Money is pretty strange, especially the more you really think about it. What makes people willing to hand over things like DVDs, steaks, and churros in exchange for a piece of paper with ridiculous little pictures and numbers all over it? Why would anyone trade a delicious arrachera taco, say, for a grubby little piece of metal with an eagle stamped into it? Why do sane people accept these transactions as reasonable, let alone desirable? Well, there are of course a lot of reasons behind these kinds of decisions, including everything from the political power of states to a kind of trust that exists within a community of users. One question that always gets me thinking is this: what exactly upholds the value of money? State power? Trust? The symbolic meanings that people attach to money? Habit? A big global conspiracy? All of the above!?!*
I have been working in Mexico off and on since around 2007, and during that time I have had a few interesting run-ins with this thing we call money. Many of these experiences point to one particularly intriguing fact: the value of money is anything but stable. Of course, we all know that. Markets shift, currencies rise and fall. Inflation happens. The value of money changes all the time, right? Yes, it does. But what I am talking about is how money that is supposedly stable at larger levels can change value depending on specific social situations. So values shift in the macro sense, but also in micro, very quotidian senses as well. And the reasons for those micro fluctuations of value are many. In short, when it comes to the actual value of money, social context matters. A few examples:
1. Size matters: Small change is god in many places. Not just Mexico, of course, but that was where I learned this lesson. I got the chance to travel around in Oaxaca City and the surrounding area in 2007-2008. There was one incident that really drove home the value of small change, right after I arrived in the city. I took a bus out to visit one of the pueblos on the outskirts of the city with a few other friends. The fare was cheap, about 10 pesos. Well, I spent my small change during lunch, and when I went to get on the bus for the ride back to the city, I tried to pay with a 200 peso bill. The driver looked at me like I was insane. At that moment and in that situation, the bill was clearly not going to work.
In a truly pragmatic way, that note of exchange was worth almost nothing. Not for someone who needed a ride. Luckily, after asking around a bit one of my traveling companions had an extra 10 pesos, and I was once again back in business. But that moment was key–a big lesson. Once you figure out that carrying around a large bill can be about the same as having no money at all, you gotta get strategic about finding ways to get change. There are certain restaurants and stores that deal with enough cash and larger bills that getting change isn’t too bad. The funny thing is that during many transactions at certain stores, the person at the register would literally grumble, if not outright argue with me for using 200 peso bills (which is less than 20 dollars). So sometimes I would give in and give up the chance for some change, and other times I had to hold out because I was running low. But when things were going really well, I had a nice collection of small coins, which was essential to be able to go to the weekly markets and actually buy something.
Anyway, in this case, the point is that there are moments when small change might be considered more valuable (desirable, useful) than technically more valuable bills.
2. It’s all about location: Here’s another really interesting thing about value and money and Mexico: sometimes it matters where you are. I’ll use the Baja California peninsula in this case, which is where I am working for my dissertation research. Let me start off by saying that compared to some other parts of Mexico where I have traveled, the US dollar is actually quite readily accepted throughout this peninsula. That’s because there has been a pretty steady flow of travelers from the US (many by car) for decades. It’s also because of the power and influence of the US. But the rate of exchange is a matter of debate and negotiation. It all depends.
Yes, there are standard exchange rates. Of course there are, and people know these rates. In the past four or five years, the exchange rate between the dollar and the peso has hovered between about 11 to 1 and 13.5 to 1 (which is where it’s at now). In many cases you can get a pretty decent exchange rate if you try to pay with dollars. Pretty close to whatever the official rate happens to be. But, in some “out of the way” places, that probably won’t happen. Of course, that makes some sense at an intuitive level, but there’s also something going on that’s worth looking at, I think.
Using dollars is fine–especially near borders and in tourism zones. But in other places currency from the US starts to lose its sheen a bit. So what happens is this: when you find yourself outside of these main centers, the exchange rate gets closer and closer to about 10 to 1. For several reasons, among them the fact that the math is a lot simpler than trying to figure out the proper change for a 13.5 to 1 exchange rate. When I drive through some town in the middle of the peninsula and want to stop and buy something cold to drink, the person in the store isn’t necessarily going to be pleased to see a green bill with Abe Lincoln’s head on it…hence the tough exchange rate. If I hand over 5 bucks, it’s probably going to get treated as 50 pesos. I lose some value, but that’s the way it is. Sure the dollar is backed by the US, but that little tienda isn’t in the US and it’s about 97 outside. It’s a “take it or leave it” kind of situation.
