What is it Good For?
“It is a war, you know. The worst kind,” said the old man.
The youth stared at him and shook his head. “There you go again. What is it this time?” He paused in thought for a moment. “I seen pictures of World War II, man. But now you gonna tell me somethin’ out there is worse than a whole mess ‘o dudes in a church with no arms and legs.”
“Son, my father was there. He told me what I’m telling you. There is something worse than that. We’re just not tooled to see it, so we don’t.”
The teen shot him a baleful sneer. “Yo, man! I ain’t yo son!” he barked.
The man held up his hand in surrender and smiled. “Kid… Warren, figures of speech won’t hurt you if you don’t let them. I’ll let you go home early if you just listen for a few minutes while I can remember all of this.”
Warren looked down guiltily, remembering he was supposed to be helping the old man with daily tasks, especially when he wasn’t so lucid. Most days, the teen just watched him stare blankly at a wall. He sighed and hoped the old man wouldn’t ramble for an hour like the last time he could speak. “OK Roger, you got it. What don’t we see?”
“Money. Banks. Economics. We’ve got the worst army for fighting it, and the smallest.”
Warren laughed out loud, then. “Money!? Who we fightin’?”
“Everyone!” Roger grumbled. “What if I told you, that if you were in Japan right now, you could buy 15% less with our dollar than last year. And 15% less than the year before that?”
Roger nodded stiffly. “Everyone wants to win this war kid, and they’ll do almost anything. But here, we don’t really pay enough attention, and when we do, it’s usually to late. Heck, it’s probably our fault we lost.”
That was certainly news to Warren. “What, the housing crash that’s always on the news? Man, that’s over!”
Now it was Roger’s turn to chuckle. “Over. No… when every house in the country increases in price by three times inflation every year for over five years, and every bank has a hand in it, there’s no ‘over.’ Where do you think all that money went? People bought things with it. Invested in companies, started businesses, saved for retirement, maybe went on vacation.”
Warren rolled his eyes. “So? What else you do with money?”
“That’s what I mean: we don’t see it. What would you do if I borrowed $100 from you, bought a golf club worth fifty bucks, and spent the rest on my morning coffee. Now, say I need to pay you back, and all I got left is the golf club, which was supposed to be worth maybe a hundred twenty now, but nobody will buy it for more than forty. So, hey… I give you the golf club. No hard feelings, right?” Roger shrugged and winked at the boy.
“No way, man! You owe me at least another sixty!”
He held up his hands and shrugged again. “I can’t give you anything else. It’s all you can get. Now imagine that everybody was doing that with stuff that cost a thousand times more than an expensive golf club. They knew it was risky though, so they sold the debt to another guy, who sold it to another guy, and so on. After a while, nobody knows what the debt was for, just that it’s now worth less than half what they paid. And see, that golf club was never going to be worth $100, they just took my word for it, and now everyone has spent the profits, and even the interest they thought they’d make as I paid off the loan. So now we’re all broke.”
Warren stared, his mouth hanging open. “No way!” he finally roared. “No way, man! Why would we do that in a war?! We’d just lose faster!”
“Aha! Now you see it, and just as I said, it’s too late. And it’s a fact of war that we were outmaneuvered. See kid, every other country is slowly getting richer. As that happens, we lose influence and our money is worth slightly less. For a while, we tried to cheat by taking money we’d have in the future, and increasing our investments all over the world. Who could deny our power, then? It was obvious we were still the richest country, and best investment when people were buying our money. Right?”
“Yeah, man! That might work…” Then the boy thought for a moment more. “Wait… they’d find out, and want their money back.”
“Just so. But you know we don’t have any, because it never existed in the first place. Now the rest of the world decides we’re too risky. They stop buying dollars because those lose value, stop investing in our companies because they’re going out of business, stop buying our debts because we can’t pay them, stop buying our products because they may not be worth what we claim. So, what’s left?” Roger looked around the tiny apartment, as if searching for that elusive item.
“Nothin’, man! We broke!”
“You see, you’re a smart boy. Countries work with so much money from so many places, they can’t just ignore us–we’re too big and we own too much. But they can slowly pull away. Maybe buy less from us, sell debts, invest in more stable currencies. Eventually our influence is less dangerous, and letting us fail won’t hurt them as well.” Roger let the new silence stand for a moment while Warren stared at the table. “Now remember my father told me all this back in the sixties. Maybe not this exact scenario, but how battlefields of soldiers and guns would soon be replaced by banks and numbers. What man can fight a war if he can’t buy bullets?”
“Oh,” was all Warren could say.
“Don’t worry, kid. We’ve lost a leg and are bleeding pretty badly, but we won’t die. We left a land mine for someone else and stepped on it ourselves.” Roger glanced out the window, thinking of his father and the lesson. “It happens to the best of us,” he added cryptically.
Warren stood up and paced restlessly around the table. “So, what now, Rog?”
“Just remember, Warren. In the next twenty years or so, your future will change drastically. Remember that you can either have people pay you interest, or you can pay on debt. Remember that it’s all a risk, and if you reach too far, you might make things worse.” Roger put on a childlike grin, then. “But most importantly, remember that money is war, and not just something to buy a ticket to the movies, or to pay for college. If you realize its true power–enough to bring down the mightiest of nations–you may turn out alright.”
Warren smiled at Roger, understanding finally that community service wasn’t always bad, no matter what his brother said. As he watched the spark leave the old man’s eyes, he wondered about his past, and just how his father figured everything out. But he know he wouldn’t find out, at least not tonight. Roger was again staring at a wall with the blank expression he wore more often these days, which for the first time, saddened the boy.
“I’ll remember,” was all he said.