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Medium of Exchange

Layers of language and millions of dollars, all confounded, all tied together.

In a few hours I'm meeting a man to talk about a job. The interview will take place in a massive building in midtown Manhattan. I'll wear a blazer, but no tie, and go through security, and my bag will be explored by a bored, tired-looking security guard. I do this at least once a week, lately. Business is picking up. If I get the job, I'll spend a few weeks helping a team of people design a software application. This application will in turn help men and women manage mutual funds worth one or two billion dollars.

Mostly, I'll ask questions, and encourage people to clarify things. I'll make them tell me the story of their software, help them think about its personality. Then we'll map out the personality of the fund manager using the software, and ask, will these two get along?

This work takes place in an office in midtown Manhattan, but also in another country, where money is no longer the stuff used to buy a sandwich or pay your health insurance. Instead, it's a fluid, strange, almost magical element, with a language all its own. I enjoy listening to strangers discuss it, and as I listen, I imagine the path of a dollar in my wallet. It transorms from a smudged rectangle of green ink on woven paper into a small bit of light, a packet in a network.

In this form, it travels from bank to hand, spreading out through loans and the larger money supply, dented by interest rates, endless threads of light moving up and down elevators, joining a huge network of bodies, computers, and offices, burning hot inside bank vaults and cash registers. Money glows dim as a candle in the paper cup of a panhandler and hops continents at light speed.

My dollar lives a life far more complex than I can describe. E.V. Wolfenstein, a psychologist, said that “in the shape of the ideal breast we find the ultimate emotional foundation of the mystery of money.” Some Freudians believe money is a substitute for feces, “odorless dehydrated filth that has been made to shine.” According to Herodotus, money began with prostitution; it was easier, and less obvious, to bring coins instead of barley bushels to the bordello. A group of executive bankers said, “it's whatever Alan Greenspan says it is.”

There are different kinds: commodity money, now obsolete, backed up by materials like gold or silver; and fiat, or representative money, where everyone just agrees to honor it. The world economy is by fiat, which means that all the stock market, all of the mergers, failed Internet startups, and hugely-publicized buyouts, all the voodoo magic of accounting is simply people in conversation, communicating in a stream of checks and balance sheets, trusting and distrusting one another.

Eventually it gets down to cans of soup and warm winter blankets on one side, and numbers in a spreadsheet on the other side. I can conceive of this, but it doesn't fully translate. I am always a foreigner in the land of funds and interest analysis. I've tried to do as the bankers do, but I always come back to soup cans—commodity money. When I hear “a hundred million dollars,” I think of a hundred million loaves of bread, or fifty million gallons of gas (with enough left over for a few hundred cars).

The dictionary defines money as: the medium of exchange. And Marshall McLuhan, who left no medium untouched, wrote that money is a “translator and an amplifier.”

In the middle class, I buy things. The rich do things with their money. I've watched rich men and women turn a million dollars into respect, a partnership, a new business. They convert their funds into opportunities and relationships, translating their ideas into power, amplifying themselves into businesses, employees, extraordinary automobiles, summer cottages, setting up tax shelters, holding board meetings in the Dutch Antilles.

During the boom, I met a Venture Capital entrepreneur for coffee. He was a son of one of the wealthiest men in South Africa.

“I have an opportunity for you,” he said.

I said, “I am thinking, to hell with the Internet, I am going to go to graduate school.”

“You would be leaving behind the best market in all of human history. You could be a millionare. A millionare is nothing anymore. You were poor, you can become rich, with your Web site.”

I looked across the table. “With Ftrain?”

“Paul, we take your site, we get rid of all that content, we just put up a 'coming soon' sign. Then we write up a ten-page business plan, with all the e-commerce words in it.”

“Sticky, portal, eyeballs, B2B,” I said.

“And we give that to some guys, and they turn it into a one-page plan. Then we set up your account in the Cayman Islands. The business plan goes up to Vancouver, where people start working the phones.”

“The phones?”

“Selling shares to moms and dads in Nebraska and Michigan and Jesus knows.”

“What does our company do?”

He smiled, looked at his plate. “Who cares? The company fails. You go on vacation for a year, you get 10% of the funds, with two credit cards to draw on from the bank in the Caymans. Vancouver guys get 60%. I get a bit.”

“The money never touches the U.S.”

“That's right.”

“Not moral,” I said.

“Totally legal,” he answered.

“I want the Glen Garry leads,” I said, channeling the desperate, lying salesmen in Glen Garry Glen Ross. “You have to give me the Glen Garry leads.”

He looked at me, confused. “Do not quit now,” he said. “This is the hottest economy in history, and you're in a perfect place. Even if you play it straight, you could be a millionaire.”

The boom ended. I am not a millionaire, which doesn't bother me. But it nags me that I can't speak that other language, that the medium of pure lucre escapes my understanding.

Money is simply not a medium in which I can work. I am not a native speaker; my accent betrays my igorance. I put on my suit jacket and go to an office in midtown and, if I am hired, I will tell the story of a software application, a story in words and documents that will, in turn, be used as a kind of lexicon for those who speak the language of millions of dollars. But the whole time I'm like the translator in the Chinese room, receiving the signals and sending them out again, with only a bare understanding of what I'm saying.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.

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