Coins as Tangible History

Normally, the way I experience history is behind some kind of barrier: either text or or the glass of a museum’s display case. But there’s one tiny slice of history that you can experience right up close: over the weekend a friend invited me to the New York International Numismatic Convention, and I learned something crazy when I got there: you can actually touch the coins.

"Who’s on that coin?"

"Julius Caesar. It was coined in February."

"February? As in the month before he was assassinated?"


I was holding a two thousand year old accidental suicide note.

The Perpetual Dictator (terms and conditions may apply).

At one level, nothing special; a numismatic convention is a chance to sell coins, and it’s perfectly normal for merchants to let prospective customers inspect the wares. At another level, it’s an incredibly intimate experience of history, and not just any history but the multi-millennia-long march of the middle class.

"Horseshoe theory" isn’t perfectly predictive, and often convinces people to say smart-sounding dumb things. But one case where it works is that the further left or further right you go, the more contempt you see for the middle class. On the far left, the bourgeoisie are natural exploiters, who hoard surplus value; unlike people who are born rich and powerful they consciously choose to drive a wedge between the worker and the fruits of labor. Very naughty. On the far right, they’re equally hated because they choose comfort over duty, because they’re intrinsically universalist rather than particularist (money is money no matter who spends it how), and because their virtues are scalar rather than binary — you can either be honorable or not, but you can’t be 10x as honorable as someone else; you can, though, be 10x as rich.[1] To the right, the middle-class represents constant flux, uncertainty, and competition. Entropy with a human face; the natural enemy of the natural order.

Coins, especially the ones we have today, are a very middle class artifact: historically rich people owned land and poor people worked land, so both had mostly non-market and non-currency economic interactions. Social norms prevented rich people from hoarding money but encouraged them to spend it, so the abstract balance sheet of a really rich person in the pre-industrial era was lots of land mortgaged to buy lots of wine, fancy clothes, prestigious military appointments, and beautiful gravestones.

The only people burying a stash of coins were the ones rich enough to have them but not so upper-class as to disdain them.

But that also means the coins we have today mostly belonged to people who didn’t live to spend them. Silver coins — the sort you’d use to pay for a wholesale purchase — were a lot rarer than the bronze coins you’d use to buy dinner. But because those low-value coins were in constant circulation, many of them disappeared, got worn down to worthlessness, or got melted down. The coins we have that are in good condition are the ones that somebody hid and never recovered, or put on a ship that sank. An ancient coin is a deodand.

It’s a close analogy to some of the earliest writing samples we have, from ancient Mesopotamia, which are also records of prosaic business dealings of a mercantile middle-class minority rather than either a) any record of the daily life of the extremely poor majority, or b) the sort of kings-priests-and-generals affairs that gets categorized as History. The peasant stuff rarely got written down, the important business got carved into stone at great expense, but the merchants used clay tablets to keep track of receivables, payables, and inventory. And clay has this wonderful property: if you heat it up enough, it changes from RAM to ROM. You can do that manually, to preserve an especially impressive customer service complaint or something, but the way a lot of tablets get preserved en masse is that the city they’re in gets razed to the ground. So many of the oldest written works feel like ominous foreshadowing.

That’s a common problem in history: just when it gets interesting, everyone is too busy to write anything down. J.R.R. Tolkein captures this poignantly in The Fellowship of the Ring, when the nine walkers arrive at the mines of Moria and read the history of Balin’s colony. The beginning is pleasant enough, but by the end it’s terse and fragmentary: "The end comes soon. We hear drums, drums in the deep. They are coming."[2]

Money: High-Order Bit, Not the Highest-Order Bit

Money is concentrated information, but only when times are good. It really is elegant; you don’t have to know why prices change to know that they changed, and respond accordingly. A price system is a way to delegate supply-chain adjustments to the economic actors best positioned to reasonably respond. In a command economy, shortage means quotas; in a market economy, shortage means price-motivated substitution.

On the demand side, it’s fairly trivial to do seamless substitution. If a sudden pig shortage makes pork more expensive, you can replace it with chicken or beef next time you go grocery shopping. To substitute on the supply-side, though, you need certainty about the future: there’s no sense in making a big investment today if you expect it to be expropriated, taxed, or razed next year.

In good times, it’s easy to round the risk of chaos down to zero, but any student of financial history can tell you that a risk that everyone rounds to zero eventually has a probability of 1. Piketty talks about this a bit: most of the time, the rate of return on investment is greater than the rate of economic growth, so the rich get richer. Some of the time, the rate of return on wealth is deeply negative, because wealth is being destroyed in war or revolutions are rapidly — and expensively — spreading it more equally. Liberté, égalité, fraternité is easiest to achieve when you expel the rich and powerful from society’s fraternité and give everyone else the liberté to burn down any accumulation of wealth that leads to inégalité.

The middle class has historically been caught in the middle of this kind of conflict. We’re usually less militaristic than the rich, less numerous than the poor, and more of our tangible net worth is in the form of fungible currency rather than land, art, and prestige. Fortunately for us, we’re also more numerous than we used to be, and have worked our way up and down the class strata over the last few hundred years: the upper class has adopted bourgeois values on the asset side, and the lower class has done it on the liability and aspirational side. Meanwhile, more middle-class wealth is in the form of human capital, which is easy to tax (when it turns into wage income or consumption) but hard to steal. That makes it feel safe to be a member of the middle class, compounding your assets year after year. But the people whose coins I looked at this weekend probably felt pretty safe, too.

Money remains an artifact of good times, and good times don’t last forever. Art museums often have beautiful weapons exhibits, but the experience of looking at a sword or gun in a museum is deeply abstract. The museum-quality pieces were more likely to be for show than for use, and the ones that still look museum-quality are the ones that were probably not used all that much. So the Met’s display of weapons and armor represents the promise of violence at the time they were made, but peaceful outcomes since. Coins are the converse: when they’re struck, they represent freedom and prosperity, but if you’re holding a coin two millennia later, you’re handling an artifact that was probably preserved by an act of horrific violence.

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[1] You might argue here that someone can display more honor, courage, obediance-to-lawful-authority, etc. than somebody else. Obeying an order that doesn’t put you in danger is clearly a different case from obeying an order to launch a suicide mission. But in practice, martial virtues converge on a binary; either obeying or not, either brave or not, etc. If it’s a continuum, someone who ignores a dangerous order could theoretically still be braver than someone who accepts every command they’re given and is never commanded to do anything risky. But the evolutionary purpose of these virtues is to allow leaders to concentrate as much effort as possible on whatever the most pressing task is, whether it’s roughing up a helot or slowing down Xerxes. For that to work, you want those virtues to be all-or-nothing.

[2] Widespread literacy, cheaper paper and writing implements, and total war have relaxed this constraint in the last century or two. Now, when things get bad, there’s a decent chance that somebody will have time to journal while they’re waiting to die.

I write about technology (more logos than techne) and economics. Newsletter:

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Between the Lines

Casper will only win if its IPO goes so badly that it drives its competitors out of the marketplace forever

Philip Krim, co-founder and CEO of Casper. Photo: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images

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Thanks for your efforts, everyone!

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The market

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