. On the other hand, complete avoidance without reason might result in benefits being missed out on, just as a teetotaler won’t gain the benefits to heart health of drinking the occasional glass of red wine.

The comparison is by no means perfect: a gambling or shopping addict likely cannot practice the complete avoidance that an alcoholic should for booze; in that sense it’s more like a compulsive eater’s inability to swear off food entirely. I do not know if it’s possible to have a healthy relationship with opiates any more than it is to have a healthy one with poison ivy. Some spirits are just so strong that they lay waste to humans. There is certainly an argument to be made that money is one of those spirits, but I’m still in the camp that we can find a healthy way to relate to money.

Lack of respect for money in part comes from the assumption that it’s actually a human invention. That’s true in one sense, just as it’s true that the barometer is a human invention, but I don’t think anyone has made the logical leap of concluding that just because we can measure air pressure means we invented weather. Money is a construct, but as such it manifests spirits which existed before humans were ever aware of them. Belief that we invented money is part and parcel with the lack of respect with which we provide it.

To the extent that it is a human invention, what does our use of it say about us? Are you giving money to people to get them to debase themselves, whether it’s shoving it into a g-string or demanding superior table service for your meal? Do you ever give money to a beggar on the street? Whether or not you chose to, how did you feel in that moment? Have you ever stolen money? Have you ever had money stolen from you, by force, stealth, or trickery? How does being a victim feel? If you’ve been a thief, what’s it like to help create those feelings in other people? Do you save for retirement, or instead just hope for the best? Do you know how much much you’ve got in the bank? Do you know how much you make in a month, or how much you must spend on expenses?

Whether drowning in money or stripped of it completely, we all have a relationship with the stuff in this society, and how we relate to money is in part a reflection of how we relate to ourselves. Taking steps to mend that relationship may, in time, make changing the answers to those introspective questions easier.

How to show respect for money:

  • keep paper currency neat and orderly. Smooth out the wrinkles. If a bill is torn, tape it. Bank face the money to make it easy to find the right denomination (unless you have a sight impairment that requires a different strategy).
  • don’t walk by coins on the ground. Show them respect by picking them up; even the lowly penny has value. I consider all found money to be a blessing and reserve it for special purchases. There’s no shortage of pithy sayings about those coins; “money on the floor, money at my door” is one that I was taught by an extremely non-spiritual person. In some traditions, it’s believed that discarded money could be carrying with it a malevolent spirit. In my experience, the spirit of money itself washes away that history.
  • one small change might be to respect one’s small change. That includes found money, but also those coins which end up kicking around the floor or piled in the console of the car or otherwise treated like so much garbage. Stop doing that. Value what you’ve got.
  • look at your money, whether it’s in physical form or electronic. Be aware of what you own and owe. You might be in dire financial health, but looking away accomplishes nothing good, heaping on stress about the unknown. We can neither accept nor reshape a situation which we ignore. Look also at how you spend it, and what values are represented in those decisions. Not judgment; awareness.
  • keep a shrine to money. This is a good idea whether you desire more abundance, wish to give some away, or believe you have just enough for your wants and needs. A money shrine allows space to express gratitude for the money that is in one’s life, no matter if it’s enough, too much, or insufficient. I’ve used mine to save money, for everything from addressing household needs to building up a sum to give to a complete stranger. Put your money in a place of honor in your home, and money might honor you in turn.
  • don’t assume money is a whore. Yes, money can be used to make more money, but don’t treat its spirit like something to be used and tossed away after the money shot. All those spells that use money to draw more money make about as much sense as using sex magic to improve one’s chances of getting laid. Money is not your bitch. Recall that the Hellenic god of prosperity, Ploutos, is blind; when you’re not being watched, how do you treat money? How does that reflect on you?

The question remains: why respect money? The answer turns it about: why respect anything? Respect is one of those acts which reflects upon the actor; giving respect garners respect, although not necessarily in the way one might presume. Treating others with respect — including non-human persons — gets one in the habit of self-respect.

Showing respect for money is not a get-rich-quick scheme, any more than showing respect for one’s sexual partner is a surefire way to get laid. I don’t show respect for money spirits because I expect them to put out, and while I am not living in a mansion and wearing a monocle, and find myself regularly thanking them for allowing me to have enough in my life to stave off poverty. What more does anyone really need?

