Monday, February 07, 2011

Coffeeshop Economics

It's early on a Tuesday morning in the middle of January. I'm seated at a long wooden table in a coffee shop in Albuquerque's university district. There's metered parking out front on the curb, adjacent to the patio tables and chairs. But I've parked in the back parking lot, accessed from the alley, where parking is free. In the winter, the electric doorlocks on my old car are intermittently unreliable such that one could easily get trapped inside, having to crawl out a window or over the back seat. So I leave the car unlocked, with valuables locked in the trunk. I've done this for months, and there's still no sign of vandalism or theft. Perhaps the security that locks provide is merely psychological in nature, that a professional car thief could easily get inside and do his dastardly will, regardless of my efforts to the contrary. I think it's a matter of return on investment, an economic calculation made by both the car's owner and the potential car thief; for the thief the calculus being centered on risk versus reward, while for the car's owner the calculation revolves around the cost versus inconvenience of a security system that's only partially effective. In this way, I believe we are all economists.

Late last night I listened to a "This American Life" radio program, recorded in 2008 at the depths of the economic collapse, about the nature of money. Their conclusion was striking, that money doesn't really exist except as a mutual agreement by which goods and services can be exchanged. But money itself, no one knows how much there really is. For instance, say I have $100 and put it in the bank. Now, while the bank is using my $100 to lend out to others or invest (and they would claim that they in fact have my $100), I can simultaneously claim that I still own the $100. So that the money itself is now counted as being in the simultaneous possession of various parties, its value multiplied through a series of exchanges. How many times does my $100 count as taxable income for someone else? And what does it mean when I say that it's "my" $100?

The program talked about debt, how the US Government owes trillions in debt, but that debt does not count the debt owed by the Federal Reserve bank itself, which prints money pretty much as it wishes, with very little accoutability on the part of the government.

There was this story of a polynesian people who had as currency huge, donut-shaped carved stones, too massive to be carried or even moved by anyone. The stones would sit mostly in the center of the village, and their respective owners would refer to them as their property, as possessing wealth. Then, when someone owed a debt that had to be paid, they would use their stone for payment. But the stone, it would remain where it was, unmoved, along the edge of the road in the center of the village. Only the ownership of the stone would change. The stones were imputed with a sense of value as we value the currency of dollar bills. There were some of these stones that got washed off the island by a typhoon, years ago. Native divers could dive down, offshore, and visit the stones, ensuring that they are still sitting there on the bottom of the ocean. But the value of the stones remains as currency to the tribe, being bought and sold and held for a rainy day. It's like buying shares of stock in a company, you don't really own a steel girder or office desk or square of carpeting from the company you've invested in; rather, you own only in the abstract some small, infinitesimal percentage of the company's current worth, while the company itself remains as those round stones, physical and immovable, existing in the real world apart from the abstraction of valuation and worth that we apply as totems to physical objects.

These swirling currents of thought fade to the earthy reality of life in a dingy university-area coffee shop on a sleepy Tuesday morning.

I'm eating my breakfast while across the aisle there's an older man, short and balding, seated at a small table. He's holding a small transistor radio up to his ear. He mumbles to himself and has open on the table a journal book into which he jots down words, after sitting and staring into space, mumbling and cursing under his breath.

I make a phone call, then find out I need a pen with which to write down directions (one of the after-effects of going solely with the Neo is I'm not used to note-taking with it). I walk up to the counter, cutting in front of a customer waiting for coffee, and proceed to write down directions on a sheet of paper using the counterperson's pen, unapologetic-like, purposefully ignorant of others' concerns.

I return to my table, finding my digital camera and Neo keyboard are still sitting there. The small man, he's still mumbling to himself.

There's that odor again, filling the room, an odor of uncleanness that wafts on the still air of the coffee shop. It comes from an older lady, dressed in rags, legs bundled in cloth, a soiled, off-white blanket wrapped around her, from head to foot, like a pancho. She has enough money to order a cup of coffee and breakfast, which she does almost every day. Her name, I've been told, is Cherokee; at least, that's what people call her. She's a street person of sorts, although I'm not really certain about that; she may have a room or apartment somewhere in town. I know she gets around mainly on foot. Last week I saw her walking east along a main street, miles from the coffee shop. She was still wrapped in her dingy blanket, her legs wrapped, slowly trudging up the sidewalk.

