How Humans Created Money What's the point of money? The answer might seem obvious: we need it to get paid for our work, and to buy the things we need. But there's also a deeper way to look at the role of money in our lives. This week we explore an anthropologist's take on the origin story of money. What if the cash and coins we carry are not just tools for transactions, but manifestations of human relationships?
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Emotional Currency: How Money Shapes Human Relationships

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Emotional Currency: How Money Shapes Human Relationships

Emotional Currency: How Money Shapes Human Relationships

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SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

From NPR, this is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. In the spring of 1985, Bill Maurer was wrapping up his high school education and getting ready to move to Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Come fall, he'd be starting his freshman year at Vassar College. Like many incoming college students, Bill was concerned about how he would pay for his education.

BILL MAURER: My financial aid package in my freshman year was basically a combination of student loans and work study.

VEDANTAM: But at the end of Bill's sophomore year, he received an unexpected letter in the mail.

MAURER: I get this letter congratulating me for receiving something called the Hager Scholars Award. And this letter explained that the award would take the place in my financial aid package of my student loan. And here's what it said - this is an interest-free loan with a moral obligation to repay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAURER: And I was like, what? Like, what does that mean? OK, I will take the money. Like, you know, I think my young self was like, I will take the money. And I don't have to have a student loan anymore. Thank you very much.

VEDANTAM: It wasn't that simple, though. The phrase moral obligation to repay stuck with Bill. It made him think.

MAURER: So, you know, at the time, I was like, what is that? I don't know what this is. I show it to my mom. She's like, yeah. It's just the grant. You're fine. Just take the money. But, you know, I graduated. I went to graduate school. I became a professor. I paid off all my actual student loans. And when I had done so, I thought to myself, oh, wait, I'm not done yet. There's that Hager Award. And so I, like, you know, go online and look it up. But I'm like, yeah, there it is. Like, I have a moral obligation to repay. I better start repaying this thing. And that letter, that line, that thing about how, you know, you have a moral obligation, it caught me. It grabbed me and pulled me right in.

VEDANTAM: The award made explicit something that's often overlooked in the way we think about money. At its core, money is about human relationships. And at a macro level, loans and gifts and paychecks and the dollars that come out of ATMs are clues to a culture, even the structure of a nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BROAD CITY")

ILANA GLAZER: (As Ilana Wexler) I'd like to cash these nickels. And I'll have them in quarters, please. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ANTIQUES ROADSHOW")

DONALD ELLIS: On a good day, it's about a half a million dollars.

TED KUNTZ: I'm amazed.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You got a dollar? Open your purse. I see it right there. Give it. Give me your dollar.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")

JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (As Elaine Benes) You got me cash?

JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Well, this way I figure you can go out and get yourself whatever you want.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHO WANTS TO BE A MILLIONAIRE?")

JOHN CARPENTER: Hi, Dad.

TOM CARPENTER: Hi.

J CARPENTER: I just wanted to let you know that I'm going to win the million dollars.

VEDANTAM: This week on HIDDEN BRAIN, we examine the intangible elements of cold, hard cash. Coins and currency are not just tokens of economic value but markers of emotional connection and shared history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: There's a story we tell about what the world looked like before we invented money. It's a story built on the idea of barter.

MAURER: This is the standard story that we read in the economics textbooks and that has been handed down to us at least since the mid-19th century, if not before.

VEDANTAM: This, again, is anthropologist Bill Maurer, who told us the story of his moral obligation to repay that student loan. He is now the dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and he studies the origins and nature of money.

MAURER: And it goes something like this - in the beginning, before there was money, if I had something that you needed, I would approach you with that thing and see if you had anything that I needed. So if you wanted some fish and you needed some acorns and I had them, I could approach you with those acorns. And we could basically barter on the spot, figuring out how many acorns equals how many fish. The problem with barter is it really does depend on us each meeting each other's needs in that moment. And so the origin story of money that we have is that humans invented money essentially to be a mediator in these sorts of exchanges.

VEDANTAM: In other words, if you, for example, had acorns, but I didn't actually want acorns, I wanted pots, for example, and I wanted to trade my fish for pots, and all you had to offer me was acorns, then essentially, we couldn't negotiate. And economists sometimes have a term for this. They say that barter requires something called a double coincidence of wants. What is that?