Real money magic: taking stock

The successful money worker is one who is able to look unflinchingly at the money on hand,  or lack thereof, to prepare for the future.  The last day of the standard calendar year is an especially good time to evaluate the situation, as it coincides with other financial milestones for many, such as the end of the tax year.  At first glance, I’m ending the year with almost nothing available to spend.

I consider this a victory, because it means my money magic is working.  Much of it is designed to siphon money out of my day-to-day life, ensuring that it will be there when I need it. Looking more deeply, I discover:

  • My weekly dollars got in an extra week this year, because Dec. 31 is a Sunday, the day I work that spell, which on paper yields $1,431.  That means a fireplace insert, something I’ve been working toward for about six years, will soon be part of our home.
  • That phantom extra week is echoed oddly in my daily cents spell; according to my seemingly careful records of what to save each day, 2017 was 275 days long.  Not sure what actually went sideways there, but it means I’ll have that much more to spend on natural cemetery plots for my spouse and I.
  • I’ve been practicing fiver diversion since March or April, and only in the past few days did I learn that people are using this as a year-long “$5 bill challenge.”  First of all, lame name.  Secondly, I’ll count up now since this money is also going toward the graves; the $400 I now have could have been a bunch more.

Working with physical, tangible money is often a good way to start.  I also have electronic money stuffed in savings accounts, such as everything from years past I’ve saved for the fireplace insert.  I close out 2017 with a good start on an emergency fund, and can focus more in coming years on bolstering a retirement picture which is still pretty scary.

Real money magic: legal tender

“This note is legal tender, for all debts public and private.” That is the message written on all federal reserve notes, the paper currency produced in the United States. “Legal tender” is a phrase used in law to indicate that something without intrinsic value (paper currency) must be accepted as if it does have value; in the U.S., the rationale for imposing that requirement is that the bills are backed by the “full faith and credit” of the federal government.

In the 20th century, currencies around the world were shifted to this debt-backed system (which might also be called fiat currency, non-convertible notes, and greenbacks) from precious-metal standards, which were seen as actually holding back economic growth rather than regulating it. It’s the largest, and arguably most successful, foray into debt-backed money ever attempted. What it depends upon in part to succeed is the confidence of users that the money they accept they will thereafter be able to spend on a comparable amount of goods or services. Calling it “legal tender” is, in a sense, an official vote of confidence. There was a time when such votes of confidence were phrased as a promise to pay the bearer in gold or silver, but now all that’s needed to keep the system moving is that phrase, printed on federal reserve notes.

Thus far, that promise has inspired enough confidence in some Western nations to keep the money usable. Well, the promise and the implied force of law behind it. What happens if that legal requirement is not universal?

It actually isn’t even remotely universal. Most consumer transactions, as it happens, are not debts and therefore don’t count. Judges have further whittled away at the idea by determining that merchants don’t have to accept all currency; a bus driver is thus allowed to demand exact change, and convenience-store clerks are within their rights when they turn away large bills. Perhaps most egregious are local justices who have determined that they do not need to accept U.S. currency for fines, despite these being the very essence of the word “debt.” In those courtrooms, expect to be asked to pay by certified check, money order, or bank card, each of which has its own associated fees.

As this notion of cash having some value is gradually eroded, at what point does the notion of government-backed money simply dissolve with it? If the point of legal tender laws is the force citizens to accept government debt as money, what does that even mean in a world where no one has to accept the stuff despite those laws? What it means is that the notion of what’s valid and valued might be changing: electronic money is still backed only by government debt, and it’s accepted everywhere from people who happen to have bank accounts with which to credit it.

On its face, just having electronic money isn’t bad, but electronic money comes as a cost. As I detailed in my review of Curse of Cash, divorcing money from the physical makes it easier to manipulate, making it possible to get projects such as wars paid for without public outcry. It’s also more challenging for people who struggle with money management.

Nevertheless, the law as I understand it applies to physical, paper currency, at least in the United States. Without it there would be nothing but market forces determining if our cash is accepted, or in fact our electronic credits, either. Legal tender laws are on the books to prevent the chaos of having to figure out if the boss’ money could be used to buy groceries, or the necessity of keep currency-exchange apps handy when traveling across state — perhaps county — lines.