I can see Cherokee right now through the glass window of the coffee shop. She's sitting at a patio table on the sidewalk in the morning sun, drinking coffee and eating some plate of hot breakfast. Steam rises from her hot cup, as she sits staring into space. What does she think about, where is she going? I wonder about these things, about the lives of people that are so different from my own.

I notice little things here, like most every person seated alone at a table is also accompanied by a laptop computer, as though in the company of a mechanical friend through which they won't feel so lonely, which they appear to be using mainly for surfing the Internet. The exceptions are a group of four guys, seated at the counter adjacent to the coffee roaster, chatting and eating breakfast. That, and a young couple who've just sat down, perusing the local college newspaper.

The little writer man has returned from the restroom, seated once more, and is now staring down the hallway and out the back door, pen in hand, waiting for some inspiration to hit so he can record words on paper. The journal book, its pages are brown recycled paper. He writes with a black gel pen, while a red one sits on the table next to him, along with his glass case and old man's plaid fedora hat.

He's gotten up from his table now and walked over to the counter, chatting with one of the four men. They're obviously regulars. He holds his transistor radio in his hand while he chats.

There are paintings on the wall, acrylics, colorfull and amateurish-looking. I don't really know what amateurish really means, in the sense of distinguishing a style or quality from that which may be understood to be of professional quality. I just don't know; perhaps these amateurish acrylic paintings are able to be sold for money, which would make their creator a professional, would it not? Unless one has to make a majority of one's income from painting before the label of professional would apply? Like some carefully calculated percentage of one's income: 49% and you're an amateur, while 51% makes you a pro. I'm thinking the term professional implies a field of endeavor where some philosophy or world-view is required to be held in order to succeed. Like one has to profess a belief in order to be a professional. I can understand a professional scientist would profess the belief in dielectical materialism and humanism. But what about a plumber, what would he profess? Maybe being a plumber is merely a trade rather than a profession. Trading a service or skill in exchange for money.

I wonder what Cherokee's profession is, what she does, day-to-day, to stay alive. Perhaps a pension or stipend keeps her in the barest of essentials. I don't know. But it seems that she exhibits an underlying belief in an ability to survive, day to day, as if her humble existence, slowly ambling through other's lives while exuding the aroma of the unwashed, were her mission statement, that life itself doesn't require explanation or justification, life just is.

The large room of the coffee shop begins to fill up with new customers, the noise level slowly elevating. Whereas it started out as a quiet and sleepy early morning, it will soon be a humming crescendo in here. Time to go.

(Posted via AlphaSmart Neo)


Blogger Adwoa said...

I listened to that episode of This American Life also! Made me want to get all "my money" out of the bank (I hope they can produce it, haha), convert it into gold bars, and stash it in my mattress. Absolutely an eye-opener.

9:52 AM  
Blogger deek said...

I am still fascinated by the history of our (i.e. American) money. How it was all once backed by silver and gold and now its backed by nothing by a social promise. And the tangent of how some goods and services have a daily fluctuation of cost, while others, sometimes more critical to everyday needs, don't.

You're right, Joe, we are all economists, in one form or another.

I have found myself doing this thought-filled meandering around a room (minus the writing it down) at work in the cafeteria and when out and about with my wife and kids. I find that I often pull my smartphone out, when I am alone, to give the guise of having someone to talk to, but not really doing much other than check my already read e-mails or messages.

Very interesting read, as always!

7:59 AM  
Blogger Strikethru said...

Loved the story about the Polynesian currency. So interesting. Best not to think too deeply about our US financial system...

I used to live in Santa Cruz and we had a few characters like Cherokee. I too always wondered how they made it from day to day, but somehow they did.

11:48 AM  

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