MAURER: The double coincidence of wants essentially means that in that moment, I've got what you need. You've got what I need. There's a coincidence of our needs in the instance. And that rarely happens, right? So the idea here is that humans wizard up this kind of third thing, money, this magical substance that can put all things on one scale of value and use that as sort of their measuring stick, then, to make these kinds of transactions.

VEDANTAM: So there's a problem with the story. And the problem is that it runs into some facts. I'm wondering if you can tell me about the work that you and other anthropologists have done, for example, in the highlands of New Guinea, that call into question this origin story.

MAURER: The problem is that when we look around the world and in the historical and archeological record for instances of this kind of direct barter, unfortunately we don't find it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAURER: What we find, instead, really are systems where people are taking some kind of object - let's take a kind of a big shell valuable in the highlands of New Guinea - and using it to mark relationships. They're using it to mark relationships among people, among kin, that serve as a kind of indicator of enduring obligations that people have to one another. It's kind of like an open-ended IOU, right? If I give you this big shell thing, then that implies for us, but also for everyone around us that, we have a bond. We have a relationship that will essentially allow us to have a flow of goods between each other and between our families for the rest of our lives, essentially. So it's not so much that I'm giving you this shell so that you give me some pigs. It's I'm giving you this shell so as to say, hey, someday I'm going to need some pigs. Some other day, I might need your help in the field. Some other day, you might need me to help you out with something. This shell kind of marks that relationship. It signifies to everyone around us that we have these ties of enduring obligation and responsibility.

VEDANTAM: So in other words, it's not about a transaction, at least not in an immediate sense. It's about a transaction that perhaps unfolds over time more to do with obligation. My son is marrying your daughter. I'm giving you this precious necklace that I have. And my expectation is over the next 20 years, our families are going to help one another in all kinds of ways.

MAURER: That's right. It's really a memory device to indicate an ongoing, enduring relationship, an ongoing set of obligations.

VEDANTAM: And is some of this connected with the more basic idea, if you will, of just gift giving? When you think about gifts, part of what we're doing when I'm giving you a gift - and presumably this is true for people all over the world in different cultures - the gift is partly my telling you, here's something nice for you. But it also binds us in some kind of relationship that says down the line, you know, it's not explicit, but there's some implicit understanding that you're going to do something nice for me down the road.

MAURER: This is exactly how it works, yeah. And the early anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote about this quite explicitly, saying that in the gift, there's the obligation to give, there's the obligation to receive but then also the obligation to reciprocate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: This obligation to reciprocate can be seen across human societies and across time. Some years ago, Bill stumbled on another interesting example of this. He was in Washington, D.C., visiting a colleague who worked at the Smithsonian. She curated the museum's collections that relate to the history of money. Bill was with her inside a vault.

MAURER: And there's an area in the vault in a kind of long closet. And she and her interns call it Narnia because it's sort of like the wardrobe in "Narnia." You go in and it goes on and on and on forever.

VEDANTAM: Inside this Narnia, there are boxes upon boxes of uncatalogued artifacts.

MAURER: So I was there once with her and she said to me, do you want to go to Narnia? And I said, sure. So we go in, pull out a box at random, bring it out. She opens the box, and there's a ton of these clay tablets covered in cuneiform. And there's a sort of moment where both of us back away from the box (laughter) you know, and I'm like, uh-oh, don't touch anything. Don't break anything. Don't breathe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The clay tablets that they pulled out of the box were used 5,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia. They were used to keep records of obligations. When people lived in small groups, monitoring obligations was easy. I just remembered what you had said and done and you remembered what I had said and done. But as human societies grew larger, people needed a way to systematically keep track of who owed what to whom.

MAURER: And we just can't keep track of all of that on our heads. What emerges, essentially, are systems of public administration where you've got centralized authorities who are responsible for organizing irrigation, organizing production so that you can have these larger scale settlements, who set up systems of recordkeeping - in the case that you mentioned in Mesopotamia, using clay tablets - so that people basically know what's going on, who's doing what, who owes what to whom, and you don't have the situation of something like a coin circulating from hand to hand to pay your laborers, for example. Instead, you have these systems of tablets that are basically receipts keeping track of things like labor and then promising that, you know, after a certain period, if the labor has been done, the laborer is entitled to X. In a lot of our ancient Mesopotamian receipts, it's things like beer and grain and livestock.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAURER: And it's just unbelievably magical to see these materials - right? - and then to imagine the system that created them and the systems that they supported. It's really quite an incredible thing to just put yourself back into that world, into a world that's so alien from the kind of system of market-based society that we live in today and think about what it would be like to be that scribe or to be the person who is, you know, asking the scribe to write this tablet or to be, you know, the common person whose whole life is subjected to a kind of organization of production in a system of centralized administration based on these written records, based on writing.

