How Has Money Influenced Your Life?

Sharon LinDecember 30, 2016Money and ValueFeatures

No matter how hard you try, it is difficult to ignore the fact that consumerism is overwhelmingly on the rise.

Just look at the teenage girls berating each other for not keeping up with the latest trends, massive billboards displaying radically expensive merchandise with the endorsement of global celebrities, and rows of stocked goods in wholesale markets, constantly urging customers to buy more.

There is no better time for everyone to be interconnected, and connected we are by a simple concept: money. What is less obvious, however, is the universal effect that this concept has brought to humanity. While money has practically reached an acme of its influence, its legacy may live on indefinitely.

A quick trace of its roots may provide some insight into our shared history about money. Even early man was fascinated by the idea that wealth was something that could be owned. In fact, the emergence of bartering dates back all the way to 9000 B.C., when grain and cattle were traded from farmer to shepherd. Early civilizations quickly learned that the man with the most animals and land held the most power in society, launching a history of breakneck competition to gain the upper hand in the supreme game of assets. Later communities minted coins to provide a more stable representation of monetary values. Although the production of coins from precious metals conveniently served as a foundation from which a government could base their standard economic units, there was a flaw: coinage contained an abundance of intrinsic value, prompting civilians to melt the precious metals for their own use. Even early on, people already knew how to exploit resources for their own benefit. In order to offset this problem, paper currency was developed, rendering the currency intrinsically worthless.

If history has taught us anything, though, it is that humans can never be restrained by something as primitive as metal disks. As unethical as it may seem, even the most enthusiastic of coin collectors occasionally melt pennies to use the copper for their own purposes. Ethics is a hard topic to incorporate into a discussion on money, not only because of its implications, but because of how subjective it is in nature. Not all humans are as morally unmindful as we may believe — especially to the degree that adults sometimes view teenagers and other younger generations. However, when placed in a situation where the pressure to conform to social standards involves shoplifting, swindling, or otherwise immoral actions, who has the courage to say no? Adults are not completely erroneous in referring to our generation as the lost generation. Even if we are not as morally flawed as they believe, the majority of us are confused, at least in regard to what is correct. Sometimes going with the flow — whether it means melting coins, stealing snack bars, or buying expensive brand name clothing — is not the right thing to do.

"Ethics is a hard topic to incorporate into a discussion on money, not only because of its implications, but because of how subjective it is in nature."

Even when items are disbursed with the most altruistic of intentions, however, human nature has dictated that there will always be people who think they deserve more. How often do you try out a free sample in a supermarket simply because of the label that it is free? Never mind that the store will probably earn more revenue from the attention it garnered. But if it is free, it is naturally good, right? Similarly, many dieticians shudder at the thought of an all-you-can-eat buffet, where customers line up to gorge themselves until they feel as if they had received their “money’s worth.” When money is involved, even health seems to be compromised. It is simply the idea that our balance sheet must always contain more deposits than withdrawals that creates problems.

It is hard to have second thoughts about the supremacy of money today when we see the neon signs flashing in Times Square and the plethora of commercials airing on prime-time television. As Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of filling a vacuum, it makes one.” Especially during a time when even the most moral people opt for a second helping of free bread sticks, ordinary people bear the constant, primitive desire to reap more riches. Just like a toddler reaching for a second cookie, it may seem innocent at first glance, but the truth remains that whether we are conscious of it or not, money has control over our entire lives.

The worry and angst that derives from the sense that money is controlling our lives can corrode our spiritual health. Experts have been long debating the effects of money and consumerism on mental health. As our parents’ bills and taxes pile up, we can noticeably see stress increase in both our family lives and the lives of those close to us. By worrying constantly about troublesome financial issues as mortgages, loans, and debt, we create a tunnel-vision approach to our lives. Many people fall into depression for issues regarding money and once fallen into the sinkhole, it is incredibly difficult to climb back out. Some kids seek shelter in drugs or food, others in violence and street crimes. When there is so much worry and vexation in our lives, thoughts become muddled and even the most spiritually stable risk damage to their health.

Corruption in government can also be blamed on money, with competition and greed luring even the most respected officials into taking on underhanded methods to compete. The Teapot Dome scandal that took place in the US from 1922 to 1923 nearly jeopardized the Navy’s precious fuel reserves. The administration of President Warren Harding had been specially entrusted with the petroleum reserves in Teapot Dome, Wyoming. Tempted by bribes and riches, the land was secretly leased to private companies, without the President’s approval. The most frightening aspect of the scandal was the fact that the President’s closest friends — the very administration he turned to in times of need — failed to stay loyal to their words. Not only had they lied, cheated, and stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government, but the actions they took in the process are remarkably similar to crimes and schemes still committed today. When the most respectable executives and officials discover easy ways to make millions, moral ethics and virtues go out the window, simply to satisfy that primitive human desire to keep reaching out for more.

The “robber barons” of the Gilded Age in the century before pose another example of greed gone awry. From the late 1860s to the start of the Progressive Era in the early 1900s, industrial advancements and technological breakthroughs made way for new industries to pave their roads on the flourishing United States. Similarly, executives began to seek out crevices in which they could plant the seeds of their influence and create financial empires for themselves. John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Andrew W. Mellon, among others, found opportunities to stamp out competition in rapidly booming industries. Using clandestine methods to exploit workers and executives, they managed to secure themselves a ride to becoming some of the richest men of the era. While they contributed immensely to the economic growth of early America, along with their endowment for thousands of community hospitals, colleges, charities, libraries, institutions, and museums, these so-called “robber barons” (named for the questionable — almost criminal practices — described above) are perhaps better known for their cruelty towards their workers.

Modern nations such as the United States, China, and the United Kingdom heavily rely on the exchange of money to fuel their economies, as evident from numerous accumulations of federal debt. Too many people don’t think twice about how large such a sum is, it’s so great that simply imagining that much money is nearly impossible. Yet this accumulating debt has been practically controlling politics and international events. Even as many seek to ignore the problem, it becomes increasingly urgent that our very livelihood depends on the balance between ordinary people and the immense businesses that control our economic welfare.

With its effect on the human psyche, our natural greed is only beginning to find new means to express its hunger. Money has grown far from its original state as a placeholder for material goods. It has snuck into the human psyche, challenging our morals and testing the limits of our greed. It has brought success — and sometimes, ultimately, a downfall — to the few who find ways to exploit it to meet their demands. It has challenged our views of even life itself, redefining our priorities. Most unsettling, money has defined the parameters for the lives of people worldwide. In our time, resistance seems futile, especially when there is another flashy advertisement with every step you take. Maybe in the past there was such a thing as a free lunch, but these days everything comes with a price tag. Money has certainly earned its place as one of humanity’s greatest — or worst — accomplishments.

Sharon Lin is a junior at Stuyvesant High School in New York. She loves writing prose and poetry, playing flute and piano, baking, watching documentaries, and studying philosophy. She participates in her school’s Lincoln Douglas debate team, varsity golf team, Technology Students Association, and Key Club. Sharon absolutely loves traveling to exotic locations and meeting quirky and interesting people from different backgrounds.