Friday, September 20, 2013

The Day I Almost Sold My Kids


[This is something I wrote ten years ago and never published.]

I'm sitting at my computer in the office upstairs trying to compose some listings for eBay. My 13-year-old son Thomas is downstairs looking after my three-year-old son William, while my seven-month-old son Daniel sleeps in the bedroom adjacent to my office. All is right with the world.

Until William starts crying. "What are you crying about?" I call down to him.

"Tommy say no raisin totes," comes the reply. Being a father, I understand this.

"Thomas," I call down, "I said he could have raisin toast." This would settle the matter, except that William is already headed up the stairs to explain to me again that his brother wouldn't let him have any raisin toast. His vociferous objections wake the baby, for the fifth time this morning, and Daniel begins screaming.

I send William  downstairs, with loud instructions to Thomas to give him raisin toast, and I go in to calm the baby. When I finally get back to my computer after this all-too-familiar interruption, a strange notion occurs to me: I wonder if anybody on eBay would like to bid for my kids.

It's not such a wild thought, is it? After all, in a recent listing, a gentleman put his soul up for auction. Of course, it didn't sell, but what would you do with it? On the other hand, one young lady auctioned her services as a mourner at the winning bidder's funeral. She got $1,500. What could I get for three healthy boys?

So I start to compose a listing: "You are bidding on a 13-year-old male in excellent health. Doesn't run. Doesn't even walk very fast. Will work if nagged incessantly. Talents include taunting three-year-old boys (see my other auctions). Has braces, which are not paid for. Eats without end." Hmm. Okay, one point for truth in advertising, but minus ten for effectiveness.

I try again: "You are bidding on a healthy 13-year-old male. Superb artistic ability. Intelligent and sensitive. Terrific big brother (see my other auctions)." Ah, much better. Heck, even I might bid on a teenager like that.

Now to the three-year-old. "You are bidding on a healthy three-year-old boy with beautiful dark brown eyes and a sparkling personality. Loves to cuddle. Still learning to talk. Potty trained. Unbelievably cute." I think I'm getting the hang of this.

One more to go: "You are bidding on a healthy seven-month-old baby boy. Piercing blue eyes. Charming crooked smile. No excessive crying. Eating solids. Not yet crawling." Not bad at all.

Now to the matter of price. How much is each of my boys worth? A million? A billion? Priceless? I delete the listings and disconnect from the Internet. [This was ten years ago; I had dial-up.] I go into the boys' room and kiss Daniel as he sleeps. I head downstairs to give William his lunch before nap time. And I hug Thomas and tell him that, yes, he can play his Game Cube after he does his reading.

Once William is down for his nap, I return to my computer where, before I resume work, I add one item to my list of daily reminders, right under "Take Your Vioxx."

It reads: "Don't Sell the Kids."

That's Where Our Money Goes

Now, looking at my last post from more than a month ago, where I said that money is flowing in the wrong direction, I can hear some readers saying, "Oh yeah, this guy is just a liberal who wants to stick it to the rich and blame them for all our problems." And they would be totally off base.

I have no problem with some people getting rich and some people not getting rich. How rich people get rich is, of course, part of the equation, but that's a political and philosophical discussion. I'm trying to get at the heart of this whole money thing.

So, what do I mean when I say that money is flowing in the wrong direction? I mean that it is flowing from people who actually provide goods and services, which is what an economy really is, to people who do little more than manipulate and trade money for its own sake.

That has three major consequences. First, it pulls money out of the productive sector and lets it accumulate in the unproductive sector, where it serves only a very few people. Second, the money manipulators, at least in countries like the US with private central banks, are allowed to create money without any real restraint.

Which, of course, lessens the value of the money. Now, I suspect that just adding money to the system would not, in itself, create a long-term problem, because the income and the prices will all work out in the long run. But when the creators of the money become the hoarders of the money, the vast majority of citizens lose ground to inflation.

The third problem with money flowing to the money manipulators is that it ingrains in us the notion that money has value for its own sake. We see money as a commodity rather than a medium. By letting one small elite group both create and keep the vast majority of the money in circulation, we make it harder for everyone to trade in real goods and services, and because we view money as the thing that has value, we have trouble finding our way out of the situation.

But the pieces of paper, the electronic entries, and even the gold and silver, are not what have value. They are just things that store value. They keep it safe for us—we hope—until we are ready to cash in that value for something else of value, some other good or service that we need or want.

Let's say that a new TV costs as much as you get paid for forty hours of your labor. The store that sells the TV has no need of your labor. But your employer does. The employer gives you a receipt, as it were, for your labor, and you can then trade that receipt for the TV. You still traded forty hours of labor for the TV, but you did it through an intermediary. That's what we call money.

But how does it all sort itself out? The store that's left with a receipt for your labor uses it to pay for the labor they need, plus the building they sell out of, utilities, the goods they sell, and enough profit (which is still just a receipt) so that the people who own the company can buy the goods and labor the want and need for themselves.

But this only works if everyone involved agrees that those receipts, in whatever form, are freely tradable stores of value. Otherwise they are nothing more than pieces of paper or information in a computer.

But how do we all figure out what those receipts are worth? Who decides how much of one's labor must be traded for a loaf of bread, or a TV? The answer is, "everybody." At least, that's supposed to be the answer. But it seems like a lot of this valuation happens outside of the market these days.

Which subject I will try to explore next time. I say "try" because up until now everything I've said it pretty straightforward, even obvious. But now it starts to get very, very murky.