In 2005, David Foster Wallace began his brilliant commencement speech at Kenyon College with a parable:

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”

When I first became interested in money – what it is and how we think about it – I hubristically pictured myself as the old fish, swimming around and explaining to law students how ignorant they were of the money-matrix in which we are all embedded.

After all, money – with its numbers, tokens, terminology, and ideology – has penetrated the human psyche more deeply than almost any other linguistic technology, with the possible exception of the laws that shape its architecture. Money has established and destroyed empires, unleashed and repressed innovation, and strengthened and shattered communities across the planet, to say nothing of the money-driven big law bubble that dominates our profession. [1]

Money also pervades our personal and professional lives. We enter law school with huge student debt, and most of us will spend our lives seeking money on behalf of clients or our firms. One need only hear terms like “fiscal cliff,” “national debt,” and “global financial crisis” to appreciate the massive social implications of monetary system breakdown. And how many bleeding hearts among us have had political arguments with our more economically oriented friends that end with them saying, “Well, that all sounds lovely, but how are you going to pay for it?”

Yet the more I’ve beat this drum, the more I’ve come to appreciate just how cognitively corrosive it is to view the world in monetary terms. Money is just keystrokes on a computer. Unlike the nuanced, evolutionary and qualitatively rich languages of law, music, literature or pure mathematics, the language of money is crude social arithmetic. It reduces the endless diversity of thoughts, feelings, and interactions that comprise the human condition – the real “water” in which we swim – into a single quantitative heuristic, guided by two simple rules: (1) more is always better than less, and (2) everything has a price.

The truth of the matter is that our “water” has nothing to do with money. As commodity fetish theorists have long argued, our economic pathology arises not from a failure to appreciate money’s significance, but rather our belief that it is, in fact, of any real significance whatsoever.

A more appropriate metaphor for the social function of money is alcohol. It distorts reality in a way that can be healthy and socially lubricating in small, infrequent doses, but if consumed excessively leaves us dizzy, sick, and addicted. The allure of the bottle is particularly hard to resist for law students raised to crave external validation, trained to think formalistically, and professionally hobbled by student debts.

For example, when I ask other law students why we accept the massive social harms of involuntary unemployment – not just recently, but even during “boom” times – the answers never involve real resource constraints (food, electricity, factories, organizational capacity). Instead, they all involve money. The government “can’t create jobs” (which are by definition just things people get paid money to do, like the men outside strip clubs with full-body signs saying “Naked girls here”). Money-financed job-creation is “hyperinflationary.” Budget deficits and the national debt are “unsustainable.”

These reasons are bullshit. We wouldn’t condone a teacher excluding one in ten students because “schools can’t create enough lessons,” or “the class computer ran out of numbers.” Why accept it from economists? It is nothing but failed dogma, responsible for widespread poverty, stagnation and despair. We deserve better.

So why should lawyers bother talking or thinking about money at all? In the same way that addicts gain the strength to abstain through sharing experiences and struggles, discussing money realistically and legally with other progressives strengthens our collective capacity to resist its corroding effects on our thinking, values and behavior. That way, when we encounter – as we inevitably will – money-related obstacles in our struggles for democratic values, public investment, universal education or environmental sustainability, we can remind ourselves over and over:

This is alcohol, not water.

This is alcohol, not water.

Rohan Grey is a 3L and former music teacher from Sydney, Australia. He is a co-founder of the Modern Money Network, a global, student-driven learning hub dedicated to understanding and improving the function, design and legal regulation of money and finance.

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