Lisa Fitzhugh

Money and Me

Interview by Jagged Mirror.

This conversation was recorded on a full moon in December during a pause from exchanging energy for money with the outside world.

Jagged Mirror: Do you remember what cash felt like in your hands when you were a kid? Wasn’t it thicker then, like dollar bills were actually heavier than they are now? Twenty-five dollars was a lot of money then, remember? You came home with that much every Sunday making omelets at the Sunday Times in the heart of south Baltimore.

Lisa Fitzhugh: I worked hard for that cash. Always “under the table.” Hard cash. I was a short-order cook when I was twelve.  Seasoning omelet pans with pounds of salt.  My skin slippery with the smell of eggs, butter, bacon, heat. And the burns on my arms from the stove….I was earning my keep, don’t ya know. But most of the time I gave my mom the money because we were broke, and that way I had some say about what we bought at the store. Our groceries for the week. On twenty-five dollars, all.

Were you just working for the money? What motivated you?

I never worked just for the money. My mom’s photography studio was above the restaurant, and I was always hanging out doing homework, or just passing time waiting for my mom to finish up in the darkroom. The cook was an interesting woman, an artist like my mom, and she asked me to help her out on Sundays when the restaurant was open for brunch. I guess I wanted to help. I liked to cook, and she inspired me.

So you were inspired and the money was just a bonus?

Let’s be real. The work was hard. People were always pissed off because their orders weren’t what they asked for, or we took too long. I was greasy and tired by the afternoon and then I usually still had schoolwork to do. I wouldn’t have done it for free. But what moved me in her direction, into her kitchen, was inspiration. I had no leverage about how much money I could make. I took whatever she offered me. But it was an exchange. My time, my attention, my energy in her kitchen. And for all of that on Sundays, I got twenty-five dollars. Seemed fair then. Still does.

Do you always work from inspiration? And then the money follows?

Are you serious? Definitely not. I got lost many times in the quest for title, position. But even then, even when I was fueled by ambition, I wasn’t working for the money. I was working for the challenge of it. I knew I’d always have to work to survive, and that money was the currency of exchange for my blood, sweat and tears, but what I really wanted was intangible, unquantifiable. I wanted purpose. I wanted to be of use. I wanted to express my gifts. I wanted to participate in this larger world where everyone seemed to be engaged in something. So I headed in, just at the dawn of my own adolescence, to be part of the dance of progress with the world.

Isn’t that what everyone wants? To be of use? To show up and offer ourselves to the places or the people who need us, who need our gifts, and then offer us some kind of currency in exchange?

I don’t know. I think many of us want to be “invited” to the dance. I think the invitation matters. The desperation of looking for a job, anything to pay the bills, and finding no reception is a kind of hell. Think of all the people in America right now who are living in that kind of hell. But we all have these gifts, and I think it’s universal that we want to share them with the world. I think our survival depends on it. So we offer ourselves up. We step into the arena, and we’re paid to contribute. But all too often, it’s not for our gifts. It’s for our purely mechanical or cognitive labors. So our gifts remain hidden, even to ourselves.

The cook at the restaurant invited me into her kitchen and inspired me with her own love of cooking, and her invitation revealed to me that I had an innate sense of how to make food delicious. I didn’t go on to become a cook, at least not for money, but there was her acknowledgement of the gifts I did bring, even then.

Can we dig around in this idea of “gifts?” What do you mean? Gifts imply something innate, something we came in with.

Gifts to me are like sensitivities, a heightened attunement to something outside of us that makes us “gifted” at seeing the nuances, the opportunities, or the solutions in a particular realm. We can be more sensitive to the body, or to fabrics, to movement or to the soil. When we’re sensitive, we seem to be paying even more attention to these spaces or things, and then we can change them, heal them or create within them with a gift that sets us apart. I think it’s related to our intuitive sense.

I think we can develop our sensitivities, our intuitive senses. But it’s not by building cognitive skills or mastering techniques, but by getting rid of the clutter that clogs our sensory airwaves, that blunts our nervous system. So much of what we ingest is numbing our receptors to the world. We ingest oceanfuls of dogma, media, technology, processed food, pharmaceuticals, video games, pornography, and distraction aplenty. It’s a large-scale suppression of our sensory receptors and their natural capacities to tune in to something subtler inside us and offer it back to the world as a gift.

Is this what’s causing such a spiritual wasteland on the planet? Is it about the suppression of our gifts?

I’m starting to think this is the root of it. My experience more and more with people is they are becoming robotic. All of us following the unwritten instructions to show up for a job someone else designed, buy the stuff someone else envisioned and created, eat the food someone else grew, and watch the movies someone else imagined. And our own gifts to create, heal, grow, or innovate in any realm whatsoever are not seen, not by us or by others, which explains why we aren’t invited in for our gifts.

So what are your gifts? Are you “invited” to share them? Are you getting paid for them?

Great question. If you’d asked me last month, I would have described my gifts as abilities. All my training in school was based on learning the left-brain’s rational skills–the language, more like a code, of productivity, competition, achievement, and positioning. The narrative goes like this: learn the code and the world will invite you to the dance and pay you accordingly. So I showed up, and used the code to make things happen in a conventionally successful way. I could always make good money if I promised to use those tools–the code.

But I got confused and thought that these abilities of reason and rationality were my gifts. Don’t get me wrong, these left-brain tools are powerful, they keep all our systems running and in place. But they cannot create something new; they don’t expand perception, because they are focused on what we already know.

Only recently has a deeper truth emerged for me about what my gifts really are. I think my gift–my sensitivity–is my heightened awareness of other people’s needs, my intuitive sense of other people’s energy, feelings, hopes, potential.

This sensitivity inclined me towards a career in politics for a while, an arena in which we’re required to effectively understand public needs. This same sensitivity inspired me to create a non-profit organization to support young people to find their gifts through learning in the arts. Arts Corps, as the organization is known, might have been an expression of my desire to know my own intuitive gifts. But I ended up playing the role of an administrator and spent my time supporting others to surface and express theirs.

It took me several more years of working with others, always serving as the rational mind expert, inviting others in for their gifts, to realize what was happening. I had become like Cinderella, just a servant, sometimes paid sometimes not, supporting the expression of other people’s gifts.

Wow, that’s a big realization. How are you feeling about that?

Some amount of grief. But I’m writing a piece here for this magazine and there’s more to unearth before I let those feelings take over.

I’m pulling in a narrative brought forward by a brain researcher, Ian McGilchrist, who wrote quite a tome on the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The Master and His Emissary. Gleaned from his 800- page book is a core idea that the functions of the left hemisphere are all about scrutiny, details, language, calculus (the thinking kind) and rationality while the functions of the right hemisphere are about meaning making, seeing the forest for the trees, symbology, seeing the new, and intuition. He says Einstein presaged this split in roles within our brains when he said the rational mind is a faithful servant and the intuitive mind is a sacred gift. So here’s that idea of gift again, coming up for us to look at.

You talk about your education, that it was mostly a training of your rational mind. Is this still what’s happening? Are we training a world of mostly servants to support the gifts of the few?

Sure as hell feels like it. Public education, and most of private education, is a left-brain training ground almost exclusively. The trends in public education have been to strip the arts from the core curriculum, eliminate playtime, expand the school day, the school year, and drill us to death. It’s a left brain’s tyranny, exclaiming with increasing urgency that we must learn its code to keep our failing systems alive, to create the new generation of servants to hold the systems intact, even as everywhere we look these same systems are collapsing under their own weight. No one wins within this tyranny, even those very few who appear to have all the money resources.

Ok, I’m going back to the feel of money on your skin, the weight of it when you first started working, and how that changed. For a long time after, didn’t you notice that money slipped through your fingers like confetti. What’s the relationship between the way money feels to you now and the kind of exchange it represents?

Maybe when I’m paid to share my gifts more explicitly, money will become more of an anchor in my life. It will represent the value the world holds for the whole of me- -my rational mind and my intuitive gifts. I can imagine tending to this money with more conscientiousness of where it goes after it comes to me, how do I exchange it yet again for someone else’s gifts, locally-grown food, hand-sewn sweaters, a cell phone made by a technology company that houses its workers safely and pays them wages to grow on. I wonder if the money I make when I’m invited to share my gifts might actually reflect a greater consciousness, and seek out its own reciprocal exchange, again and again and again.

That’s deep. Money with a consciousness.

Why not? Money is just energy. It represents an exchange. And energy, which is life, has consciousness. Even more radical than this possibility of money with a consciousness is money exchanged without seduction.

Can’t imagine that really. We’re wired for seduction. Especially in the marketplace. Advertising is embedded; it’s pretty much a mandate. We must be seduced into making choices with our money.

So we’re wired for: “Seduce me first, then I’ll give you my money (energy).” Yet seduction is “to lead astray.” So living in a system of choice making dependent on seduction, we’re forever giving ourselves over to someone else’s desires rather than our own. That’s a lot of power to be giving away that we could claim for ourselves.

When you say it that way, it becomes history’s greatest heist. Seduction embedded into commerce, relationships, all of it, and those with the greatest seduction skills take all. What’s the antidote?

Just looking at it, I guess. Seeing the heist and calling it for what it is. Make it conscious. Make different choices.

Does that mean you’re not going to do any marketing to “sell” your newly discovered gifts?

Maybe not in a conventional way. What I want to do is finally be precise and clear about what I know and have confidence about. No window dressing, just the facts. And see who comes. It seems to be working already.

I’ve noticed. So it’s a brand new world for you. You nervous?

Honestly, I feel like I have nothing left to lose. And really, at this moment in history, isn’t that true for all of us?

Interview conducted in Seattle, 2011.