The way American laws are written offers a convenient loophole: it’s only debts for which currency is legal tender. That excludes retail transactions, exchanges of money for a good or service right now. That’s why a bus driver can refuse anything that isn’t exact change, or a convenience-store manager can decline to accept hundred dollar bills. That’s life under a jurisdocracy (government of attorneys, by attorneys, and for attorneys) in action right there. Never a law was written by a lawyer that isn’t riddled with loopholes.

Debt, however, does include fines levied for breaking laws; it’s part of one’s “debt to society.” Give a call to the local court to see if cash is accepted; it isn’t in my town, and in about half of the towns nearby. I’m told that’s because the justices are liable for money stolen, and rather than learn how to stop hiring criminals (or creating a culture in which stealing is okay), they ban the use of money. One justice told me he believes this is illegal, but until my local court is hit with a lawsuit, that’s never going to change. To that end, I am raising money to sue for the right to pay court fines in cash, as the law requires. The situation as it stands now is unacceptable because it hits the people most likely to accrue such fines with additional costs.

Inconsistent enforcement could be a symptom that legal tender laws are unnecessary, but if that’s the case, they can be rolled back. For now, we’ve got laws, and when they are not enforced consistently it ends up being really unfair to the unbanked, the cash-rich, the undocumented, the homeless, the money-workers, the debt eliminators, and probably many others.

Real money magic: priming the pump

What’s to be done when a well runs dry? Here’s a tip: try priming the pump before calling a well driller. The same can be said for when we run dry, creatively or spiritually or even financially: with the right skills and components, even on our worst days we are not lost causes; our pumps too can be primed.

Applying that to money can seem like a catch-22: if it takes money to make money, where in Tartarus should I look if I don’t have two cents to rub together? The fact that this is not an easy question to answer is a deep and enduring problem in our society. Those resources which do exist to help the penniless can be hard to identify, and even when they are known there can be barriers from geographic to bureaucratic in the way. While it’s been decades since I needed to rely on public assistance to pay for rent, food, and medical care, I haven’t forgotten how efforts to prevent welfare fraud made it harder to earn enough to escape that trap. I had to use the most dangerous pump-priming technique available to me: taking out student loans, hoping I’d eventually make enough money to pay them off.

For the most part, I don’t borrow money that I don’t know I can repay. I am risk-averse, which means that my pumps don’t get primed as quickly as some. Priming a pump with borrowed water when there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to repay right away is something I’ve done more than once with dissatisfying results. I understand that there are others for which the combination of timing, circumstance, and personal motivation make this a risk well worth it; recent history is peppered with examples of stupendous success based on other people’s money. Infomercials, too, are filled with those tales, and it’s largely due to that sort of soulless shilling of dream-chasing that I have sometimes nearly come to ruin. Lending that targets the desperate is often particularly predatory. Feel free to borrow if you wish, but it’s rarely something I counsel. If you come to me with a tale of woe, I will listen sympathetically, but when asked for advice to avoid doing to oneself again I will definitely recommend not borrowing more money as a first step.

Borrowing aside, what remains is finding ways to increase income, and, for the advanced practitioner, controlling expenses.

The former, identifying new or greater sources of income, might involve seeking a raise or a new job, find an additional job, joining the gig economy, selling things that are lying about the house, or turning hobbies into revenue streams. It is not the purpose of this passage to give specific tips on doing these things, the specifics of which can vary. (Moreover, my life experience only includes a couple of years surviving solely on thanks to government assistance, and that was before Clinton gutted most of those programs.) What’s important to recognize is that there is almost some level of control over how much money comes in, although making more money usually requires a sacrifice of time spent doing other things. If it means watching less television, that might not be too bad, but if the sacrifice is time with one’s children, the calculus gets trickier.

Find what you’re willing to give up — even temporarily — and you’ll have a sense of how much time you can focus on earning more money. That equation can change from day to day, even hour to hour; sometimes it’s going to be a tough choice between spending time with the kids and ensuring they have food to eat, but mostly not. The key is that we make these decisions all the time, and the challenge is doing it consciously.

In short, working with money is, and always will be, something that carries with it risk. That’s especially true when undertaking new ventures, for which the downside is unclear. Priming the pump represents that initial risk: is the water I have in this container before me going to yield more if I pour it down that hole than if I pour it down my throat?

The answer to that question can only be determined with some discernment, but that’s a big enough topic it deserves a post of its own.