Column: The meaning of money in today’s society

Malik Harvey, Staff Writer

As my father says, “Everything is about money.” This is not just a perception held by him, but by most Americans today – and understandably so. Money has radicalized every aspect of our daily lives. While the use of currency (or some means of exchange) has been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that our perception of money – here in America – began to evolve for better or worse. 

Prior to 1850, America (as well as Europe) measured the stability of their nation based on “moral statistics.” These statistics appraised prostitution, incarceration, literacy, crime, education, insanity, pauperism and life expectancy, which all relate to human beings’ internal and external health. 

The fight to end slavery is where today’s view of money begins. Hinton Helper released “The Impending Crisis of the South,” in 1857, which enumerated the economic value of resources extracted from the earth in the North and South. He concluded from an 1850 census that the North produced $351, 709,703 worth of goods while the South produced $306,927,067. Subsequent books released (such as “Cotton Is King” by James Henry Hammond) affronted the idea that a nation’s value should derive from the morality of its citizens. As a result, the production of goods and services became the key indicators of a nation’s economic value.

In 1861, with an impending Civil War looming, the U.S. issued its first version of paper money to help finance the war. The Federal Reserve Act was passed by Congress in 1913, enacting our Federal Reserve System. A year later, Federal Reserve Notes were issued to the public – which is the currency we still use today. 

This piece of paper – weighing one gram – set in motion a turbulent view of how we perceive not only others, but ourselves. 

Earlier this year, CNBC conducted a study with 2,500 people that found 42% of Americans feel as though money has a negative impact on their mental health. About half of the participants said, “looking at their bank account is a trigger, while others noted that paying a bill, making a purchase or having to talk about money makes them anxious.”

Many of us going to school today chose majors that we knew were financially successful as opposed to it being a passion. I met a fellow student recently while leaving my apartment, and it led to us talking about our majors. I asked them what their major was, and was met with a response of, “Biomedical engineering.” My eyebrows raised as I responded, “Sounds interesting,” to which they responded, “It’s not, but the salary is.”

Denmark is one of the few countries where students aren’t faced with the same post-college financial worries as Americans. Why? College students are not required to pay for higher education – in fact, Denmark pays their students up to $1,000 a month while enrolled. Denmark’s welfare state is backed by one of the highest tax rates for top earners in the world – 56%.

With this in mind, as a pre-college student, why choose a career where you’ll earn more when you won’t see over half of your earnings come payday?

Still, there are arguments that Denmark’s higher educational system isn’t producing enough interest in jobs that meet the needs of the country’s labor market – for instance, engineers. But, in contrast with the U.S., Denmark paints an interesting picture of what humans value if money wasn’t an option while picking careers. 

I think, maybe, the most interesting thing about Americans is our distrust toward the affluent. On multiple occasions, the proletariat has been innocent bystanders as our establishment sends our economy into a swan dive. The reasons for cynicism amongst the working class toward wealth are apropos. What makes the tale between the two factions paradoxical is that most who criticize the wealthy hope to be wealthy themselves. 

The “American Dream” is what keeps most of us in this perpetual, beguiling chase for money. GoBankRates conducted a study that found that 52% of Americans describe the rich as “hardworking,” and 43% use the word “intelligent.” This survey begs the question of how many Americans are actually in search of opulence, as opposed to the favorable opinions garnered by their peers that come with being considered opulent.

Whatever your reason for being affluent is, ensure it’s not in association with the “American Dream,” because after all, it’s only a dream.