Lisa Fitzhugh is a writer, speaker and facilitator on creativity and creative practice. She lives in Seattle, Washington with her son Jack.

davidHow To Change the World

David Bornstein: On Social Entrepreneurs

and How to Change the World

David Bornstein specializes in writing about social innovation. He is the author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas (Oxford University Press) which was described by The New York Times as “must reading” for “anyone who cares about building a more equitable and stable world” and a “bible” in its field. The book, which has been published (or is in the process of being published) in 20 languages, chronicles and analyzes the work of social innovators who are successfully addressing social problems at scale in several countries. Bornstein’s first book, “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” traces the history of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank during its first 20 years and describes the global emergence of the now-famous anti-poverty strategy known as “micro-finance.” Bornstein grew up in Montreal, Canada and now lives in New York City with his wife and son. He is currently at work on a book exploring the growth and implications of social entrepreneurship in the United States and Canada, and is developing a website that will serve as a tool for the discovery of solutions to major social problems.

Pulse: What is a social entrepreneur?

Daniel Bornstein: A social entrepreneur is a person who has both a powerful idea to cause a positive social change and the creativity, skills, determination and drive to transform that idea into reality. Social entrepreneurs combine the savvy, opportunism, optimism and resourcefulness of business entrepreneurs, but they devote themselves to pursuing social change or “social profit,” rather than financial profit. Behind all innovative business, there are entrepreneurs–individuals who possess the foresight, belief and boldness to build something new. The same holds for social change. Behind almost all important social innovations are social entrepreneurs–people with new ideas for solving problems, who build new kinds of organizations to implement those ideas, who will not take ‘no’ for an answer, and who will not give up until they have spread their ideas as far as they possibly can.

Where did this new wave of social entrepreneurship come from? Why has it found a place in the 21st century?

In the United States and across the globe, individuals today are far more aware of social problems and have far more power to address them. At the same time, many have lost faith in governments. Social entrepreneurship allows people to align what they enjoy doing, what they are good at and what matters most to them and have a real impact. This is a very fulfilling and rewarding way to work and live. There are also major historical forces that have, for the first time in history, made social entrepreneurship feasible for many people in recent years. The growth of an educated middle class, the extension of basic rights to women and minorities and the spread of information technology have made it possible for hundreds of millions of people around the world to unleash their creativity in new directions. In recent decades, more than 80 countries that were formerly dictatorships, totalitarian societies or apartheid regimes have moved toward democracy. People today are better informed about social problems and they have both the desire and the ability to solve them.

Entrepreneurs love to be innovative. Contrary to assumption, they do not only seek to maximize profits. This is why so many innovators today are focusing on creating new solutions–new ways to do business, new ways to alleviate poverty, new ways to attack a host of social problems. (This trend seems to have accelerated since September 11th.) These people represent the second great wave of entrepreneurship, which I believe will become a major force in the 21st century. The first wave occurred in the business sector over the past three centuries and brought enormous wealth gains worldwide. The second wave aims at building upon the first wave to create a more humane and sustainable world.

Why are these ideas so successful? Are there commonalities between these social entrepreneurs despite their obvious differences?

When people hear about innovative businesses– think of eBay or Starbucks or Home Depot– they have an intuitive understanding about why the businesses were successful. In each case, you had a talented entrepreneur who saw an opportunity before others, who raised capital and built a high-performing organization capable of managing fast-paced growth. Social-change ideas that follow this pattern can and will be very successful. The problem is that, historically, this has not been the way social problems have been addressed. Society has not supported, financed or encouraged social entrepreneurs the way it has encouraged millions of business entrepreneurs. Rather, it has relied on top-down bureaucracies to handle the ‘non-business’ work of society. But that is changing today, with many more entrepreneurs starting social-change organizations and receiving support and encouragement.

Regardless of the field in which social entrepreneurs work–education, health, environment, disability, policy–the basic entrepreneurial process and temperament are the same. Entrepreneurs are obsessively driven to succeed; they are, therefore, good listeners; they build good teams; they pay close attention to what the ‘market’ tells them; they stay focused on long-term goals but continually adapt to changing environments; and they are always looking for new opportunities to grow and innovate. That is why their ideas are so successful.

So many governments are failing to implement change where social entrepreneurs are flourishing. How do you explain this phenomenon?

All too often, governments have attacked problems with a short-sighted, top-down approach that does not lead to innovative solutions. Governments have to respond to the demands of two- and four-year election cycles; entrepreneurs think in terms of building great companies or organizations over many decades. Additionally, rather than pursuing ideas through an organic, bottom-up ‘entrepreneurial’ process that encourages creativity and human initiative at each step of the way; governments are often organized for top-down bureaucratic processes that often dampen, or restrict, individual initiative. Finally, all ideas need “champions” to push them forward– people who are obsessed with making them work and will not give up until they succeed.

Many of these “champions” or entrepreneurs avoid working in government because they would rather not be constrained by political considerations and bureaucratic handcuffs; they prefer the freedom of building their own organizations. As a result, governments have difficulty attracting large numbers of entrepreneurs. However, there are examples when a “bureaucratic entrepreneur” within the government can have an enormous impact. One example is the case of Bill Drayton, who, as assistant administrator of the EPA, demonstrated the potential of “pollution trading” to cut pollution emissions–an idea that has since been adopted around the world. His story is detailed in the book.

How did you select the social entrepreneurs in How to Change the World? What were you aiming to profile?

The stories were selected, above all, because they are interesting and engaging, and because they span a range of countries and touch on a wide variety of issues–from education to health to environmental protection. The profiles capture all (humbly) and how they proceeded, step by step, over the years, to pursue their visions on an ever increasing scale. My goal was to demystify their success: to show how seemingly ordinary people and ordinary efforts, over time, can produce extraordinary results. I also wanted to draw on the entrepreneurs’ own words in explaining their decisions and actions, to make their methods and thinking easily understandable to others. When taken together, the profiles highlight many of the common factors that allow social entrepreneurs to succeed where others have failed.

Many of your social entrepreneurs are fellows of the organization Ashoka: Innovators for the Public. What was it about Ashoka that captured your interest?

Three things. First, it is very hard to find social entrepreneurs. There are no directories that list them. The newspapers don’t have sections that specialize in reporting on the most entrepreneurial social organizations. So in order to find them you need assistance from credible organizations. Ashoka pioneered the idea of searching for and channeling support to “pattern setting social entrepreneurs” more than 20 years ago. From what I have seen, it has developed the most rigorous search and selection process for identifying social entrepreneurs at relatively early stages in their careers. Using Ashoka’s network as a starting point made researching this book–which involved interviews with 100 social entrepreneurs in eight countries–a manageable job.

Second, the founder of Ashoka, Bill Drayton, is himself a social entrepreneur who has traveled around the world for two decades looking for other social entrepreneurs in order to support them. As such, Bill Drayton was a useful central character for the book–someone who could tie together many individual stories and add some key insights.

Third, Ashoka’s efforts to find social entrepreneurs have paralleled many of the changes that have occurred across the world in recent decades. Ashoka has generally begun working in countries shortly after those countries have experienced the democratic reforms that allow social entrepreneurs to flourish. The organization’s growth has, in effect, mirrored the spread of democracy and freedom over the past 20 years. So Bill Drayton’s efforts to expand Ashoka lends a natural narrative flow to the book that captures these global changes.

What do you see as the most important aspect of these social entrepreneurs?

The most important aspect of the social entrepreneurs is simply that one walks away after hearing their stories with the conviction that big problems can be solved. Their stories create a sense of possibility and hope and they encourage action because their ideas are practical and doable. We have become accustomed to low performance in the social arena. In the 1960s, for example, there was great optimism about what could be accomplished in the U.S. through government. Then came the Great Society, the war on poverty, and subsequent wars on crime and drugs, and countless failed development projects. Over the past four decades, expectations have plummeted.

Today, many people do not believe that we can alleviate poverty, or fix the education system, or improve government, or find better ways to deal with many social problems. Around the world, people are voting less and less. Amidst this disenchantment with government, the field of social entrepreneurship has emerged. Against the conventional wisdom, these leaders are demonstrating that problems can, in fact, be solved. But, in order to do so, society needs to think differently about the approach: It needs harness the wide-ranging talents of its best social entrepreneurs– encouraging them to innovate and pursue their visions. Just like in the business sector, there is no shortage of entrepreneurs, but there is not yet enough systematic support given to the social entrepreneurs.

How should budding social entrepreneurs go about implementing their ideas? Where should they begin?

Social entrepreneurs, like business entrepreneurs, should begin with what they know best and should focus on an idea or issue that resonates deeply in their lives. Entrepreneurs rarely come up with their ideas suddenly. Typically, they spend years thinking about them–often searching for the right moment in their lives to move forward. Sometimes their ideas can be traced all the way back to childhood interests. Before starting out on their own, they often work in jobs that teach them how a particular type of business or industry operates. Social entrepreneurs go through the same types of “apprenticeships.” They usually work for several years in a particular field, profession or organization, acquiring the knowledge, skills and contacts that enable them to branch out on their own and improve upon what is currently being done. Then they enter the “launch” phase–when they start preparing to build their own organizations. Again, like business entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs usually begin by tapping their personal networks–friends, families, colleagues, teachers, mentors. They often start with a few well-selected tests of their ideas–to demonstrate early viability–and build credibility and momentum. They enlist advice from well-connected and experienced allies about how to raise funding, think through strategy, and build a team of supporters and advisors. There are many resources where social entrepreneurs can turn to for assistance during this launch phase. I list several of them in the Resource Guide in my book.

Do you envision social entrepreneurship reaching a saturation point?

No. Again, just like in the business sector, it is difficult to envision a time when there will be no more demand for new entrepreneurs. Society is ever-changing. Every day, people identify new opportunities and new needs. Business entrepreneurs build new businesses to satisfy those needs using a for-profit approach. Old companies go out of business; new ones open up. By the same token, there will always be new and different problems that social entrepreneurs will seek to address more effectively. Old organizations will stop functioning; new ones will have to be built to replace them. Consider some of the problems today that social entrepreneurs are addressing that were not major issues twenty years ago: global warming, AIDS, water shortages, providing better social and health services for an aging population, creating education systems that prepare people to succeed in the “information age.”

