Our money system is like a playing field; it determines what rules are needed and how the game is played. For example, you cannot play football on a tennis court. Or if you run at a nearby school, you will likely run on the track that circles the center field. You could run back and forth across the middle of the field, but imagine how difficult it would be if a football game were in progress!
Game fields are a metaphor for how our mind and our society works: just as we move according to the rules of the game on a playing field, we think according to the paths set by our education, culture and experience. Our lives work like this, too: we live in the grooves of our thinking and culture. It takes a determined, conscious effort to step off the track and out of these grooves to see them clearly.
On a football field with a team of players who agree to follow the rules of football, characteristics of the players will be reinforced over time. The quarterback will be trim and fleet of foot. The linemen will be bulky. The game requires certain behavior and behavior shapes the physiques of the players.
The same applies to us: we may think we shape our homes and our communities, but it is two-way shaping. We begin with our genetic heritage and then the individuals we become – our attitude, values, skills, even our tastes – are shaped by the families and communities in which we live. The physical environment and the culture shape us. Since it is possible to develop an understanding of how we are shaped, we have the capacity to turn around and make choices to reshape our culture and environment.
I was Head of a Montessori school for many years and had occasion to discuss the nature of children with both traditional and Montessori teachers. Traditional teachers often bemoaned what they believed to be a fact: children are lazy and will do as little schoolwork as possible. These teachers believed rewards and punishment are necessary classroom tools. Montessori teachers know that in the right environment kids are naturally eager learners. Children learn because they love to learn when they are given the freedom to do so in a well- equipped classroom with skilled guides. There is then no need for them to expect a reward for every correct action and punishment for transgressions. Children develop different attitudes and characteristics in different environments and different types of classrooms.
In the same way, people who grow up in one money system will have different attitudes and characteristics from those who grow up in another. Within one system some people may be dishonest, get away with anything they can, and value money more than the health of their communities. Within another system, people may act quite differently. Systems can bring out the best or worst in our nature.
Because it is so important we understand how much our money system matters, here is another example of how the system we choose determines outcomes and reflects specific values.
Only a generation or two back, it was standard practice for teachers to grade on the curve. Grading on the curve compared everyone’s performance with the rest of their class; it did not determine whether everyone had mastered a subject. When grading on the curve, even if everyone did well, only a small number could get ‘A’s and some had to flunk. Grades have lifetime impacts, so choosing to grade on the curve meant some kids were labeled the best and some the worst. Grading on the curve said we valued establishing an elite and culling flunkies; we did not care so much about competency.
We recognized this system did not match our values, and we changed it. Most teachers today grade on competency because we are clear we value competency over establishing a hierarchy of greater and lesser people. This conscious change matches our grading system to our values. We value giving everyone an equal shot at mastering an education and we made that value match our practices. Our money system has lifetime impacts: Who has the best chance of succeeding with new enterprise? Is the playing field level? Do we fund prevention or crisis management? How equitably is wealth distributed in our society?
What drives our economy? Health? Long-term sustainability? Short- term profits? Family values? Efficiency? Stability? Hard work? Privilege? Who has the power to make choices for us all?
When we understand our money system is not working as we would like, we can choose a different system that more closely matches our values.
We can change our system.