Up to a certain point, my reasoning powers are – if I say so myself – excellent. In high school, mathematics was one of my best subjects. I have to admit that by the time we reached trigonometry, the logic which had made the rest of mathematics such a breeze for me began to break down. Eventually, I did figure out trigonometry, but just.
Believing that math was a strong point of mine, in my freshman year at college I signed up for a course in calculus – which then followed trigonometry on the path to higher mathematics. I clearly remember sitting in my first calculus class and having the instructor chalk the delta symbol on the blackboard, saying that it represented the tangent between a curved line and another line. With this remark – which I have been told was not a good way to introduce calculus, although I do not think there would have been any good way to introduce it to me – my mind closed down. I dropped the course.
Subsequent failures of understanding when faced with difficult scientific concepts have lead me to believe that there is a structural deficiency in my brain.
I loved algebra – first encountered, I think, in the seventh grade. It seemed like a sort of literature, in which alphabetical symbols became metaphors for numbers. I got so far as to be able to see the logic behind solving what I’d thought were called “binary equations” but which Wikipedia tells me now are called “quadratic equations.” At sines and cosines my mind began to wobble. Beyond that, I could not go.
I attribute my inability to grasp certain concepts outside of (or tangential to – yes, I do know what “tangent” means) mathematics to the same mental deficiency I discovered that first day of calculus.
What brought all this up is a current news story about the French authorities putting on a grand display – under the l’Arc de Triomphe, no less – of destroying tons of objects made of ivory in order to discourage elephant poaching. What I cannot understand is how destroying things made of ivory will discourage the trade in ivory. It seems to me that the effect would be to encourage poaching, since it will make ivory even more valuable than it already is. Sure, it may demonstrate that the authorities are adept at finding and confiscating illegal ivory, and that might discourage some poachers. But wouldn’t destroying the confiscated ivory encourage others, since the increased risk that they might be caught and their wares confiscated would be offset by ivory’s increased rarity, now that so many tons of it were crushed to powder under the Arch of Triumph?
There must be a more complicated explanation, one which I am unable to comprehend.
One huge, important thing which I fail to understand, is money – where its value comes from. I understood money when it was backed by gold. That was simple algebra: there was x amount of gold and silver and that equaled y amount of dollars and pounds. The values of x or y could change, and different variables might come into play, but at the end of the day it was an equation with an equal sign in the middle.
After the gold standard was dropped, I still kind of understood money. Governments printed (or coined) money; money still had a physical existence, as bills and coins; no matter how much was minted, there still would be a limited, finite amount of it, just as there was a limited, finite amount of stuff that could be bought with it. It was another equation, a lot more complicated, but still with an equal sign in the middle of it.
But now money is not based on the physical existence of the bills and coins in people’s pockets and in the vaults of banks, it is based on nothing more than numbers in computers, on electronic combinations of 0’s and 1’s. The amount of money that can be put into circulation is infinite. All it takes to produce money, to accumulate money or to spend money, is a few clicks on a computer keyboard.
Is there enough real currency in the world to cover the amount of real assets in the world?
If I, or any of my friends, decided to cash it all in, to sell our investments, to sell all our assets, we could, with a bit of scurrying around, eventually realize it all in dollars, which we could put in some suitcases and wander off with to Macao or Monte Carlo. But what if Microsoft decided to cash it all in? Would there be enough hard money – dollars, yen, pounds, renminbi, etc. – for Microsoft to dole it out to its erstwhile shareholders? Maybe. But then what if Apple were to do the same thing, and Google, and Walmart, and de Beers and IBM and Grand Union, General Mills, Motors and Electric, British Air and Petroleum, etc. etc. Is there enough cash in the world to cover all those assets? I doubt it. All there would be would be a bunch of 0’s and 1’s.
But, as I say, I have a mental deficiency. Either I rely too much on logic or my logical facilities are limited. Perhaps I simply am unable to grasp certain abstract realities. I could not grasp how a symbol on a blackboard could represent a tangent between two lines. In the same way I cannot grasp how inserting a symbol, such as $ or £ or ¥, before a number can create confidence in a rational person’s mind that the number has a value that can be translated into real things such as a banana, or 100,000 acres of banana trees with all the machines and labor required to maintain them and bring in a harvest.
The emergence of bitcoins and other virtual currencies seems to bolster my dubiousness. There is no question that the duds of the geeky virtual money emperors do not really exist and they will soon be seen as parading around buff naked. But what about the great emperor, the emperor of the world, the greatest emperor of them all: “real” money. Isn’t his regalia just as imaginary and isn’t all that protects him nothing but a bubble which one little prick of lost confidence can destroy?
But, as I say, I’m just stupid about some things. There must be more propping up money than just popular confidence. Not everyone believes in God, but everyone believes in money. I do too, after all. So there must be more to it than just blind faith, mustn’t there?