As social entrepreneurship grows and becomes recognized as a respectable and important line of work, society will begin to see a beneficial process in which new organizations with innovative solutions continually replace out-dated social organizations that have lost their performance edge or drifted from their original mission. This happens every day in the business sector. In the social sector, because the ‘social capital markets’ are not very efficient, the turnover is slower and less systematic. But today we are seeing more and more of the beneficial competition that leads to improvements and innovations. The social entrepreneurs are at the forefront of these changes.

Can anyone change the world?

There are two ways to answer this question. If ‘change the world’ means causing a major change that spreads across society and affects millions of people, the answer would have to be no. It takes a particular kind of person with a very deep need– someone who is totally obsessed with an idea — to bring about a social change on a major scale. These ‘leading’ or ‘ground-breaking’ social entrepreneurs are comparatively rare. (In fact, I’m not sure if society could tolerate large numbers of them.) On the other hand, if ‘change the world’ mean bringing a positive change to some corner of the globe– affecting the lives of one, ten, a hundred, or a thousand people, then, in my opinion, the answer is yes.

Researching this book has taught me that ordinary people have far more capacity and potential than they ever know or use. Many of the people I have interviewed who have done remarkable things are far from ‘extraordinary.’ The main quality they share is a belief that they can make a difference. They are not without self-doubts and they are not geniuses. But they have initiative, they listen to their instincts and they take action. Above all, they begin. I suspect that there are millions of people out there who could bring important changes to their corners of the world–and who would find great fulfillment doing so. If more parents and teachers and if society at large could encourage more people to try their hand at social entrepreneurship, I believe it would unleash enormous potential. It would also produce great benefits for society and much individual happiness.


More at:


Jacob Needleman & Andrea Hiott: Money

Interview from 2010.

Jacob Needleman is a professor of Philosophy at San Francisco State University and author of many books, including Money and the Meaning of Life, What is God, and The American Soul. He was educated in philosophy at Harvard, Yale and the University of Freiburg, Germany. He has also served as Research Associate at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, as a Research Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, as Adjunct Professor of Medical Ethics at the University of California Medical School and as guest Professor of Religious Studies at the Sorbonne, Paris.

Pulse: Mr. Needleman, as you see it, can money lead to greater self-knowledge? Can it help us better understand ourselves?

Jacob Needleman: Money is a great mediator, and it can bring us considerable self-knowledge if we can learn to study how we actually behave with money. We need to become acutely and honestly aware of our contradictions and self-deceptions in how we actually feel about money, how we regard it, what role it plays in our lives, and what it means to us. In that way, our attitude toward money can be a tool for self-knowledge, and the sincere study of our actual relationship to money can be a very powerful mediator between the two parts of our nature—the spiritual and the material parts of ourselves. But it’s not exactly the money itself that brings us self-knowledge; it’s the inner consciousness of our troubled relationship to it.

Is there anything sacred about money?

Money isn’t sacred, but our relationship to money can have a sacred dimension when we focus it towards accessing greater self-knowledge, generosity, and love.

Something about one‘s relationship to money can at times feel like a Zen koan. Can money bring us to a higher level of awareness; can it be a way we learn about courage and self-discipline?

If you need money for a sacred purpose, and if you take a risk with money in order to search for truth, that’s a very interesting way of bringing a new and higher order into your social, everyday life. If you really want to search for truth and love, and if that search costs a certain amount of money which exceeds what you’re comfortable with, that can be a spiritually creative situation. Not a comfortable situation, but one that can attract a certain energy, just like a koan can attract a certain energy, if you’re trying with your whole being to solve the unsolvable. After all, the “answer” to a koan is not in the words, but in the state of engagement of the whole of the mind.

Is that because our relationship to money can push us to our extremes, test how much we can take?

Yes. But of course all this also depends on your upbringing. Everybody has a different upbringing, and has different levels of “what they can take”. Money is often a very serious stress. And for many of us there are certain imaginary fears and assumptions of how money works in the world that we carry with us unknowingly, and those add to that burden or stress.

Things we learned as children?

Yes. Many of us are conditioned at a very early age. We watch our parents. Very often money is one of the great sources of conflict or tension in a family, and this energy affects us. It goes very deep. As we grow older, we are often unaware of this ingrained relationship to money; our awareness doesn’t penetrate deeply enough to reach the area where these beliefs reside. So our behavior toward money remains fundamentally amoral.

Why amoral? Because it’s not contemplated?

It’s deeply unconscious.

So these preconceptions about money, or these energies we’ve absorbed, are part of us in a physical sense, you mean?

Not physical exactly. But money means something to us that we are not aware of.

It’s part of us, but not a conscious part. So it’s almost formed at a cellular level, these patterns…

Well, in that sense, yes. It’s built into our behavior, almost into our DNA: As a metaphor, you can put it that way.

This reminds me of something you say early on in Money and the Meaning of Life. You’re talking about Freudian psychoanalysis. I’m not sure I remember the quote precisely… Freud says…

“Man is not as bad as he thinks he is, nor can he become as good as he wishes to become.”

Right. And you say Freud had it backwards, that —

Actually, we are much worse off than we think we are, but we can become far greater than we can imagine.

So even though these patterns or feelings about money might be deep and ingrained, we are nevertheless capable of changing them. How? Simply by becoming aware of them?

Exactly. These things are very difficult to become aware of, however. It’s very difficult to become conscious of these preconceptions and patterns. They’re blanketing us; they are buffering our awareness, protecting us from seeing our contradictions. But sometimes the veil is lifted for a moment, and you get a tiny glimpse through those protective illusions. You see your own deep contradictions, and if you have courage, you can stay with that and look at it closely — and that can bring us a glimpse of our higher, inner possibilities.

If we’re paying attention, do we get those intimations often?

Yes, but they are very hard to admit; it is very hard to admit our self-contradictions to ourselves. We don’t like to admit that the truth about ourselves isn’t what we think it is, or say it is. For instance, a person might live a very bohemian existence and claim not to care about money but when someone dies and a will is read and some money is up for grabs in the family, then that same person may act in a very different way, a way that contradicts many other aspects of his or her life. It’s very hard to face these kinds of contradictions in ourselves. There’s more inner hypocrisy and self-contradictions about money than almost anything else, including sex.

If we are talking to someone who looks kind of worn and rumpled, for instance, and we think they are poor, we see them one way. If someone then comes along and whispers into our ear “You are talking to so and so, and he’s famous for such and such, and he’s a millionaire”, then it often does very quickly change our view of the person.

In Money and the Meaning of Life, you talk about this too, you call it “the disparity between our values and our behavior”. But these moments are also gifts, are they not? It’s in these difficult moments that we are actually given a chance to grow. Is that right? Or am I reading something into your work?

No, that’s true. That’s where the awakening is; in those glimpses into the embryo of the soul. If we see the contradiction in ourselves, and have the courage to face it – if we see the contradiction between how we want to be seen, and how we actually are – then a lot of growth can come from that. One grows inwardly by those kinds of shocks. It can be a kind of spiritual discipline, to really take that attitude toward money, and to discover more of ourselves in these shocks of self-knowledge.

We all see these kinds of contradictions in others, and perhaps others see them in us. But how can we share that information with each other? How do we meet?

Well, often we don’t meet. Just going up to someone and saying ‘You’re being hypocritical!” is probably not going to help. It might even end the friendship, at least if it’s said in that judgmental tone. In these kinds of situations, sometimes you just have to suffer it and take it as a call to look at your own attitude. The Other can be a mirror to us if we allow that. In fact, that is a very spiritually interesting attitude towards relationships: things we cannot bear about others, or the things we judge in another, if we’re honest, we can probably see the same things in ourselves.

Maybe that’s the bridge, or what opens a space where we can meet: the meeting comes not from me telling my friend how he is but rather from my friend seeing me have a revelation about my own situation.

Yes, if the connection comes, it comes out of a state of presence, and out of you having a revelation about your self and being open about that and letting it be seen.

What do you mean by “state of presence”? The word “presence” comes up often in your work.

Well, it’s one of those things that you know only when you’re in it. Many of us go through our lives without actually being present, or aware, of the actual moments of those lives. But sometimes you just wake up, and suddenly you are Here, Now, Present, Aware. You’re in this moment, with this person, doing this task, having these feelings. And you know it. Sometimes the lucidity only lasts a moment, but when you’re in that kind of moment, life has a whole new meaning for you.

That state of presence is a very potent state to share with someone, isn’t it?

Yes. When you share a certain quality of attention with another person, it opens up a whole other dimension and there is a whole new conception of what it means to be in a relationship. It’s a dimension that is almost entirely lost in our culture, or that so many of us do not even know we are missing because we do not know this other dimension exists. And yet, it’s precisely this dimension which we are hungry for. That’s what I meant by “you know it when you’re in it”. It’s very hard to define this state when you are not in it. In fact, it’s very easy to forget that state as well, even after one has been there. We often go through our days in a kind of daze.

Well, it’s hard to be present when life is feeling stressful. We’d rather shut off and not deal with the reality. And yet, it’s only by looking at it, being aware, that we can move through that stress to this other dimension.  For many of us, this seems especially true when it comes to issues involving money.

Well, money is part of the world. We have to be savvy about money and still not let ourselves be poisoned by it. That’s one of the great challenges of our era, as individuals, the challenge of how to be engaged in this world of money, which we have to be engaged in, without being swallowed by it. The world has become so commercialized and commoditized, and we have to live in it, and play the game, even as inwardly we’re searching for something else. That balance is what teaches us. Money is necessary. We have to accept it and move on from there.

So the view that money is evil is no better than the view that money is the answer to all our ills?

The reason why you are doing something is important. There is a different energy that comes from doing something just for money, and doing something with awareness and looking at money in the way we’ve been discussing. Money in itself is neither evil nor sacred. It’s about our relationship to money. But money and transcendent value can be connected. It can take an amazing amount of precious discipline and hard work to generate wealth. And these human qualities can be very positive. In that sense, certainly, money can be very good.

