Fair Exchange

Aristotle once said that every object has two uses.

First: that purpose for which it was created. And second? As an item to barter.

His assertion, in his book ‘Politics’ (Book 1, part 9) cuts to the heart of the principle of exchange. In early times men swapped their stuff; and then systems of tokens began to be used for uniformity.

But each land has its tokens, and the tokens have to be compared with those of other countries. Thus, as I speak, one American dollar is worth about 0.8 of those strange European tokens, the Euros.

The Euros are an oddity, here in Britain, where we hold firmly onto our pounds. And recently the Euro has been looking awfully shaky.

As the Greek people voted on whether to elect officials sympathetic to the Euro, their membership of the common currency hung on a knife-edge. For complex reasons they were staring at the real possibility of returning to a devalued drachma, and an untenable cost of living.

The streets of Greece have already seen unsettling signs of unrest. What would have happened, had they been forced to use drachmas which could not buy the food they needed?

It would not been the first time tokens fell short of their remit.

The story of Germany’s desperate state after the First World War is a well-told saga. But none told it better than one of the cleverest, sparest writers of the first half of the 20th century: Ernest Hemingway.

He was reporting in Paris for the Toronto Star when he wrote a piece chronicling the real face of hyperinflation.

Hemingway chose the place where two currencies met: Kehl, Germany, just a bridge away from Strasburg, capital of French Alsace-Lorraine. In the twenties the French were comparatively affluent: and the Germans forced on spare, hard times.

In September 1922, Hemingway crossed the bridge into Kehl, and another world where the business of exchange made the French wealthy.

He talked to a young man in a Strasburg motor agency. No need, the young man advised, for a visa to enter Germany; just a stamp. “I live there now,” he told Hemingway, “because it is so much cheaper. It’s the way to make money.”

Hemingway has a journalistic brevity, stripped of sentimentality. He tells it how it is: and this unequal exchange is cruel.

His team stops to buy apples, five for 12 marks.

And a nice looking bearded old man timidly asks: how much did you pay for the apples?

But when Hemingway tells him the price he is wistful. “I can’t pay it, ” he says, “It is too much.”

“He went up the street,” says Hemingway, “walking very much as white bearded old gentlemen of the old regime walk in all countries, but he had looked very longingly at the apples. I wish I had offered him one.”

The Germans have always made excellent pastries. The French were not permitted to buy up all Germany’s cheap goods, but they could come over, eat pastries, and then file back home over the bridge.

In one pastry shop, “the place was jammed with French people of all ages and descriptions, all gorging cakes, while a young girl in a pink dress….took as many of their orders for fruit and vanilla ices as she could fill.”

But the proprietor was surly, Hemingway adds. He was not happy even when all the cakes were sold. Mainly because the mark was falling faster than he could bake.

Spare writing for spare times. Economic hardship may not have the same cost as wartime; but it beggars belief how man can stand alongside his fellow man without a shred of compassion for his fate.

It does not seem fair exchange.

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40 thoughts on “Fair Exchange

  1. It hits so many countries. Zimbabwe had hyper inflation of over 1000 (thousand)percent not so long ago. They have a way to go to stability again, ones heart feels so sore for those desperate people, just over the border.

  2. It is so hard to even begin to grasp the inequity in this world. All one can really do is try to do a little good in any way one can and try to bring peace wherever possible. As Helen Keller once said, ““I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

    1. Indeed, all about power and where it lies and compassion and whether it has a place in this world. And of course: it does; I love Lou’s take on this – “I cannot do everything, yet still I can do something.”

  3. Kate, this is a wonderful post! My brain at times simply “shorts out” in consideration of the inequities everywhere. I have been watching the events in Greece holding my breath a bit, and listening to reports of the worldwide ramifications of returning to the drachma. And at the same time we’ve been having Congressional hearings addressing the excesses and greed that triggered a worldwide recession. It’s impossible not to consider how greed and lack of compassion have permeated every segment of the world. There is very little that one kind point to as fair, is there! I think our thoughts are in similar places…Debra

  4. I spent some time last week with some very wealthy people. MTM and I are not poor, but we’re certainly not wealthy, at least in monetary terms. I could not even begin to fathom the differences in our lives. The things they talked about in the few minutes we were with them blew my mind. (Number of houses and properties. Maids. Other helpers. Chartered flights.)

    I hope if I am ever blessed with wealth, I hope that I will use it to improve the world at large.

  5. Dear Kate, this posting–with the report by Hemingway–was so poignant that I found myself weeping internally at the end. The inhumanity we show one another always bemuses me. I look and see harsh treatment and wonder how someone can be so unfeeling.

    Then I look at myself and wonder whom I have passed by that day and not noticed. Whom have I ignored? Whose humanity has not touched mine? And I weep for all of us who are caught in the unfair trading of simple, honest, human compassion. Peace.

    1. Pretty cool if it were done properly, Cameron, I’m sure. I bet your part of the world has what we have: local barter systems already in place; goods and services for swapping, arranged by the local council.

    1. That is EXTRAORDINARY, Nicola, I had never heard of free money before! What a heartening story….perhaps our leaders might benefit from hearing it again…. thank you!

      1. They tried with Totnes and Lewes pounds as part of Transition movements over here – I’m not sure of their current status actually. It must have been amazing to be a part of seeing it all come alive 🙂

  6. Yes, very good post Kate. There’s always been the haves and the have nots, but when you bring it right down to the personal level does it really matter? Speaking from the viewpoint of a have not, I have to add… I wonder though, if I became a have, would that viewpoint change?

  7. Enjoyed how you spun this one…Spain and Greece are tipping the scales, if one falls off (thou I believe Spain is now ‘safe’), it shall be an even uglier election season come Fall in the States ~

  8. I wonder if that type of behaviour will diminish with the exposure we have thanks to the internet. It’s so easy. I hope so.

    Our little island has its own currency. The video provides a little more insight into the value of creating it. However, we don’t have the devaluation step. The bills are not highly circulated, but tourists think it’s nifty.

    1. I hope the Internet- and the speed of communication- means the compassionate can reach out to places of inequality, Amy.

      You have your own currency right on the island! Fantastic!

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