The Answer That Destroys All Our Futures

You don’t really think about how monstrously useful banks are until you don’t have them.

I say this because people in ghettos – and specifically drug dealers – often don’t have access to banks.  That changes the whole way they have to live.  In Sudir Ventakesh’s excellent book “Gang Leader For A Day,” his drug dealer friend JT explains how hard it is to live when all your money is on the premises.  If you get a hundred (a lot of cash on those streets) and keep it on you, someone might mug you or pickpocket you.  Keep it in your house, and one of your roommates or relatives might take it.

Now everyone’s got some good, common-sense advice to get around – “Don’t tell anyone when you get some money!” “Hide your cash under the refrigerator!”  – but those aren’t proof against getting your filthy lucre stolen.  Sometimes it’s someone else who snitches that you’re carrying $250, often the person who gave it to you and hopes to get a cut back, and if your roommate knows the refrigerator trick, well, you’re gonna wake up to find your ass broke.

Carrying cash becomes a constant worry.  You have to be always on your guard.

And if you get real money, like a couple thousand, and you can’t put that in the bank, then what the hell do you do?  You become a full-on target when people know.  People start making organized attempts to take your cash, rival gangs or desperate bands of addicts or even just friends of yours who think maybe you’re a pushover and it’s worth pissing you off to get that $10k.  You can spread it out, give smaller amounts to people you trust for safekeeping, but what if those people betray you?

When you don’t have access to a bank, basically you have a problem that peasants have had since the dawn of time: where can you put money that people can’t beat you up and take it? 

And that’s been a problem since, well, forever.  You’ll see peasants who buried their scant piece of gold under the tree trunk in the yard, just in case the barbarians came.  Which worked well until Grandpa Joe died and forgot to tell people where the gold was, or until the barbarians tortured you until you spilled the beans, or the barbarians had raided enough villages to know all the usual hiding places.

For much of history, the “We were smart enough to accumulate a little cash to help us with future problems, now what?” has been a constant issue that people wrestled with.  And, again, there was practical, helpful advice that wouldn’t save you, but it was better than nothing: Bury it under the earthDon’t tell anybodyRun when the raiders come.

But really, the advice that truly would have helped these people is, “How can I stop the barbarians from breaking into my house and stealing all my shit?

And the answer given back then was probably what it’s given right now, which is, “That’s just the way the world is.  Only an idiot keeps a big treasure and doesn’t hire five crossbowmen to defend his life!  Everyone knows it’s foolish to amass treasure, spend it all now!”

The trick is, we actually solved this fucking problem.  Banks?  Are amazing!  I can keep, you know, a 401k worth enough to buy a house, and don’t have to worry about some douche with a gun stepping into my house and taking it all in one fell swoop!  That change has allowed for fantastic changes to society, where ordinary people can save up for retirement in a place where practically no amount of force on Earth can physically steal their cash, and we don’t even think about how safe we are these days.

That took a lot of complex societal changes.  We had to say, “We need to work together to ensure no random barbarians come and kill us.”  We had to say, “Fuck, people just breaking into homes is horrible, let’s create a police force to stop that.”  We had to say, “How do we pay for the police force to stop burglaries?” and fund them with tax dollars.  We had to say, “You know, it’s really not cool to steal, let’s create a culture that stops thinking it’s kind of clever,” and did that.  We had to say, “People who put their money in banks need to be protected from bad business practices,” and enacted all sorts of regulations and protections.

There were a thousand complex changes that had to happen for this miracle of safe savings to happen.  Some of them are more successful than others.  (And yes, maybe bank regulations are really uncomfortably lax right now, but I think we all agree it’s a damn sight better than stuffing your $100,000 retirement fund in your closet.)

There were two pieces of advice you could give:

The practical “shrug” advice to deal with the current situation.  “Bury your gold.”  “Don’t tell anyone about your wealth.”  “Just give everything to the barbarians, it’s safer than fighting them.”

The advice that actually starts to transform society to a place that fixes the problem for future generations.  “What can we build that’ll ward off the barbarians?”  “How do we make a place that’s safe for our money?”

And there were doubtlessly people who said, “Well, it’s useless to think about building something to ward off the barbarians!  There’s no guaranteed solution!”  And what they never considered was that the shrug advice was pretty shitty, too – you could bury your gold and have someone else dig it up, you could not tell anyone and still have it leak out, or you could just, you know, stop trying to acquire money and settle in for a long life in peasantry.

And that’s the advice we give about rape.

See, the thing is, on some practical level, “Don’t wear skimpy clothes!” “Don’t drink in strange places!” and that old happiness, “Don’t be alone ever with a man!” are all fine advice to reduce your personal risk of rape.  That’s reduce, mind you, because you can follow all the rules and get yourself violated – something the shruggers forget – but yes, in the day-to-day scheme of things, you’ll lower your risks of rape by restricting your behavior.

But the problem with that “shrug” advice to deal with the current situation is that, like the peasants trying to deal with barbarians, the advice to get by for today condemns women everywhere to a horrible future forevermore.  You are, in a very real sense, saying, “The world is a place where women get raped, and you’ll deal with this, and your daughters will, and your granddaughters will – an endless future of women living in terror.”

Is it any wonder women react poorly to this message?

I know y’all are trying to be helpful.  And sure, in one sense, “Bury your gold/don’t get drunk” is fine, practical advice to deal with today’s real challenges.  But in another, it’s completely abandoning the fight, assuming there’s nothing we can do as a society to stop the complex series of factors that make women unsafe.  It’s telling them that their bodies are the gold, and they can’t just choose to be poor, they’re always going to be carrying this treasure that people want to steal.