What’s interesting is that we often have a hard time putting a price on our services. If we were asked how much we want for some service, we often have a hard time quoting a fair price. We can be greedy and go too far, or – and this is even more likely – we can feel guilty about money and not ask for enough. The real task it to look at your life and figure out how to be clever without being corrupt.

A favorite saying of mine is: “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel first.” God is the main focus. But the world is a jungle and you have to be sharp and awake in your interaction with it.

One last question: since you were around for the Sixties and the protests in Berkeley, and now you are teaching in the midst of the Occupy Movement, I’d like to ask you: How are the protest movements of the young people different today?

There’s a kind of despair among younger people today. A kind of aching despair. In the Sixties there was a kind of hope or belief in possibility that was a bit naïve, but it was still an energy that was very bright. There’s not that kind of hope anymore. But there’s a need, and maybe that’s even stronger. It’s more enduring – the need – because that need is understandable and justifiable. At the same time, there is also an element to it that is still naïve. I write in American Soul that people expect a nation to be a saint. But a nation is not a saint. A nation is a lower organism than a person. A person can be a saint; a nation cannot be a saint. Just like a law cannot be a saint. A nation is there to provide a much different kind of service—to protect the subtler, more tender search for inner truth and goodness.

Maybe that need is just the beginning. Maybe the Occupy movement is an attempt to do what we’ve been talking about, provide some light and clarity about these preconceptions we have about money and wealth, things that are so hard to notice and admit. We might take it to a more individual level now.

Many in this country are certainly exploring this in a new way. I think we have a president now (President Obama) who to some extent outwardly, politically, exemplifies that change. It is all being done imperfectly of course, but we have come a long way compared to our recent political blindness. Nevertheless, inwardly we have a very long way to go.


Dani Rodrik

Capitalism is Highly Malleable

Dani Rodrik is the Rafiq Hariri Professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. He has published widely in the areas of international economics, economic development, and political economy. Professor Rodrik holds a Ph.D. in economics and an MPA from Princeton University, and an A.B. (summa cum laude) from Harvard College. His most recent book The Globalization Paradox was published by Norton in 2011.

Pulse: In your years of studying globalization, what theme have you found to be the most consistent and important for your work?

Dani Rodrik: I would say the central theme is seeking a country-specific balance between domestic policy prerogatives and the pressures of economic globalization. Economists are supposed to study trade-offs, but strangely in this area, most orthodox economists have taken an absolute position: the more globalization, the better. I have tried to show how too much globalization (in the sense of reducing scope for domestic policies and national diversity) can undermine other contending values: social and political coherence, and economic restructuring and diversification in the developing world.

You have written about economic theory and practice as a process. Do we need different economic models and institutions in different circumstances?

I view capitalism as a highly malleable and evolving system. Poor countries need different institutions compared to rich countries. And there is no reason why even advanced countries should converge to a common set of institutions, whether in the area of financial markets, labor markets, or tax regime. In the presence of institutional diversity at the national level, we should not expect or strive for a great deal of global rule making. What I argue for in my book The Globalization Paradox is a “light” form of global governance that focuses mostly on procedural rules (transparency, accountability, representativeness, use of scientific and economic evidence) aimed at enhancing democratic deliberation and at neutralizing major spillovers where they exist (as in the case of trade imbalances and currency policy).

Can globalization be separated from financial globalization? Can globalization come without further international integration at the governmental level?

We can have significant globalization of trade without the kind of financial globalization we have experienced since 1990. That was the kind of regime Keynes sought in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In terms of the role of information and reason in economics, is there a way in which greater information about each other on an international scale inevitably requires more international institutions and financial governance?

I am not sure the globalization of information is something that needs much governance at the global level at all. It is mainly driven by technology, the advances in communication and Internet.

We don’t need institutions that pursue global interests?

In the area of trade and finance, I actually don’t see a whole lot of difference between pursuing the national interest and pursuing the global interest. If all countries do what is right for themselves, we end up with an open, healthy world economy with plenty of international trade and cross-border capital flows. In this way, the world economy is very different from, say, the global climate, which is a true global public good and requires a great deal of global rule-making to manage appropriately.

True, sometimes countries do silly things, like follow policies that are extremely inefficient such as high level of trade protection and agricultural subsidies. But the bulk of the costs of such policies are borne at home, not abroad. So international restraints on domestic policy offer neither an effective restraint on such policies, nor the greatest source of leverage for reforming them. Domestic economic policy failures, where they exist, can only be removed by improving the quality of deliberation and policy-making at home.

Are you saying we should only focus on strengthening our nation-states? Or are you simply saying that we need more of that focus at this time rather than more global rule making?

We should focus our global rule-making in areas where there are significant spillovers and countries’ self-interested behavior harms other nations. For example, we went too far in the trade regime with the WTO, and did nothing at all on the question of exchange rates and macroeconomic imbalances. The result is the worst of all possible worlds. As a member of the WTO, China has limited ability to use industrial policy to promote its manufacturing industries, but can achieve the same end through the backdoor by undervaluing its currency. The latter strategy imposes much greater costs on the rest of the world. This is an excellent example of how overreaching in global rule making has left us worse off.

Still, if private enterprise is the foundation of economic prosperity, could it be true that the real evolution of the international economic/political situation would come when private individuals from any or all countries began to take stakes, and feel intimately and monetarily connected to, the global economy? Is this happening now?

It is happening but in a very asymmetric way. Finance and large business are thoroughly internationalized. Business executives, skilled professionals and investors feel themselves untethered to any national base – except for in times of crisis, when they go running for help to “their” government. But much of the workforce remains nationally based, with fewer opportunities for international mobility. Their fate is directly linked to the fortunes of the national economy. This asymetric globalization is at the root of the legitimacy problem that globalization faces.

How do you see the relationship between economic growth and the checks and balances, debate and institutions, that characterize a democracy?

I think you can have significant amounts of economic growth without necessarily becoming a democracy. But being a democracy is not a hindrance to growth either.

However, it is really difficult to become a wealthy country without having in place the kind of checks and balances and open political competition that democracy requires. The only exceptions are oil-rich countries and perhaps Singapore. So if you want to sustain your growth, you have to develop democratic institutions ultimately.

The German economist Fritz Schumacher once wrote that “We always need both freedom and order. We need the order of lots and lots of small, autonomous units, and, at the same time, the orderliness of large-scale, possibly global, unity and coordination.” Is that a statement you would agree with, or disagree with?

I agree that we need both freedom and order – markets and regulation, if you will, in the economy. And we need to be careful to match the scope of freedom and order to each other. The broader the reach of markets, the broader must be the scope of their governance as well. As I explained, I think there are severe limits to the idea of global governance, which is why I think truly global markets are unattainable.

You have (gently) criticized Milton Friedman for drawing too sharp a distinction between the market and the state. Is it not possible that your own work, while equally as important, might also one day be seen as drawing too sharp a distinction between the nation-state and the global-state?

I will be far long dead when we can talk about the “global state” and won’t at all mind the criticism

As you see it, how culpable is Germany for the current crisis we now find ourselves in here in Europe? Have austerity measures been helpful, or misguided?

Germany is key, and I think has fundamentally misjudged the situation. It was clear from the outset that austerity would make the debt situation worse rather than better, and that growth was required in addition to fiscal consolidation. But the German government blocked any action at the national and European level that would have given Greece and the other problem countries room to grow. I have in mind Germany’s insistence on very low inflation targets and its refusal to boost its own demand.

What are your feelings about the idea of European countries (those both in the Eurozone, and those not in the Eurozone) coming together in some way to provide itself with something like a Marshall Plan, a plan to help areas that need help right now?

That would be highly desirable, and may be the only way to ensure that Eurozone survives. In the absence of either some growth in countries like Greece or transfers from the rest of Europe, social and political conflicts will escalate, making an exit from the Eurozone a certainty.

Thank you.

Interview by Andrea Hiott, 2011.

photo credit: Hugo Munoz


Barry Eichengreen

Lesson to be Learned

Barry Eichengreen is George C. Pardee and Helen N. Pardee Professor of Economics and Political Science at the University of California, NBER Research Associate, and CEPR Research Fellow. He writes a monthly column for Project Syndicate and periodic columns for Conjuntura Economica (in Brazil), Finanz und Wirtschaft (in Switzerland), and Eurointelligence (in Europe).

Pulse: Professor Eichengreen, as you know, Germans have a difficult history with inflation, and the memory of this plays out heavily in politics here. As you see it, are Germans correct to still be so worried about inflation?

Barry Eichengreen: Anyone who has spent time in Germany (I spent a sabbatical year there some time back) will appreciate that the hyperinflation of the 1920s is seared into the collective consciousness. Not unlike some of your readers, I can remember my father who grew up in Germany telling me disturbing tales of the hyperinflation.

But what is harder to understand is why, while memories of the hyperinflation and its political consequences are so vivid, memories of high unemployment starting in 1930 and its even more dire political consequences aren’t equally dominant. Chancellor Bruning’s policies of austerity and the unemployment to which they led resulted ultimately in the breakdown of democracy and then the greatest single tragedy of the 20th century. Given the economic pressure being applied to societies across Southern and Eastern Europe, partly as a result of the policies of austerity on which Germany insists, I for one wonder why memory of that 1930s experience isn’t equally fresh.

In Europe, we have reached a moment where many of our leaders think the only way forward is to achieve further (more encompassing and whole-hearted) unity in our political and economic institutions, and yet the consensus (in terms of the non-elites) is still not there. You’ve written about the relationship between ‘the creation of institutions’ and ‘the creation of consensus’: How do you see this relationship, as it is playing out in Europe today?

The European project has clearly been driven by the elites rather than by popular consensus, with the elites pushing economic, financial and monetary integration in the hope that political integration would follow – that public opinion would adapt and that closer economic relations would lead to the emergence of a European identity. That theory has always been problematic; complaints about the “democratic deficit” and an imperialistic Brussels are of long standing. At the same time, there is evidence of movement in the expected direction. Not a few young people I’ve encountered describe themselves as both German and European. Maybe this is product of low-cost airlines (themselves made possible by European integration), which allow young people to holiday by flying into secondary airports in other European countries.