This isn't a market the way that we traditionally understand markets, right? It's not sort of the idea that people come together in a place and exchange goods either by barter or by money. This is much more a kind of hierarchical system of organization to essentially allow for the creation of these larger scale societies.

VEDANTAM: So you've talked about this idea of centralized administration, and in some ways, this brings us to another aspect of our story. We've talked a little bit about the idea of gift giving and mutual obligations. We've talked about the idea of receipts and recordkeeping and essentially, you know, basic contracts that sort of bind us to one another over time. But talk also about this idea of the central administration of these systems and the introduction of what eventually become, you know, authorities that basically are overseeing how the whole system works.

MAURER: So to make a money work, you need something that is both that system of reckoning and recordkeeping but also an authorizing power that says, in effect, this is the way that we keep our records here. So even in, you know, the highlands of New Guinea and then again in Mesopotamia, you've got both of those things going on, the system of recordkeeping and the authorizing force. And that's essentially what we have with modern money still today. We don't necessarily think of it that way, but basically money is a unit of account that, in our case, is authorized by the state. The state essentially sets the standard and then that standard is used by people to reckon their relationships with one another, figure their debts and credits.

VEDANTAM: So the story that emerges about the origins of money is very different than the way we usually think about it. In this model embraced by Bill and other anthropologists, money is partly a mechanism of social obligation and partly a mechanism to keep track of who owes what to whom. It's also a mechanism that cements the relationship between ordinary people and authorities who maintain records. In other words, it's a story about power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: You've heard the old joke, nothing is certain except death and taxes. Now, taxes may feel inevitable to us, but they were not always a part of human existence. Bill Maurer says systems of taxation emerged as societies expanded and became more complex.

MAURER: So in most of these systems, what you see is the development of something like a tax or a tribute or a tithe where a thing is sort of put out into the world. It can start off with just being, you know, grain or something like that. But often what happened in ancient societies is rulers would take something that symbolized their own elite status, usually precious metal, and send some of it out into the world and say, here, you know, you get this in exchange for serving in my army, or you get this as a token to hold on to to remind you that you are subject to my rule. And in return, on some regular cycle every year, every seven years, you're expected to bring some of that back to me to demonstrate your fealty, to demonstrate your loyalty.

And in effect, what we get is the origin of the first coins, things that look like coins to you and me that are really serving as these kind of political tokens that express sovereignty. So I would get one of these things, and then I'm obligated at some point to, you know, get one of them or some of them back to you. That instantly creates a market in these things. Everybody has to get their hands on these new tokens of political authority in order to give some back to the center.

VEDANTAM: So what's interesting is if I'm a king and I'm basically saying you not only need to pay me taxes, but you need to pay me these taxes using my tokens, using my system of currency, the currency not only gains value because, of course, people are now trading the currency and doing things with it and involving transactions, but it also sort of binds them to me and establishes my power over them because that's - I'm basically saying this is the language in which transactions can take place. And that's extraordinarily powerful.

MAURER: It's unbelievably powerful. And it's sort of the invisible power of the king in that sense.

VEDANTAM: You can see this invisible power of the state each year when it comes time to file our tax returns. In the United States, citizens are obliged not only to pay taxes but also to figure out how much they owe. Here's a sketch from the social media platform TikTok about this idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah, so you actually owe us money. It's called taxes.

(As character) OK. How much money do I owe you guys?

(As character) Actually, you have to figure that out.

(As character) OK, so I can just, like, pay whatever I want.

(As character) Well, not exactly. Like, we know, like, the exact number of how much you owe, but you also have to figure it out.

(As character) Well, what if I mess up and get the number wrong?

(As character) You go to prison.

MAURER: (Laughter) That's hilarious.

VEDANTAM: So talk about this idea, Bill, which is, in some ways, this is how many Americans feel about their taxes. What does this tell us in some ways about the nature of money, power and the state?

MAURER: Yeah, well, you know, it's sort of right out there, isn't it, that, you know, it's sort of on you to report your income. And if you do it wrong or, you know, don't quite get it right, we're going to come after you through an audit or something. It really does kind of elevate the power of the state above us mere mortals and, again, represents, you know, the authority the state has, both in terms of the standard of account - our money - and in terms of daily affairs having to do with that money.

