Cashing Out


A fascinating discussion on transactions takes place in this EconTalk podcast from 2007. In it Viviana Zelizer discusses the confounded relationship we have with ‘intimacy’ and ‘money’. She observes that society sees these as distinct cultural norms and strives to keep them separate.

How does money taint experience? Are there moments when a cash equivalent is simply rude?  Attend a dinner party and choose to give your host a $20 bill “I know you wanted wine, but this is so much better.” Say a neighbor learns of another community member being ill. Coming to her door, she offers chicken soup and says, “I hope this kills the sickness.” Does the neighbor offer cash?” When does rudeness make its entrance? 

Money makes things murky. We pay for food from the grocery but never at family holidays. Is the fastest way to ruin Thanksgiving the act of leaving $10 on the table. “This isn’t a restaurant”, this hose might say. And yet both restaurant and family meals involve the consumption of food. In both situations another space is used. Wherein lies the difference?

Relationships are key. In family dinners the introduction of money symbolizes a misunderstanding of the transaction. Money is not working here: the family meal is one in which emotion is transacted. “I care for you so this is free.” Our grocer does not “care for us” in this sense: their business is dependent on our money to continue in its function.

What role does money play in human life? With currency we exchange one thing for another. The bottle of water is a dollar. Exchange your dollar for the water and the transaction takes place. Economies function on these most basic actions. And yet, despite this seemingly simplistic action we manage to complicate the issue. Perhaps it is because these transactions are so cold and simple that introducing them into intimate relationships spell trouble. The payment of cash is one without emotion. I want it so I give it. What function does money play? Often its a symbol of indifference that, divorced of our emotion, works to get to what we want without the murky work of feelings.

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