Silver dollar blues

In the Star Trek universe, members of Star Fleet do not get paid; at least, there is no reference to it that I can recall. Everybody seems to work for free and the reward is being able to be a member of the space-faring club and wear the snazzy uniform. They go on their five-year mission and all of their needs are taken care of.

They also never seem to use the restroom. Could it be the zero-g environment?

Without money or the need to purchase things with money, you develop other incentives. For Captains Kirk or Picard, it's about meeting and interacting with new species, and facing imminent death at nearly every encounter. For First Officer Spock, it's about learning new things in science. For Chief Engineers Scott or LaForge, it's about making those warp engines as efficient or speedy as possible.

There is another world outside of Star Fleet where beings are still motivated by profit or greed. The Ferengi are their champions, and it is interesting to note that although the show is about the power of Star Fleet and the "one community" concept, the Ferengi are at least as technologically advanced as the Federation. Capitalism also seems to survive in a money-less world, according to Star Trek lore.

In the real world, most people work and they earn money for their labor, which they can trade for their essentials as well as splurge for other things they want. Our society is rich and developed enough to offer both choices: needs and wants. And the super-rich, who don't need to worry about the basics or the extras, are also somehow motivated to keep amassing wealth despite their inability to ever be able to spend it all.

Capitalism works like magic, and I think this is another example. If it weren't for this seemingly insane desire to earn the second "billion," our most successful entrepreneurs would just quit once they made more than they could ever spend and these large companies and organizations which have brought prosperity to everyone else would be few and far between. Not having billions of dollars, I imagine it is partly like a game, where you "win" by trying to amass as much money as you can just because you can. And who knows...maybe there will be some great desire to buy something that only a multi-billionaire could ever afford. Maybe it's a private island like Larry Ellison got, or maybe the small French village that Brad Pitt owns, according to a recent story about his finances.

But I will probably never understand it. When I read about Bill Clinton eating McDonald's or Donald Trump liking some fast food restaurant, I think about how much better I can eat than some billionaire, so what's the point? Eating, say, lobster every day would make it boring and eventually unappetizing. Spending every vacation on your own island would quickly wear thin.

People definitely need enough money to live and pay their bills, but the evidence is slim that having billions is substantially better than millions. But I urge the Bill Gates' and Warren Buffets of the world to keep working and producing, because for them, it obviously isn't about the money. And we can continue to use their productivity.

So we have 100 Bill Gates', and 1,000 Donald Trumps, and 10,000,000 Allen Nitschelms, all of whom have assets. And we have 100 million people who have net liabilities or negative net worth. And we have a financial system that keeps track of this tally. But that same financial system also borrows and runs its own deficit, just like the 100 million people living with debt. And all of us rely on the inherent honesty that somehow all of this will remain fair and in balance. (I'm making up all the numbers, please don't quote me!)

What about the other 100 million Americans in the middle? Well, they are around break even...except for their share of the government's debt. That share doesn't change the status of the rich, but it does for a lot of the middle class, and perhaps all of the middle class. Because their "debt" also includes the unfunded liabilities that our government has assumed. Those liabilities may not be as concrete as actual least we assume so. Because what if the debt is suddenly "forgiven?" What if, in the alternative, it is never paid back? What if the red ink is just a line on a spreadsheet that is perpetually shown but never acted upon?

In theory, individuals "own" the debt that the government has borrowed. But could the government keep issuing new debt to pay off the old, until it stops bothering with even that pretense? What if it just prints money to deficit spend, or just creates it through accounting, and doesn't bother worrying about such mundane things as loans, paybacks, and interest rates?

Right now, the government appears to be creating money out of thin air. It relies on our acceptance of these IOUs which become credits on the spreadsheet and then are used to pay for work where the credits are transferred to a worker's or business' spreadsheet and then sinks into the financial web. It is then interchangeable with "real" money that once existed as hard currency and then became paper, and then became numbers on a spreadsheet.

When the government creates money and then pays benefits or hires workers, that money is cycled into society and we all accept it. We then spend it ourselves, with some of it going back to the government in taxes. But the government meanwhile is printing more. It really doesn't even need to "collect taxes" when it can print money, but so long as it does, perhaps it helps make people feel like the system is honest and balanced when, in fact, it is not. If it were, how could you keep deficit spending for 30 years straight and not have interest rates through the roof? This simply doesn't add up.

In fighting to balance the federal deficit and pay off the debt, fiscal conservatives are trying to keep an honest banking and monetary system in place. But those who keep spending with no plan to ever pay off the debt are playing Russian Roulette until one day, our society wakes up and realizes that spreadsheet numbers really have no value and we are all working without money, like in Star Trek but for real.

I wonder if economic shocks like the recent mortgage crisis are not instead just small tremors of a financial system that cannot survive when it gets too far removed from reality and people collectively realize that we are all working "for free."

If you work really hard and save up, you will have "money in the bank." What does that mean? Today, it means a positive number on a spreadsheet. Your hard-earned wealth is at risk if the government credits become worth-less or worthless. It seems to me like a classic "asset bubble" where the asset is dollar bills.

We used to have currency based on precious metals so we didn't have to trust the government. Now, all of our money is based on government credit, and the government is running perpetual deficits and keeping interest rates artificially low because it doesn't want runaway inflation based on its overspending. And when millions more start to retire and deficits keep rising, the problem and risk will only grow exponentially. This is not going to have a happy ending.

Unless, of course, money becomes passe' and we magically transport into a Star-Trek alternate reality where people work because they want to, all their needs are met, and there is no money. I guess it would be nice, although it would be stagnate. Well, maybe that would prove the value of reality TV which we would all be watching for entertainment 24/7.

Beam me up, Scotty!



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