VEDANTAM: So one of the interesting things to consider here is that there might be actually different competing ideas about the nature and origin of money. You know, one of them says it's transactional, it's functional. This is sort of what you learn in economics 101. The model that you're painting is that this is much more about relationships and mutual obligations and histories of those obligations and how those are recorded and preserved over time and the state authorities that might be involved in preserving them and their relationship to you and so forth.

I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about what happened when these different systems, if you will, clashed with one another. You've talked about how when European colonists went to Africa and Asia, in some ways, they encountered different systems than the ones they were used to. And in some ways, you had not just a clash of people and a clash of civilizations, if you will, but a clash of how you define what money actually is during these encounters.

MAURER: Yeah. Europeans consistently misidentified things like shells or metal rods or bracelets and things like that around the world as the kind of money that they were used to. And so what would they do? Well, you know, one thing that they would do is they would forcibly introduce their own standard. As kind of a kind of typical means of colonization and subjugation in sub-Saharan Africa was to demand that colonized people pay taxes in European money, right? That then meant that they had to get that European money, which meant that they would have to do things like grow crops or sell things or engage in the slave trade or something like that that would generate that money they could give back. Or in other cases, European powers would just reset the standard by saying, you know, these shells before were good, but this other shell is better, and we're going to demand our taxes in this other shell - again, similarly setting up a market in these other shells, which then completely contorted the societies that were subject to colonial rule.

VEDANTAM: So it's interesting. Money in some ways was a tool of colonization.

MAURER: Absolutely. I think money has always been a tool of political authority.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Bill says political authority is drawn not just from issuing money but from the act of designing it. The images you see on a bill or a coin can say a great deal about a nation's values and aspirations. In 2015, the Treasury secretary invited Bill and other scholars to Washington, D.C. They were to discuss a proposed redesign of the $10 bill.

MAURER: I was invited to come and just have a kind of brainstorming session about what could be done, what sorts of figures would be appropriate, what sorts of iconography would be appropriate for the new banknote. And it really was like a kind of graduate seminar. We just kind of had a wide-ranging conversation about women's history in the United States, about the history of slavery and emancipation and the civil rights movement and about the kinds of things that you could do on a banknote, the kinds of stories that you could tell on the money about the nation and the ways those stories could make people feel included in the nation in a new way.

VEDANTAM: Again, this was happening in 2015. That was the same year that the musical "Hamilton" debuted on Broadway.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "HAMILTON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Thomas Jefferson) His financial system is a work of genius. I couldn't undo it if I tried.

VEDANTAM: And it reminded everyone of the role that Alexander Hamilton played in establishing our banking system.

MAURER: The figure on the 10 currently is Alexander Hamilton. And then we thought maybe we want to keep him.

VEDANTAM: So Bill and the group decide that instead of redesigning the $10 bill, they should update the 20.

MAURER: Since the 20 is a more ubiquitous banknote. It's the one that comes out of all the ATMs. It's much more common in people's daily transactions than the 10.

VEDANTAM: The image of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States, has been on the $20 bill since 1928. Jackson's tenure was marked by the signing of the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Indigenous people. Bill and other members of the group in Washington felt a woman should take Jackson's place. They gravitated toward a hero of the Underground Railroad.

MAURER: There is really strong consensus around Harriet Tubman, in part because having her on the bill would help to sort of, you know, sketch and then complete a story arc about American society, about increasing the franchise, about emancipation, about the civil rights movement. And one of the things that got all of us very excited was when the then treasurer of the United States, Rosie Rios, passed around her favorite banknote, which is the $2 bill, and she passed it around for us to look at. And she's like, take a look at the back. We look at the back. Unlike all of the other American banknotes, the $2 bill has a scene. It has people standing together signing the Declaration of Independence. And she said, you know, what can you do if you activate the back of the note with people? And then, you know, our minds kind of went racing around that idea of, you know, you could have the $5 bill, keep Lincoln on the front, keep the Lincoln Memorial on the back, but populate it with the civil rights march and a tiny little Martin Luther King giving his I Have A Dream speech or something like that.

There was a point where I think we got a little too excited and too creative. And the treasurer said, you know, bear in mind, there's a limited amount of real estate on this thing, and there's only so much that designers can do. And don't forget that all of the counterfeit detection stuff has to go in there, too. So, like, there were a few moments where she's like, OK, settle down people, too creative. We're not going to have a graphic novel on the banknote. But that's kind of really where our minds went because we started thinking about all of the stories that you can tell on this thing that really is still one of the most ubiquitous forms of mass media in the United States.