Levity aside, it’s clear that the construction of a European identity, or consensus, is under strain as a result of the crisis. Crises are when ties are either deepened or broken. We will see which is the result of the current crisis.

How culpable is Germany in the debt crisis Europe now faces?

I’m not too big on the language of culpability. But it takes two to tango. For every reckless borrower there is a reckless lender. The Greeks may have borrowed too much, but someone lent them all that money. German banks and those who regulated them clearly played some role in the crisis.

I’m also not too big on referring to the current problem as a debt crisis. Greece clearly has a debt crisis: its government debt is unsustainable and is in the process of being restructured. But Ireland has a banking crisis: its banks were allowed to grow too large, and when its housing bubble burst all the bad bank debt migrated onto the government’s balance sheet. Italy has a growth crisis. The fact that it has high public debt is hardly new. What’s new is its inability to grow, which casts doubt on its ability to service that debt. The tendency to oversimplify the crisis – to reduce an interlocking set of debt, banking and growth crises to debt, debt and debt – is part of what makes it hard for European policy makers to mount a coherent response to their problems.

Have austerity measures (such as those imposed on Greece) helped or hurt matters in Europe? Would you advise us to focus less on austerity right now, or is such a way of thinking still necessary?

Some countries like Greece have no choice but to pursue policies of austerity. Their governments simply can’t go on spending like there is no tomorrow. But very sharp cuts in public-sector wages, in pensions, and in social services can rend the social fabric. They are causing severe hardship, and I worry about political instability. We are already seeing the rise of extremist parties with less than full respect for democratic processes elsewhere in Europe, in Hungary for example. That’s why I’ve been arguing for some time that if you want Greece to persist with the necessary structural adjustment and fiscal stabilization it should be offered a carrot as well as a stick. Greece needs a Marshall Plan, not unlike the Marshall Plan received by Germany after World War II. Foreign aid conditional on structural adjustment – on making sure that people pay their taxes, for example – could help Greece adjust and return to growth, just as the Marshall Plan helped Germany adjust and return to growth starting in 1948.

The other caveat I’d make about austerity is that austerity everywhere at the same time is self defeating. If Greece and other Southern European countries are now going to spend less, someone else has to spend more. Reducing budget deficits in Germany right now is of dubious efficacy, in other words.

Professor Eichengreen, we are interested in how you came to study economics. What led you to this discipline, and to the specific topics you are now so well known for? Is it something you knew you wanted to do from the beginning of your studies?

At the beginning of my studies, all I knew was that I was interested in the social sciences. I was an undergraduate at an institution, UC Santa Cruz, with no grades and few requirements, so I sampled widely from history, political science, psychology, sociology and anthropology. I think I was drawn to economics because it had more structure. I was drawn to macroeconomics because I was interested in large social phenomena. And I was drawn to international macroeconomics because, even in the 1970s when I was a student, it was clear that the world was becoming increasingly globalized.

As for the specific topics I work on, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, it was Ben Bernanke, I think, who referred to the Great Depression as “the holy grail” of macroeconomics. If a macroeconomist can explain the Great Depression, in other words, he can explain anything!

Since you have studied and have a deep understanding of Europe and its monetary history and economic relation to the U.S., perhaps you could help us understand: What made the Marshall Plan so successful, and what lessons from this can Germany (and Europe) learn for today?

The Marshall Plan worked because U.S. aid was conditioned on market-friendly reform, as I mentioned earlier. But it also worked because it required the recipients to work together. Recipient governments were required to coordinate their plans for using the aid they received, which started them down the road of European integration.

For many normal, working people here, as frustrated as we are at times by the EU, it is hard to imagine how the German market could exist alone again: At the end of the day, is the only healthy choice now one that involves a common market?

No question, Germany would be worse off without the single market. Exporting would be more difficult in a world where Germany’s neighbors were able to discriminate against its goods and where they were able to manipulate their currencies. The key to Germany’s economic success in the last ten years has been exports, and it is not just China that has been on the demand side. California is better off because we have a common market of the 50 U.S. states, and notwithstanding our difficulties here no Californians seriously contemplate its dissolution. I similarly think that Europe’s single market is too far advanced, and that European firms have gone too far in adapting to it, to turn back now.

How much faith do you put in the idea that there could one day be a “United States of Europe”(in terms of a working monetary union)? If we want to prosper as a common market, do you see any other model (aside from that of the United States) that we can look to for guidance now?

Europe needs stronger fiscal and financial institutions to make its monetary union work. It needs stronger oversight by the European Commission of national fiscal policies. It needs stronger supervision of banks by the European Banking Authority. It therefore needs a stronger European Parliament to hold these institutions of fiscal and financial governance accountable for their actions. It seems clear that Europe will move over time toward deeper political integration. But I don’t think the United States is a model. I don’t envisage a “United States of Europe.” As I’ve written elsewhere, the European project is sui generis. While Europe will move in the direction of deeper political integration, my guess is that it will stop short of federation. Notice also that I have obeyed the first rule of prudent forecasting: give them a forecast or give them a date, but never both.

PULSE staff, 2011.


Michael Mandel: Economic Balance

The Ingredients of Balance: What Makes it Good?

Dr. Michael Mandel is well-known as an expert on innovation and growth. He is president of South Mountain Economics LLC, which is currently developing new metrics for estimating the impact of innovation and trade on state, local, and national economies. He received his PhD in economics from Harvard University and served as chief economist at BusinessWeek, where he directed the magazine’s coverage of the domestic and global economies. While at BusinessWeek, he was named one of the top 100 business journalists of the 20th century for his writings on innovation and growth. He has received multiple awards for his work, including “Best Economic Journalist of the Year” by the World Leadership Forum, and the Gerald Loeb Award for Business and Financial Journalism. Dr. Mandel heads the Innovation and Regulation Initiative at the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington and is Senior Fellow at the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at the Wharton School.

Pulse: As you see it, where (ideally) would the most productive funding for technology and innovation come from (government, big business, VC)? What is your ideal ecosystem, in this sense?

Mandel: The best ecosystem has a combination of government, big business, small business and venture capital . Government should be heavily funding basic R&D across a wide range of areas, while avoiding excess regulation that holds back innovation. Big business should be tackling those tough industry-wide problems that require large resources and a long time frame. Small companies should be making high-risk, high-return bets on a wide range of potential opportunities. And venture capitalists should keep funding a wide range of startups.

In the US, is the Obama administration aware of the need for strong innovation? How much faith do you put in President Obama’s newly formed committees such as the “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council”?

The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Council has some very good people on it, including Desh Deshpande. However, the Obama Administration still doesn’t understand that tightening regulation works against innovation.

Are you worried about the current U.S. deficit?

I am worried about both the trade deficit and the budget deficit. The U.S. economy is more based on consumption and borrowing than on production. That’s not acceptable over the medium or long run. The U.S. needs to put more emphasis on production, which means accepting a run. Instead, the U.S. needs to focus more on investment in physical, human, and knowledge capital

In creating our financial and social systems, would you suggest we focus more on flexibility rather than certainty?

We should focus on both flexibility and safety. Since I wrote my 2004 book “Rational Exuberance”, I’ve developed a greater appreciation of Black Swans, a term used by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to rever to unexpected events with unexpectedly large consequences. Prudent social and financial management should understand that bad events occur, so systems should be designed to not break when that happens.

Black Swans, both good and bad, are part of life. We have to plan as if they will happen, and structure our systems accordingly. For example, it’s important to keep debt from growing out of control, because excess debt makes bad Black Swans more dangerous.

In the United States, are people able to aim for higher growth and to simultaneously move from a consumer society to a society that thinks of itself as creative and manufacturing-based again?

That’s an excellent question. I believe that shifting from a consumer to a production economy is the only way for the U.S. to get genuine growth. It won’t be easy, though.

In that sense, do you still believe that the United States is the only place that can walk the path of exuberant growth? Daunting as it is, if Europe really were able to eventually achieve some kind of fiscal unity, would that allow them to move toward a high growth system that incorporate risk in the way the U.S. market is able to do so? More VC, innovation, creativity?

Good question. I don’t know. Europe over the past ten years has suffered from the same malaise as the U.S., which is the result of a widespread innovation shortfall. It’s less about fiscal unity, and more about the decision to shift to a more risk-taking strategy.

How did we get into the crisis we are in now in Europe?

I believe that the financial crises of recent years are caused, in part, by the stresses and distortions in the global real economy. In addition, global and national economic statistics have not yet caught up with the changes in the flows of goods and services.

How do you see Germany’s role in this crisis?

I’m not sure I understand the German economy. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, German manufacturing productivity growth has only averaged 1.8% per year over the past decade. If that’s accurate, it suggest the German economy has benefited more from the weakness of other Eurozone economies.

Photo credit: Zeno Crivelli

Michael Mandelbaum World Affairs Council

Michael Mandelbaum: Warning

That Used to be Us

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. and is the director of the American Foreign Policy Program there. He has also held teaching posts at Harvard and Columbia Universities, and at the United States Naval Academy. His most recent book, written with co-author Thomas L. Friedman, is THAT USED TO BE US: HOW AMERICA FELL BEHIND IN THE WORLD IT INVENTED AND HOW WE CAN COME BACK.

Pulse: Professor Mandelbaum, one issue you and Mr. Friedman discuss in your most recent book is the challenge the United States faces in terms of America’s growing deficits and debts. In short, what solutions do you prescribe?

Michal Mandelbaum: We believe that the United States needs both lower medium- and long-term spending and enhanced revenue to deal adequately with its deficits and debt. The paralysis of the political system, due to the sharp polarization of the two major parties, is responsible for preventing the appropriate measures.

You have said that keeping gas cheap is a failure of political will. Why is this a failure in the States?

Europeans and Japanese tax gasoline far more heavily than the United States does. America and the world would be better off with higher American energy taxes. Taxes are ultimately a political matter.

You’ve shown that America must wean itself from foreign oil. What would be the immediate benefits in terms of foreign policy?