But the idea that they could one day pretty much eradicate the barbarians was unimaginable to a bunch of peasants living near Venice.  But they managed it.  It took generations, and a lot of blood, and a lot of change, and shit, as judged by a lot of the ways some people live in ghettos today (or some non-ghetto folks had their retirement funds chewed up by predatory bankers) we still clearly haven’t spread this glory to everyone, but damn if we as a society didn’t work up some solutions a fuck of a lot better than “Hide your gold.”

So when you give advice to, say, Jennifer Lawrence of “Don’t take nude pictures ever,” you can.   Just realize what you’re doing is shrugging and saying, “I don’t feel like we can change the world ever to make it safer for people.”

Then look back at all of history.  Look at the millions of people who died to getting burned by their cooking fires, and realize how easily you’ve tamed flame in your own kitchen.  Look at the millions who died due to unsafe water, and look at how easily you can pull yourself a glass of cholera-free drinking water in your kitchen.  Think of the millions who died due to plague and disease and broken bodies, and go to your local hospital and take a look around.

Think about all the miracles we’ve worked, things like the bank that you fucking don’t even consider because, well, it just works.

Then contemplate what kind of future you can build.

10 Comments

  1. John Wiswell
    Sep 5, 2014

    I’m with you on the wonder of banks, though I have seen them mismanaged enough to have my wonder tempered some. They are amazing institutions that can provide unparalleled economic stability in their ways. And like any amazing institution, they can be turned into antagonists. I could never be comfortable simply burying my gold, even when I had some.

    Tangentially related, but have you read Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin series? Ambitious line of books that put focus on how economics could stir and quell many of Epic Fantasy’s conflicts.

    • TheFerrett
      Sep 5, 2014

      I met Daniel at a convention and he talked about his pitch for his novel. I bought it. Became a huge fan of his, and I doubt he even remembers me.

      Best kind of con interaction for him! 🙂

  2. Mart Assery
    Sep 5, 2014

    It can be hard for our digital generation to imagine a world without at least semi-trustworthy banks, where we just have to hide our gold and hope no-one follows us to our stash or blackmails or scams us to find out where it’s hidden.

    But we don’t have to think of our grandfather’s experience. Just think of Bitcoin. It’s the same basically, just with less clubbering and village-pillaging than gold.

  3. Bryn
    Sep 5, 2014

    Um, banks take enormous precautions to prevent getting ‘raped’ by bank robbers. Vaults, Cameras, security guards, encryption. Your argument is flawed in that you are saying that what banks do is great and good and how it should be, but it is wrong to suggest that women should do the same to protect their loot.

  4. verity
    Sep 5, 2014

    The elegant turn your analysis took at the end on the price of keeping women’s bodies safe from barbarians reminds me of Wanda Sykes’ wish to have a detachable p*ssy; more convenient than banking it.

  5. Jeremy Shapiro
    Sep 5, 2014

    You have the most share options of anyone I’ve ever seen, but no RSS feed option. Any chance of that changing? Can I help? Every time someone shares a post of yours on FB, I love it, pass it around, have actually saved gdrive copies of a couple for easy future use… but then I forget you exist because that’s how I’m wired. I could probably change that wiring, but setting you up in my RSS feed is waaaaaay easier.

    Regardless, LOVED the post!!

  6. patchworkspider
    Sep 5, 2014

    This is absolutely brilliant… until you stop and take a look at where banks are at today. Banks make the world a lot better, no doubt, but they are far from ideal solutions to the problem they were created to treat, and they create many many deeply difficult problems of their own.

    It’s almost like the concept of veil of ignorance over again: what do you do, personally or systemically when the barbarians (civilized barbarians, to be sure but with barbaric priorities all the same) suddenly get control of the banks?

    So it goes with the banks. And so it goes with governments, or any other organized group of people who take on the responsibility of guarding human rights. Their priorities erode and change as they realize the influence they wield.

    Planning for the future is still the way to go. I believe in the singularity, ffs. I’m not writing this to convince you that you’re wrong or that women don’t deserve much, much better than they’ve gotten up to today. Because you’re not, and they do. I’m writing this to say: keep thinking through what you’re saying, explore the ramifications more, because you stopped too soon.

  7. Matt N
    Sep 8, 2014

    Really liked the article. For people like me who come from a very blue collar background, dealing with some of the dense terminology of social issues conversation is nigh impossible… Especially when you associate university education as a tool of the upper middle class. This was a non-patronizing analysis of the issue that helps me understand the core problem a bit better.

  8. Oonah V Joslin
    Sep 8, 2014

    Of course we can change the world! But it requires not thinking of women as women but people and creating cooperation rather than competition so that everyone in this godforsaken world conrtibutes to and internationally fair society and get all they need — NEED mind — including some leisure in which to develop and create. If there was no poverty, no wealth, no peasants and no toffs then we wouldn’t need banks. Of course this is way too Star Trek of me.

  9. Frankie
    Sep 9, 2014

    WHOOSH, the point goes over Bryn’s head. To keep money safe, we put it in bank vaults with security systems. To keep water safe, we put it in lead-free pipes with treatment systems. To keep ourselves safe, we live in a civilized nation with legal systems.

    Currently, the civilization and the laws aren’t dealing with certain problems well enough, and some barbarians (predatory banks, phone hackers, etc) are running rampant. But when people shrug and say “the world is bad; you just have to live with it”, the correct reply is “no, we can change that”.

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