VEDANTAM: The announcement about the $20 bill redesign was made in April 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Harriet Tubman, who helped more than 300 slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad, will be the new face of the $20 bill. Tubman will be the first woman featured on the front of U.S. currency...

VEDANTAM: Andrew Jackson would remain on one side of the bill, and Harriet Tubman would be on the other. The rebranding was announced during President Barack Obama's final year in office. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump called the decision pure political correctness. He was asked about the redesign on NBC's "Today" show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic. I would love to - I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can, maybe, come up with another denomination. Maybe we do the $2 bill...

VEDANTAM: Less than a year after the redesign was announced, Donald Trump became president. In the Oval Office, he hung a portrait of his favorite predecessor. It was Andrew Jackson. And in the summer of 2019...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Andrew Jackson is keeping his place on the $20 bill for now. That's according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whose department oversees the design of currency.

VEDANTAM: The Trump administration tabled the redesign just months before the bill was expected to be released.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN MNUCHIN: The ultimate decision on the redesign will most likely be a another secretary's down the road.

MAURER: So it seems like the project is on hold right now, and we'll see how things develop. Regardless, the notes will have to be redesigned because of the overriding reason for which they're redesigned, which is anti-counterfeiting. So we'll see what happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: The faces and scenes we see on our money communicate our values as a nation. And the way we use that money communicates something about us as individuals. When I give you money, I'm not just giving you a piece of paper. I'm giving you my word, my bond.

MAURER: Society is a thing of ongoing continuous relationships and unsettled debts - right? - the settling and unsettling of debts, on and on and on and on and on.

VEDANTAM: Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Some years ago, economist Joel Waldfogel wrote a paper. It was titled "The Dead Weight Loss Of Christmas." He argued that it made no sense for me to give you gifts that you don't like and for you to give me gifts that I don't like. We would both be better off keeping our money and spending it on the things we do like. Bill has many disputes with how economists see the world of money. Joel Waldfogel's argument might be ground zero.

MAURER: I think one of the things that economists are always imagining is that the end of transactions is to have them settled - right? - that we enter a relationship of debt, and then we want to settle that debt. So you hand me over something at the store, and I give you money at the till. And then it's over. And then we go our separate ways. They love that kind of vision of the frictionless market, where parties come to the market anonymously and money is the thing that mediates the relationship so that then they continue to go on anonymously. The problem is that if you imagine a world where all debts are settled, then what is that world?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAURER: That's a world, then, of no more relationships, of no more mutuality, of no more obligation. Society is not a society of settled debts. Society is a thing of ongoing, continuous relationships and unsettled debts - right? - the settling and unsettling of debts on and on and on and on and on. There's no moment where it ends - or at least, if there was a moment where it ended, we'd all just be alone in bunkers, hiding, doing nothing.

VEDANTAM: So I'm wondering if this is connected to some very interesting phenomena that we see, which is that, even after coming up with this remarkable invention, money, we've also come up with lots of ways to make money inefficient and difficult to use. So we give our friends gift cards to restaurants that limit, in some ways, how they can use the money. In some ways, it would be easier just to give them cash. And they could use it at the restaurant or not use it at the restaurant. What do these inefficient forms of money tell us about the role that money plays in personal relationships?

MAURER: Yeah. I love this kind of stuff because it really shows you that money is never purely fungible, right? We're continuously putting boundaries around different pots of money. And those boundaries are often moral boundaries. They signify a moral or ethical or relational stance that we want to take with respect to one another. And this kind of earmarking of money for special purposes, this kind of sequestering of some money, taking it out of circulation and keeping it in a special place for only a special purpose, really does help us make the stuff of social life, helps us stitch ourselves together and bind us to one another in ways that far exceed the imagination of money as just a neutral medium of exchange.

VEDANTAM: The tensions between these two models of money, between the economist's model and the anthropologist's model, exists within each of us. We couldn't function as economic actors without the capacity to think of money as a neutral form of anonymous exchange. Of course, all of us also intuitively understand how debts and obligations work. And we sometimes become uncomfortable when these two models collide with one another. For example, we have struggled for decades with the challenge of time-consuming and difficult activities like parenting or domestic work or caring for aging parents. Should we think of these things as jobs - put a dollar figure on them? Or should some things exist outside the sphere of money?

