As my dad says, “It’s all about the money.” This is not just a perception held by him, but by most Americans today – and understandably so. Money has radicalized every aspect of our daily lives. While the use of money (or some medium of exchange) has been around for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that our perception of money – here in America – began to evolve to for better or for worse.
Before 1850, America (as well as Europe) measured the stability of their nation on the basis of “moral statistics”. These statistics assessed prostitution, incarceration, literacy, crime, education, insanity, pauperism, and life expectancy, all related to the internal and external health of human beings.
The struggle to end slavery is the starting point for today’s view of money. Hinton Helper published “The Imminent Crisis of the South”, in 1857, which listed the economic value of resources extracted from the earth in the North and the South. He concluded from an 1850 census that the North produced $351,709,703 worth of goods while the South produced $306,927,067. Later published books (such as James Henry Hammond’s “Cotton Is King”) confronted the idea that a nation’s worth should derive from the morality of its citizens. As a result, the production of goods and services has become the key indicator of a nation’s economic value.
In 1861, with a civil war looming, the United States issued its first version of paper money to help finance the war. The Federal Reserve Act was passed by Congress in 1913, enacting our Federal Reserve System. A year later, Federal Reserve Notes were issued to the public – which is the currency we still use today.
This piece of paper – weighing one gram – set in motion a turbulent view of how we perceive not just others, but ourselves.
Earlier this year, CNBC conducted a study of 2,500 people that found that 42% of Americans feel that money has a negative impact on their mental health. About half of participants said that “checking their bank account is a trigger, while others noted that paying a bill, making a purchase, or having to talk about money makes them anxious.”
Many of us going to school today chose majors that we knew were financially successful rather than a passion. I ran into a classmate recently while leaving my apartment, and it led us to talk about our majors. I asked them what their specialty was and got the following response: “Biomedical Engineering”. I raised my eyebrows when I replied, “Sounds interesting,” to which they replied, “It doesn’t, but the salary is.”
Denmark is one of the few countries where students do not face the same post-college financial worries as Americans. Why? University students are not required to pay for higher education – in fact, Denmark pays its students up to $1,000 per month while enrolled. Denmark’s welfare state is supported by one of the highest tax rates in the world for high earners – 56%.
With that in mind, as a pre-college student, why choose a career where you’ll earn more when you won’t see more than half of your salary income?
Still, there are arguments that Denmark’s higher education system does not produce enough interest in jobs that meet the country’s labor market needs – for example, engineers. But, unlike the United States, Denmark paints an interesting picture of what humans value if money was not an option in their career choice.
I think perhaps the most interesting thing about Americans is our distrust of the rich. Time and time again, the proletariat has been an innocent bystander as our establishment took our economy into a plunge. The reasons for working class cynicism toward wealth are apt. What makes the history between the two factions paradoxical is that most of those who criticize the rich hope to be rich themselves.
The “American Dream” is what keeps most of us in this perpetual and alluring pursuit of money. GoBankTariffs conducted a study that found that 52% of Americans describe the wealthy as “hardworking” and 43% use the word “smart.” This survey raises the question of how many Americans are actually affluent seekers, as opposed to the favorable opinions garnered from their peers that come with being considered affluent.
Whatever your reason for being rich, make sure it’s not associated with the “American dream” because after all, it’s just a dream.