The world won‘t be able to do without oil entirely for many decades. Reducing American, and therefore global, consumption, however, which is feasible, would reduce the revenues available to oil-producing countries, such as Iran, that oppose Western interests and values.

If a future America is able to wean itself from foreign oil and foreign credit to a considerable extent, what kinds of consequences do you see this having for us in Europe?

Lower American oil consumption would be good for Europe for the same reasons it would be good for the United States: it would weaken our common adversaries.

If the United States is to make such cuts, and become a frugal superpower as you describe in another of your books, why must that mean less humanitarian interventions as well?

In The Frugal Superpower: America‘s Global Role in a Cash-Strapped Era I foresee the end of American humanitarian interventions because the country will have fewer resources for foreign policy, because these interventions are unpopular, and because other missions are more important.

Do you imagine that would mean less humanitarian intervention globally, or simply that it would mean that such intervention would have to be an international effort, rather than dependent upon the US?

I am skeptical that other countries or groups of countries will engage in humanitarian intervention unless the United States supplies most of the troops.

If America’s four main challenges for the future are globalization, the revolution in information technology, its deficits and debts, and its pattern of energy usage, then what, in your opinion, would be Europe’s main challenges? Would they be the same?

By far the biggest challenge facing Europe today is the euro crisis. As for the other four, Europe, too, must come to terms with the consequences of globalization and the IT revolution. I have the impression that despite all our problems Americans are doing better here than are Europeans. On the other hand some European countries have less debt than the US, and Europe‘s energy policies have much to be said for them.

In the future, how do you see Europe (if it is healthy) fitting in with the kind of “global governance” that you discuss? How might our role be different from the past?

I am, I‘m sorry to say, pessimistic that Europe will offer much in the way of global governance, although I certainly favor Europe doing so. I explain the basis of my pessimism in The Frugal Superpower.

It is often said here that “Europe is forged in crises.” In terms of crisis, is the way dramatic change happens in modern Europe and in the U.S. different from the way it happens in countries in Asia and the Middle East?

We in the West are not, fortunately, going to experience the upheavals to which other parts of the world are prone. We do need mechanisms for gradual, constructive change. Sometimes crises are the midwives of needed change, but we shouldn‘t count on them.

In our hope to prosper through diversity, we are wondering: Why are immigration and diversity so essential to America’s economic strength and growth?

The United States has traditionally been a country of immigration, unlike most European countries. It was immigration that populated the vast North American continent, and immigrants from all over the world brought, and still bring, energy, talent, and drive to the United States.

Photo Credit: World Affairs Council


Marco Antonini: One Abstraction for Another

Art and Money. Yesterday and Today.

by Marco Antonini

Introduction (Ash’s Stash)

In the early Spring of 2011, after having followed the work of his then Bushwick-based exhibition space Fortress To Solitude, I invited Guillermo Creus to participate in NURTUREart‘s WE ARE: a Summer program that featured 10 different week-long projects by a diverse cast of artists, curators and organizations. He proposed to present three artists he had been keeping an eye on: Nadja Verena Marcin, Sarah Frost and Ash Sechler. Sechler‘s contribution to the show (titled Red Herring) was a stack of one thousand one dollar bills of his own money. The stack presented itself as a rather diminutive object, compact in size and irregularly textured because of the different color and condition of each individual note; it rested on our gallery floor exposed to dirt and wind gusts and –most importantly– totally up for grabs. Sechler signed a waiver releasing NURTUREart from insurance obligations on the piece. Red Herring was intended to be a materialization of financial risk: at the current state of his finances, $1000 was the most Sechler could have afforded to lose.

A few days after that meeting, the Guggenheim revealed its plans to present Hans Peter Feldman‘s one hundred thousand dollar Hugo Boss Prize award in the form of a gallery installation made of exactly one hundred thousand One Dollar bills. I received the Guggenheim’s press-release early one morning and immediately thought about Red Herring. One detail caught my attention: Feldman’s considerable stash was going to grace the storied walls of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural masterpiece pinned to the walls and guarded by Guggenheim security staff as capital “A” artwork. We were all amused by the coincidence and immediately understood the ups and downs of presenting Red Herring just a few weeks after Feldman’s closing date. I personally felt that it would be hard to avoid some sort of comparison with such a highly visible and spectacular installation. The upside, of course would be that of braving the superficial assumptions that many would have made about our show while holding on to the superior value of Sechler’s idea. To my eyes, Feldman’s gesture was paradigmatic of strategies reiterated over and over in contemporary art. Shock-value gestures that are not only empty and irrelevant but conceal (reverting the biblical idiom) a sheep in wolf clothing.

Soft Cash/Hard Cash

As with all works concerned with powerful subject matter and materials, money-related or currency-based artworks often miss the spot. There are a series of reason for this failure, but I would like to discuss at least a couple of them. Firstly, it’s honestly hard to re-shape (whether actually or metaphorically) something developed in form and meaning throughout the entirety of human history into something “else.” Decontextualising, tweaking or otherwise recasting actual currency is hard. Historically, money has developed a myriad of awesomely designed and conceptually charged forms and shapes: a web of signifiers (ripe with all sorts of symbolic and iconographical subtext, ranging from the pompous to the ridiculous to the mysterious) resistant to infiltration and manipulation. Furthermore, money in its visible forms can hardly be disencumbered from its universal symbolic power. In Kathy Siegel and Paul Mattick’s words, money exists to represent the social character of productive activity in a form ownable by individuals”. In fact, currency-based exchange can be understood as a form of organized religion. Once we have established that (e.g.) a British Pound does not circulate as a sterling unit weighing exactly a pound, we are in a grey zone were faith is absolutely necessary. Believers have been indoctrinated to the existence of an equivalent “solid” counter value to the worthless paper and alloy bits they trade for centuries. The roots of this belief, anyhow, could dig much deeper at times when financial transactions were largely based on goods and tangible product exchange. In a present of global financial crimes and transactional economies, money as a symbol is more than ever under close scrutiny , but dealing with it can be even more tricky, considering how fast and inexorably physical currency is disappearing from our lives.

In today’s economy, finance has elected a series of totally abstract instruments to phonemes of a new insiders-only code, a language of exploitation that travels over invisible networks, determining the unstoppable accumulation of fictitious capital. Benedict Seymour has recently compared this non-existing value to a feedback loop in which “an anterior process of valorization and expropriation remains necessary (…) in order for these claims on value to be made good, supported and sustained.” In this context, the aforementioned requirement of an unconditional belief in currency value has become increasingly unacceptable. Seymour’s sonic metaphor extends to encompass a larger reflection on the relationship between the developments of the financial world and avant-garde art in the post-50s. Apart from such specific concerns, I would agree that it was in that period that cutting edge artistic research and the corporate world started to share an interest in deregulation and flexibility, experimenting with new forms of dissemination for their “products” and determining the dematerialization of their core values. The influence of this dematerialization on the way artists perceive money, art and their respective meaning and value led more of them to investigate currency in their work. The most interesting among such investigations tackle the meaning of money; its influence on our lives, its role as an entry point to the abstract reality of the financial world and the mechanisms that make the preservation and development of its very existence possible.

Hand-Penned Checks and Burning Millions

As usual a precursor among all precursors, Marcel Duchamp created a hand-penned Tzanck Check to pay his dentist (Dr. Daniel Tzanck) as early as 1919. [Image] The check was created with the cynical intention of circumventing financial conventions and procedures thanks to an added “value” that, although technically art world -specific, could have been easily converted into monetary gain. As a matter of fact, the check immediately acquired value, far over its initial denomination, bringing Duchamp to eventually buy it back at an unspecified price. Another prescient example is Yves Klein’s 1959 checkbook for his Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle. Klein’s checks toyed with the idea of selling invisibility but, as in Duchamp’s case, it was the artist’s own aura that was being appraised and sold. It should be noted that Klein’s notes actually did promise a form of payback (although immaterial) and were attached to an elaborate ritual involving burning the check and tossing gold in the river Seine. As an artwork, the Tzanck Check was emitted as a self-sufficient object that did not suggest more than what it actually was, apart, of course, from the perspective appreciation of its value. In this sense, Duchamp’s creation was and is very close to the fictional reality of contemporary currency, created and destroyed in shady meeting rooms by Federal Reserve executives and farther removed from reality than a graciously and meticulously hand-penned note.

Ten years after, another ground-breaking artist would investigate money in an art context in a radically new way. Robert Morris’ Money intervention at the “Anti-Illusion” exhibition at the Whitney Museum (1969) simply required the museum to invest the budget available to Morris and pay him back at the end of the show. The significance of this investment was multiple as Morris was producing a quintessentially conceptual, hard to commoditize “piece” while also taking advance of the Museum’s financial means to gain a quick and sure revenue. Morris’ Money can be ascribed to similar semiotic and institutional investigations developed by Michael Asher, Robert Barry and Maria Eichhorn; it uses money (in the form of an invisible and unspecified “investment”) to probe the organizational structure of art institutions. It is a way of extending artistic practice outside of its confined fields of action, an interest that is shared by Cildo Meireles’s Zero Dollar (1978-84), Zero Cruzeiro (1974-78) and Zero Centavo (1974-78), in which he combined the notions of counterfeiting and valuelessness, indirectly investigating the nature of money while openly addressing the possibility for an artist to create a “circulating” artwork to be effectively disseminated outside of art world sanctioned precincts. Zero notes resemble actual money but are completely removed from the rules and regulations of currency-based exchange. Meireles’ fascination with money and his solid understanding of its symbolic power and semiotic potential (strongly tied to his interest in the socio-economical context of late sixties Brazil), is also evident in an earlier work, Money Tree (1969), a stack of one hundred folded Cruzeiros sold for the price of two thousand Cruzeiros. Money Tree emphasizes a slippage between the currency’s raising value as an art object and its mere monetary value, bound to diminish inexorably because of -then rampant- Brazilian inflation. Using rubber (one of Brazil’s primary exports) bands to secure the small stack, Meireles adds to the piece’s complexity, locating it at the juncture of culture, geopolitics and global commerce.