So the official value and exchange rate of a dollar is one thing in theory, and another thing in a small place like Cataviña, to give another example. If you’re out of gas there and have to stop and refill from the guys who sell from large drums on the side of the road, don’t expect to get the rate you saw back in Tijuana when you crossed the border. You might get lucky, though. I usually do not get stuck in that situation, since I get pesos right when I cross the border. But I hear lots of complaints from folks about these tough exchange rates in the smaller towns along Mexico 1, which traverses the whole peninsula. The point: sure the dollar is stable…except when it isn’t.
So the point of this example is that even with an agreed upon exchange rate between two nations (in this case the US and Mexico), the actual daily value of money shifts all around depending on where you happen to be. So geography–social and physical I suppose–matters as well. Sure, the value of money is backed by state power…but that power has its limits and edges where things get a little fuzzy.
3. Give me some credit: Ok, this is my last example. This one took place in Baja as well. During the summer of 2010 I was down here doing some prelim work for my dissertation. I had to rent a car. This is not cheap around here, mostly because it’s a tourism zone and prices are inflated. Well, when I went to actually rent the car, I ran into a problem. My credit union card from the US did not work for the transaction, since it was technically a debit card (even though many debit cards will work, this one did not. Oops). So the rental company would not let me actually rent a vehicle. And here’s the kicker: I had enough money for the rental in my account. In fact, I could have gone to an ATM and taken the money out to pay for the whole rental. But that was not possible.
To rent the car, they needed a credit card–which means that the form of money that I happened to have was wrong for that transaction. Therefore, in that situation, the little electronic blips of money that I had were suddenly not sufficient for what I needed to do. It was not a matter of getting MORE money, which was amazing to me. I will never forget that afternoon–it was an interesting lesson. Of course, I understood why they wanted credit cards (liability, damages, etc), but what this illustrated to me is how the access or lack of access to particular forms of money can really limit the possibilities of what people can do.
The same thing happened when I tried to rent a hotel room later that day: no credit card, no deals. So this lack of access to money in the plastic-card-with-proper-logo form effectively kept me blocked from certain kinds of possibilities. It did not matter if I could actually walk in with the correct amount of cash…the rental agencies and hotels demanded money in very specific forms. So this is another case in which the actual value of money is quite situational. So what did I do? Well, I found a hotel that took cash. And for the car, well, that took a few days of finagling to work out (I had to get authorization to rent the car with one of my wife’s cards). Nobody was willing to rent me a car for cash…at least not where I was.
What does this final example show? Well, it shows that sometimes having the right technical amount of money isn’t enough. Sometimes, if you don’t have the right amount of money in the right form, you are out of luck. This is one way in which money can be used to keep some people in…and others out. When I dealt with this credit card situation, I kept thinking about the vast layer of the tourism economy that was basically closed off from anyone who had not entered into the wonderful world of credit.
I’ll end with a good quote: “Money conveys meanings, and the meaning of money itself tells us a lot about the way human beings make the communities we live in” (Hart, Money in an Unequal World, 256). What kinds of meanings about community do the above examples convey? Lots, I’d say. About the tensions between two neighboring countries, about class, power, geography, and new forms of economic segregation. If nothing else, money tells us quite a lot about the instabilities and complexities of human relationships. It’s a medium of exchange, sure, but it’s also a social medium that builds relationships–and creates boundaries. Think about that the next time you buy a churro from a street vendor in Tijuana while waiting for your chance to slide on through one of the largest international crossings in the world.
*For really good anthropological discussions about money and value and that sort of thing, check out Keith Hart’s Money in and Unequal World and his 1986 article “Heads or Tails? Two Sides of the Coin.” Oh, and you might also want to check out Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Excellent stuff.