Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Value of Money

Some time ago an informal poll was taken asking Americans, if they saw money lying on the ground, what denomination of cash would it have to be to make them reach down and pick it up. Most of the respondents said that they would not pick up a penny. Some said that it would have to be the kind of money that folds. And a few said they would not pick it up even if it were a $100 bill. The survey could be used to illustrate a variety of things, including the relative value of money, of people's prosperity, not to mention their honesty.

A few days ago I was watching a BBC interview of Philippine president-elect Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino, and I was once again informed that one out of every three Filipinos is living on $1 a day. No matter how many times I have heard it, that statistic does not sound real to me. Even after "living poor" here for two years and learning how much 1,000 pesos ($22) can buy me, I cannot think of what just 45 pesos ($1) can buy me, and if it would be enough to keep me alive.

First of all, if I were a Filipino, I could never get away with begging unless I were blind or crippled. If I were to seriously try and stretch that $1 a day as far as I could, I suppose that I would determine how much of a staple food, like rice or bread or bananas, I could secure for that amount. For 44 cents I could buy a kilo of small bananas. Pan de sal, a kind of small bun made from flour, water, and salt, goes for 4 cents a piece. And I could buy a big plate of cooked rice, with nothing else, at a carinderia for 90 cents. (Water comes free at carinderias.)

If I wanted something more substantial, a piece of fried chicken from a street vendor costs 34 cents. I could buy an 8 ounce sakto (plastic bag with a straw, to save on the bottle deposit) of Coke for 22 cents. I could even afford a value meal at McDo or Jollibee or Chow King, but even the largest town on my island has no fast food joints.

I suspect, however, that most Filipinos living on $1 a day are doing so within their extended families, where one bread winner provides for several people - children, child-bearing wives, and elderly parents. Within the safety of such a home, whether made of grass or cement, a multitude of shocks can be absorbed without causing serious hardship, including the great big one of living in a country where living on $1 a day is not only possible but necessary .

One of the most eloquent critiques of money was written by the intensely conservative poet Philip Larkin:


Quarterly, as it is, money reproaches me:
'Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.'

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don't keep it upstairs.
By now they've a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

- In fact, they've a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can't put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won't in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

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