Elsewhere

From the current issue of n+1, George Blaustein on Antonin Scalia and American Religion:

The Supreme Court is our Holy See. The court promises stability, tradition, and ancient-sounding Latin rituals. In costumes of somber glory, it speaks ex cathedra on the meaning of the Constitution, and for some reason we believe it has the authority to do so. Marbury v. Madison is our First Vatican Council. Judicial review resembles papal infallibility, and is, in the end, as fragile as papal infallibility (although we rarely reflect on that fragility). The nomination of a Supreme Court justice is the closest thing the United States has to the election of a pope: from an extremely narrow pool of judicial cardinals and insiders comes a new statesman in robes. He (usually he) is presented to the public in the Rose Garden, America’s balcony of St. Peter’s, ready to assume a lifetime position. His face will be new to most of the millions who are now his flock, but his every past action and utterance will be combed for clues to our future.

Over at Dissent, Patrick Iber and Mike Konczal explain what the Bernie Sanders campaign owes to the work of the political economist Karl Polanyi:

Sanders’s particular notion of a political revolution—in which people use democracy to change the rules governing our national political economy—is very Polanyian. Polanyi’s socialism has a certain modern appeal when the more traditionally Marxist idea of having the state seize the means of production has been abandoned even by most who identify as socialists. Instead, Polanyi’s relevance for today lies in his arguments that markets need to be subjected to democratic control, that human beings resist being transformed fully into commodities, and a fully realized market society is both impossible, undesirable, and at odds with genuine liberty and freedom.

In the London Review of Books, John Lanchester, writing about bitcoin, begins by asking, "What is money?":

Consider the UK’s most common paper money, the English five or ten or twenty quid note. On one side we have a famous dead person: Elizabeth Fry or Charles Darwin or Adam Smith, depending on whether it’s a five or ten or twenty. On the other we have a picture of the queen, and just above that the words ‘I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of’, and then the value of the note, and the signature of the cashier of the Bank of England.

It’s worth thinking about that promise to ‘pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds’. When we parse it, it’s not clear what it means. Ten pounds of what? We’ve already got ten pounds. That’s exactly what we’re holding in our hand. It doesn’t mean, pay the bearer on demand ten pounds’ worth of gold: the link between currency and gold was ended in 1971, and anyway, Gordon Brown sold off the Bank of England’s gold reserves in the 1990s.

The fact is, there’s no answer to the question, ten pounds of what? The ten pound note is worth what it claims it is because the state, in the form of the Bank of England, says so, and we choose to believe it.

The whole long article is worth reading, especially the part about Yap, a remote group of islands in Micronesia where the people use large stones called fei as money. The fei are made out of limestone on a neigboring island and brought back to Yap by boat.

It has sometimes happened to the Yapese that their boats are hit by stormy weather on the way back from Palau, and to save their own lives, the men have to chuck the big stones overboard. But when they get back to Palau they report what happened, and everyone accepts it, and the ownership of the stone is assigned to whoever quarried it, and the stone can still be used as a valid form of money because ownership can be exchanged even though the actual stone is five miles down at the bottom of the Pacific.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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