The modest monetary values of all examples so far considered are quantitatively overshadowed by a series of grandiose projects developed by K-Foundation, the moniker adopted by world-famous techno-pop band KLF after retiring from the music scene in 1992. Using their considerable fortune, KLF members Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty enacted a series of provocations intended to question the art-world and its core values. Firstly, they awarded Rachel Witheread with a “Worst Artist of the Year” prize, doubling the twenty thousand Pounds she just received as winner of the Turner Prize. After Whiteread turned the joke on them by donating the money to artists in need, they nailed a Million British Pounds to a wood frame and tried to exhibit the work without success. Prosaically titled Nailed to the Wall, the costly artifact was in fact quite difficult to show around — mostly for insurance and security related concerns. In a final coup de theatre, they burned the whole million, in a controversial private ritual that took place on the Scottish island of Jura in 1994. The event was filmed and featured in a documentary titled Watch The K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, released in 1995. In Jimmy Cauty’s words, the gesture was “about controlling the money, Because money tends to control you.” Drummond, on the other hand, has made no secret of his own conflicted feelings, a sense of guilt and shock that apparently took him over since the burning began, as reported in a contemporary article appeared on the Observer . In an apotheosis of nihilism, Cauty tried to destroy any evidence of the performance, only to discover that the footage had been saved by one of their assistants.

Buy It Now

Art and Money, as we have seen, have quite a history. Several books and exhibitions have tackled the topic of this (according to many) unholy union, with results ranging from the celebratory and spectacular to the flat-out critical. Money as medium and topic is still constantly addressed in contemporary art and always will be. Somewhere along the path, anyhow, artists have started to show a new attitude towards the whole idea of incorporating money in their discourse. In short, they are more and more attracted by the transactional nature of money, its disappearance from the physical world and the consequences of its circulation than from its “essence.” It is possible to trace back this trend to the increasing feeling of looming financial and/ or existential uncertainty shared by my generation as well as by the post-crisis youth of today. Money-wise, we have long lost our future — or so we’re told. We increasingly look at money like it’s really little more than an abstraction so it’s quite logical to think about it as artistic material. As Daniel Spoerri has noted, in exchanging art for money, we exchange one abstraction for another. Several recent artworks well represent this state of things, exploring and exploiting the current state of invisibility investing financial transactions small and large.

The venerable Nedko Solakov was an early mover in this direction, with his video-performance The Deal. In this work from 2002, Solakov converted a small sum of money from currency to currency until it was completely extinguished by exchange rates and fees. It is a bittersweet work that reproduces on a microscopic scale the dramatic waste implicit in all major financial operations. In its own modest terms, The Deal hints to an underworld of invisible black holes, small and large voids created and sustained by the financial system itself. Solakov’s little loss mirrors the daily squandering of all humanity in its forced escalation towards a desire for materialistic accumulation that benefits the very few who write the rules. Solakov’s positive statement of refusal is echoed by Cesare Pietroiusti and Paul Griffiths’ two Eating Money performances of 2006 and 2007. Volunteering to eat Euro banknotes of the highest possible denomination (offered via a public auction and returned to the owners after digestion and excretion) Pietroiusti and Griffiths have transformed their own bodies into a conduit for a nonsensical and poetic financial transaction. Nothing is wasted in this process; because of its own remarkable security and durability features, the banknotes come out in pretty decent condition, ready to be washed and admired as sculptural remains of the artists’ surrealist feat. Eating Money is a humorous and slightly disgusting tour de force that successfully reveals our “physiological” desire for money, fear of losing it and the disturbing distance between its abstract value and physical form.

A work by Romanian artist Ivan Moudov uses actual Euro coins as the vector of an immaterial exchange, surpassing their nominal value and transforming them into the props of a joyous and surprising trick. Romanian Trick (2008) [Image] is a private performance that can be staged by Moudov at any given time for an individual “client” who pays a variable sum of money to learn a street trick from the artist: the way to separate the exterior copper ring of a One Euro coin from its central nickel core. For this little tutorial, Moudov requires a payment to be immediately reinvested in artwork for his collection. In this way, value circulation and exchange and the creation of a cultural “surplus” all happen inside the art world and, to a certain degree, follow its logic. What’s even more interesting is the use of currency in its most obsolete form as a mere tool in the operation, a signifier that doesn’t really contribute any actual value if not via the enactment of its own unforeseeable destruction. The theme of money destruction is indissolubly linked to that of its disappearance and re-emerges quite literally in Caleb Larsen’s diminutive $10.000 Sculpture (in progress) (2009). In this work Larsen installs a single dollar bill acceptor (of the kind commonly found in snack vending machine) on an empty white wall. The device literally “eats” currency, accepting and depositing it in an invisible security box. For Larsen, the device “is a continual charity, or more cynically, a form of panhandling. It asks for money, and offers nothing in return.” The artist’s apparently straightforward attitude towards easy profit goes hand in hand with an artwork sale contract stipulating that the money collected by the piece is not to be considered as part of the work’s market value. In short, the money collected by $10.000 Sculpture (in progress) is to be considered mere material, producing artistic value only during the fleeting moment it takes to “activate” the piece.

These examples add to the contemporary discourse on money-related artworks and what Olav Velthius has described as “Imaginary Economics” while also signaling a shifting interest towards the processes that bring money from point A to point B, C, D and on to infinity in its constant transitional flow. This independent motion is, as many have noted, the real reason for the dispatch and displacement of goods and, increasingly, people around the world – not vice versa. Money and its independent, invisible movements are also the real reason behind mundane and dramatic political developments that shape the life of present and future generations. At a time where the interests of the seemingly all-powerful 1% that channeled this obscure energy for ages is once again coming into question, contemporary artists are increasingly called to reflect, analyze and discuss money and its fascinating dynamics in their work.

Thanks to: Sandrine Canac, Maja Ciric, Guillermo Creus, Danilo Correale, Francesca Divano, Ettore Favini, Dorian Kulla, Astrit Ismaili, Raul Martinez, Johan Norling,Veronica Valentini, Nikola Uzunowski, for suggestions and/or feedback.




1. Interestingly enough, at the time of this writing the single most popular and widely downloaded episode of the famous NPR radio program “This American Life” was “The Invention of Money.” One of program host’s Ira Glass initial remarks in the episode (originally aired on July 2011) is that, according to a businesswoman they interviewed “Money is fiction.” –

2. As far as counterfeiting goes, the trade has become more and more sophisticated along the years. Unfortunately, the idea of crime artists printing notes in the basement is now little more than a romantic fantasy; today, large organizations, most probably controlled by national banks, rule the game. The fact that one in ten thousand of American Dollars is suspected to be a “Superdollar” (a note forged outside the US with technology that exceeds the one used to produce the real notes) contributes to suggest that the collective trust in the social contract at the foundation of currency-based exchange might never be fully restored. In this context, the forgeries of a poetic prankster like J.S.G. Boggs (née Steve Lintzer, still active in the production of mostly hand-drawn, single sided “Boggs Notes”) or any other creator of alternative currencies for that matter are almost pathetic in their subversive efforts.

References for works discussed above, in order of appearance in text:

–Siegel, Kathy and Mattick, Paul: Artworks: Money (Thames and Hudson, 2004) p.15

–“an anterior process of valorization …“. originally pub. On MUTE magazine (research it).

–Tzanck Check. This powerful gesture was still outrageous 85 years after that, when it was lifted by Maurizio Cattelan, who emitted a one dollar check as a gift to one of his collectors.

–Money Tree. Zamudio, Raul, “Knowing can be Destroying”, on Part 5 –

–“about controlling the money…“.quoted from Watch the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid –

–as reported in… the Observer. Reid, J., „Money to burn“, The Observer, 25 September 1994. — As Daniel Spoerri has noted… quoted in Velthius, Olaf, “Imaginary Economics”, 2005 NAi Publishers. p.32

–is a continual charity…. Larsen, Caleb, “The Value of Nothing” (eBook available for Free download on



Anna Rohleder: Cashing In

At the end of my Wednesday afternoon yoga lesson, I presented a blue 500-rupee note to Masterji as usual. He took out a tan-colored 100 from his desk drawer, and paused.

“Have you got change for the autorickshaw?” he asked, eyebrows lifting in an expression of grandfatherly concern. “You should not be paying those rascals any more than 30 rupees – 40 only if they take the ring road!”

I knew Masterji was probably right, but 30 rupees still felt like an impossibly small amount of money to pay for the half-hour ride in the little three-wheeled tuk-tuk, or autorickshaw, from my neighbourhood in Bangalore to Masterji‘s place. After all, 50 rupees was only the equivalent of a dollar. That was one reason I had such a hard time bargaining with the drivers. Whether they detected my own vague guilt at „exploiting“ them or simply my lack of familiarity with the system, they were usually the ones to make a final offer in our transactions.

But I was too embarrassed to tell Masterji I had never paid less than 60 rupees one way. Instead, I showed him I had no change in my wallet, only a few other large notes.

“Come,” he said, unfolding his legs from a lotus position and rising fluidly from the chair, very much in the mode of a yoga guru.

Exhorting his other students to keep up their efforts in his absence – the asthmatic boy doing knee-bends, the overweight housewives rolling back and forth on their bellies – Masterji led me out of his rooftop yoga studio and down a steep set of winding metal stairs into the interior of his home. In a spare bedroom, next to a computer reposing under a dust cover, he took out a metal box. When he opened the lid, I had to stifle a gasp at the contents. It was full of change. From peach-colored tens and red twenties to the less commonly encountered, violet-tinted 50, Masterji had such a large hoard of small bills that I wondered briefly whether he alone might be responsible for the shortage of change I had been experiencing on a daily basis since coming to Bangalore.

