I am wearing a sweater. It was made in Italy, from some of the fuzziest sheepies on the planet. New it cost more than $100; I know because it had the original tags on it when I bought it, never worn. I got it for $3 at a thrift store, because it was irresistibly tasty to the ubiquitous keratin loving Tineidae moths — like some of my other woolens, it has a few holes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t soft and warm. Last night my friend Elana got a cute little Smartwool top for $6 that would have cost $60 across the parking lot at Neptune’s: another 90% discount courtesy of the insect world. This is a repeatable exercise. How do these things lose virtually all of their monetary value, while retaining so much of their sweatery goodness? The answer I think, is that we have imbued many material things with powers beyond their physical existence. A merino sweater is not just a way to stay warm and dry while riding your bike uphill. It is also a way to signal to the other hairless apes that you are of a certain class, or even ideological bent. Our things have become a means of communication, a way of transmitting information. These are some very expensive bits and bytes.
I realize that this isn’t news. We’ve been doing this kind of thing with shells and feathers for almost as long as we’ve been human. I only bring it up because recently, I’ve found that the information these artifacts transmit to me has been turned on its head. Having a thing only implies wealth if you have to pay for the thing ahead of time. In a debt based economy, having a thing means you have promised your future labors to the Rumpelstiltskin thing-brokers far away in their tall sky scrapers. Today, to have a thing more often implies a kind of indentured servitude. A poverty of time and flexibility. And what other kind of poverty is there, really? What other kind of wealth besides the freedom to choose how you spend your few remaining days on Earth?