MAURER: This is kind of a paradox of, you know, modern subjects in contemporary Western societies is that, you know, we think of ourselves as individuals first and members of relationships second, even though, of course, it's only through relationships that we get formed, right? I wouldn't exist if it were not for a relationship between my parents. And I wouldn't be able to be speaking to you now if there weren't a network of folks around me who taught me language - right? - who taught me how to be in the world and how to be a person that makes connections. And yet, because we have this kind of ideology that we are each a new person, we each stand alone, we are our own autonomous agent, we forget about those relationships. And when those things are brought forward, we feel sometimes a little ugh (ph) about them, right? I don't want to be that. I don't want to have that connection. I don't want to be tied to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VEDANTAM: Bill, I understand that you have a somewhat unusual living arrangement, and I'm wondering if you can tell me a little bit about it, then talk about some of the relationships that are embedded in your housing.

MAURER: Sure. OK. Disclaimer - I am not a hippie, and we are not a tribe, but I live with my partner and another married couple. There are four of us together. And the other couple has a young son. And before their child was born, we became very close friends. We were living a few blocks away from each other. We ended up kind of eating at each other's houses every night - you know, a kind of close little network of friends. And I live in Southern California. It's very expensive. We are four professionals. But even with four professional salaries, we felt that, you know, we couldn't necessarily have the kind of house that we wanted. So we thought, you know, we're kind of eating together all the time anyway and doing everything together, let's buy a house together (laughter).

And, you know, sometimes you just sort of make these decisions and you don't know if they're good or bad or what. But we jumped in. We spent, you know, a year looking for a place with sort of two flats but with an interior staircase, so it feels more like one one big house. They gave birth to their son, Carter (ph), and we all moved in together. And we've been living together now for, I guess, 13 years, maybe more. And, you know, as someone who sort of studies money and economic relationships, if I take a step back and look at my own situation, it's kind of interesting because we don't actually have any kind of internal system of accounting. We own the house as tenants in common. We share the mortgage, so we split the mortgage down the middle. At tax time, we split the interest down the middle for filing our taxes. But other than that, we're basically sharing all of our expenses and just kind of living that way. There's no mental accounting, really. There's no you know, I paid for the groceries this week, so you do it next week. We're just comfortable doing that and operating as a kind of larger economic unit.

And yeah, I mean, we really are kind of living in a sort of alternative economic arrangement that's based on these, you know, close - I think you could almost call them kin relationships that we've established together. And in many ways, like, the house is the symbol of those relationships, right? I mean, the house is our shell valuable, right? It's the thing that signifies that connection.

VEDANTAM: So what's so interesting about this arrangement is, in some ways, it speaks to what you said some time ago about the difference between the way economists want to think about transactions and the way that you are describing them, which is that if you want to live in a world where the transaction is over - you know, you give me something, I pay you something, we shake hands, we never see each other again - that is not the system that you have set up for your housing, right?

MAURER: Right.

VEDANTAM: Because the system you have set up is a system in some ways of indefinite debts and obligations that are constantly being created and repaid. You're constantly engaged in gift giving, gift taking, but that binds you in some ways in a web of obligations that I'm hearing you say in some ways has worked very well for you.

MAURER: It's worked very well. You know, we actually had an anthropologist want to come live with us. I said, no.

(LAUGHTER)

MAURER: She's like, I would really love to study this. This is fascinating. No, you can't live in our house.

VEDANTAM: So, in other words, the anthropologist doesn't like it when other anthropologists come in and want to study the first anthropologist.

MAURER: The anthropologist finds it amusing when others want to do so.

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VEDANTAM: Bill Maurer is an anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of "How Would You Like To Pay?" and other works about the nature and origin of money. Bill, thanks for joining me today on HIDDEN BRAIN.

MAURER: Thank you so much, Shankar. I've enjoyed it.

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VEDANTAM: This week's episode was produced by Parth Shah and edited by Tara Boyle and Jenny Schmidt. Our team includes Thomas Lu, Laura Kwerel, Rhaina Cohen and our new intern, Lushik Waba (ph). Some of our best ideas on the show come from conversations we have with friends. That's why our unsung hero this week is Dominique Munoz (ph). He gave us the idea to explore the story of Harriet Tubman and the $20 bill. Thank you, Dominique. You can find more HIDDEN BRAIN on Twitter and Facebook. If you like today's show, please share it with a friend. Or better yet, buy that friend a cup of coffee and tell them all about it. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

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