Six months into my stay, I experienced nearly every variation of the change problem. No matter if I was trying to buy a cup of tea from a roadside chaiwallah or a bar of soap from an air-conditioned „departmental store“ at the mall, big bills had proven to be chronic deal breakers. The mere sight of them struck even the most loquacious and head-bobbling “Yes, yes, no problem, madam!” sort of merchant into a dull, aphasic stare. Cashiers tended to freeze in apprehension, shake their heads and sigh before opening a register drawer that was already full of other large notes. The clerks at my local grocery store had sometimes resorted to giving me change out of their own pockets. At the ubiquitous little stalls that sold a bit of everything – mini-sachets of shampoo, single cigarettes, cookies from a glass jar – I had, on occasion, been given my change in candy or even cough drops.

All the tongue-clucking and other sounds of exasperation that were triggered by holding out a one- or five-hundred rupee note made me feel as though I had transgressed against an unspoken local custom. But until I saw Masterji‘s stash of small bills, I didn‘t understand that it was because you could not just expect that more change would be available in the world “out there.” Instead, you were supposed to hold on to what you had.

Previously, I’d assumed that the Indian economy in general and money in particular worked the same way as in the West: one of those public utilities, like water, power, or the sewage system, that are as available and reliable as the air we breathe, and just as invisible in its workings. The analogy was unexpectedly apt. In the same way that the electricity went out during the hottest part of the day and the water tap sometimes produced only dry hissing, the supply of rupees was also a shared resource prone to sudden shortfalls.

In a country of one-billion-plus, there wasn’t enough of anything to go around, and that distorted the way economics was supposed to work. Whereas in the States, money was the soil upon which intangible ideas, dreams and desires took root and blossomed into material objects or experiences such as movie tickets, cell phones or a meal at a fashionable restaurant, this process seemed to turn back in on itself in India. During my stay in Bangalore and New Delhi in the mid-2000s, for example, there were a number of stories in the local media about criminal coin-melting operations in the eastern part of the country. The modus operandi of these gangs was to melt down huge quantities of steel 1-rupee coins, recast them as razor blades, and sell them over the border in Bangladesh for several times their original value.

Economies where coins have a greater value as metal than as money would be considered pre-modern by definition, and almost certainly unable to participate in the global economy of the 21st century as we know it, where most commerce is conducted on the basis of data or other digital equivalents rather than in specie. Yet India enjoyed a prominent role among other “emerging economies” in global trade while I was there from 2005-2007, and throughout the rest of the decade. Middle-class Indians were investing en masse in the stock market, real estate and other things whose worth relied on an abstract consensus of value. However, those same people were, like Masterji, simultaneously building up stockpiles of cash in their own homes the same way they filled up their own private water tanks from the municipal water line.

Masterji was a skilful hoarder, and I now appreciated his resourcefulness in that regard. Like one of the big software companies I had followed in my previous life as an IT industry analyst – software companies being the great Indian success story of the time — Masterji‘s relentless acquisition strategy had given him a competitive position in the market.

He fanned out an array of crisp tens and twenties.

„Where did you get these?“ I couldn‘t help asking.

The normal condition of most ten and twenty-rupee bills was less like paper than soiled, over-rubbed velvet. As the smallest banknotes that could buy something reasonably substantial, on the order of a newspaper, a pack of gum, or a cold drink, they were handled so frequently and so thoroughly (often emerging from people‘s clothing or shoes at the time of payment) that they also degraded fast. Despite the change shortage, some bills were even rejected outright by merchants. Yet it was rarely the notes I would have guessed might be refused, such as bills that had been taped together or had a lacy pattern of holes in the middle. For me this was confusing enough in itself, and it compounded the overall currency supply problem further. What was “good” small change? And how did people get a reliable supply of it?

Masterji chuckled. “I sent my wife to the bank yesterday.”

I found this hard to believe.


“Madam, hello, please come!”

Standing in front of his shop in the main market, Rehman called out to me. He was wearing his usual outfit (in fact, the only pair of clothes I had ever seen him in): a blue polo shirt, a pair of grey trousers and black sandals he would step out of when he came to my apartment to drop off a new 10-liter jug of bottled water. I walked over to his little shop: called „Dew Drops,“ it sold cold drinks, ice cream, long-distance phone calls, time on the internet and a variety of desktop publishing services. Its crammed interior felt cozy to me. Often when Rehman saw me walk past, he would beckon me over with an invitation to drink tea. I was only too glad to accept. The moment I slipped inside the dim shop, I escaped the spotlight of stares and giggling that followed me everywhere, and could become a spectator instead, watching the housewives, hawkers, school kids, delivery vans, motorcycles and cows all going about their ambling business in the market. Usually tea with Rehman didn’t involve conversation. I just took my place on the bench alongside the men in untucked shirts and loose trousers who seemed to be as much permanent fixtures of Dew Drops as the phone booth, ice cream freezer, and copy machines, and we all sat in silence, sipping our hot chai. Today, however, Rehman had a question.

“Madam, you are from America, isn’t it?”

I nodded.

“I want to know what is your largest currency note.”

Rehman was a youthful guy, with an open, affable face and a high giggle that punctuated his conversation, but this didn’t feel like the set-up to a joke. Nor was it like the questions I had gotten about the United States from other people. On previous occasions, Indians had asked me whether there were monkeys in America, if everyone owned a car, and why people had voted for George Bush. I could answer most of those questions. But this one had me stumped. Our largest currency note? I had no idea. My official reason for leaving the States was framed as an escape from the rat race, though for me this had been less a struggle to escape the stresses of working and spending than to understand the purpose of „paying my dues“ in the system. But still, money is the one thing we Americans are supposed to have factual knowledge about, especially our own money — so I decided to bluff.

“A $500 bill,” I ventured.

“Not one million?”

“Oh no!“ I laughed with relief. “Definitely not a million.”

Rehman looked puzzled. “But my friend, he was gifted a one million dollar note, from America!”

“That’s not possible,” I said.

“Madam, I have seen it!”

Rehman fixed his gaze on me. Indicted by my own ignorance, I tried to think of other possibilities, however improbable. “Was it small and green, or very large – like a poster?” I held my arms open wide. (Could his friend have won a lottery of the sort that involves a giant mock-up check?)

“There is a certificate. I will get copies,“ he said. He turned to move off, and then turned back. „Like to have tea?“ he asked belatedly.

I went to my accustomed spot on the bench. The men already sitting there shifted to make room for me.

A barefoot little boy appeared, carrying a tray of plastic cups of tea. I reached out for one, pondering Rehman‘s question. Was there any way this could be real? I wondered. A million-dollar bill seemed a very unlikely proposition. But then he seemed so sure of himself.

“Can I see the photocopies?” I asked.

Rehman waggled his head. “I am just bringing them.”

Edging past the row of tea-drinkers on the bench, Rehman made his way over to his sole employee, a guy in tight trousers and slicked-back hair, who seemed to spend all his time chatting on Instant Messenger. Rehman leaned in to his employee’s ear, and the guy got up from his station, taking a set of keys from the desk. Dragging out a dented grey scooter from the forest of other scooters, motorbikes and bicycles that grew up in front of the shops in the market every afternoon, he kicked it into life and sped off.

When he returned a short time later, he gave Rehman a large plastic envelope.

Smiling, Rehman took out a sheaf of papers. “There, madam, you see?” he said, handing them to me.

The first sheet was a stamped and sealed attestation which stated that his friend, the proprietor of a Muslim charity near Mysore, had not stolen, coerced or obtained by any other fraudulent means the donation in question. Then came a series of documents setting out the organization’s legal basis as a charity. Finally there was a photocopy, a certificate of authenticity, and the name and address of the donor in Florida.

The photocopy showed an engraved typeface reading ONE MILLION US DOLLARS along the bottom edge. A large image of the Statue of Liberty on the front occupied the center position of the note, where a President normally presided. And on the back was a statement saying: “This certificate is backed and secured only by confidence in the American dream.” The accompanying certificate announced, “This document confers membership in the Millionaire’s Club.”

When I read that, my stomach did a sick flip-flop. I kept looking at the certificate so I didn‘t have to meet Rehman’s eyes. What kind of person would send a fake million-dollar bill to a charity in India? Was this Florida resident the sort of bitter old man who might hand wads of Monopoly money to homeless people just so he could rasp, “Go get yourself a nice place on Boardwalk”? Had he searched out a Muslim charity to send his little Trojan horse on purpose?

Or was it possible to attribute a less mean-spirited motive to my fellow American, a kind of lazy charity? Maybe for him, a millionaire’s club membership was like a bag of old clothing he thought he could donate to people in the Third World, the joke-money equivalent of t-shirts and track pants.

Suddenly Rehman blurted out his real concern. “What I am thinking is how to deposit so much of money without government taking a tax. It would be a very high rate – at least 30 percent! And my friend says if I can find a way of doing without tax he will give me 20 lakhs as reward. I am hardly sleeping the last two nights, thinking what I will do with 20 lakhs!” he grinned.

Twenty lakhs was two million rupees (about forty thousand dollars at the time). In Rehman‘s mind, he had already joined the millionaire‘s club. And although I didn’t know him well, I could imagine the kinds of windfall fantasies that were keeping him up at night: some of the money would go to pay off the loan he’d taken to buy a color copier for his shop in hopes it would increase business; some would be added as a supplement to the remittances he already sent to his family in Bangladesh; while the largest portion would probably be set aside for the many-many things, from bangles and sari fabric to the security deposit on a larger apartment, needed to entice the pretty girl he’d met online (whose laminated picture he showed everyone) into becoming his fiancée.

I handed him back the papers. There was no good way to break the news. “Rehman, this is not real,” I said.

“What?” his brow furrowed.

“It’s just for fun – see here,“ I said, pointing to the line about the American dream. “Not backed by the American government.”

He said nothing for a moment as his millionaire dreams changed back into the more familiar shape of his everyday worries. Then his grin returned. “Oho, wait until I tell my friend!” he giggled. “I will tell him he must wash your feet and then drink the water!”

I bit my lip, unable to smile back. I hoped it really wasn’t a big deal for Rehman. As for me, I felt personally implicated by the fake note – maybe even exposed. If the bill was counterfeit, then so, by extension, was the American dream that backed it.

And wasn’t that the real reason I was in India?