Cows and Chips


Nothing enlivens a dry conceptual essay like a cow.

Imagine you wish to explain to someone the barter system, a method of exchange that depends on a direct trading of items of value between traders both of whom want what the other one has. You could do this:


But abstract concepts defined and described with abstract terms are the sleeping pills of essay writing. So, if you have to keep your readers awake long enough to follow a detailed abstract argument, hire as many cows as you can afford. Also consider providing refreshments. There’s almost always food in any graphic depiction of barter, but rarely are there potato chips.


For dramatic evidence that this is good advice and that clever professionals use it all the time to good effect, pay close attention to the rhetorical details of Milton Friedman’s brilliant brief essay, “The Invention of Money,” which will screw with our heads about the trippy-ness of money and currency without ever resorting to esoteric terminology. Instead, it makes excellent use of dramatic, tangible illustrations that allow us to draw our own conclusions about the abstract thinking that underlies the drama of human transactions.

Days, weeks, years after reading the essay, if we remember anything about the essay, we’ll remember:

  • the shipwreck,
  • the stone tablets as big as a car,
  • the same tablets painted with black crosses,
  • and the labeling of the drawers in the gold vaults

We use those physical objects and events as touchstones to remind ourselves of the entirely cerebral drama that makes them so significant. The concepts alone we might forget; the details stay with us and guide us back to the ideas.

In an earlier semester, I have made these suggestions to improve first drafts of student essays about Stone Money. I’m showing them to you in advance so that your first drafts can incorporate the lessons usually saved for the Rewrite. 

  1. Ever since reading about The Invention of Money, I can’t look at a dollar the same way. These flimsy slips of linen covered with silly green symbols seem so worthless; do I really work hard at my job to earn a handful of these?
  2. Before there were coins, barter occurred using items that could be, for example, eaten: cattle and grain. No doubt those commodities represented the work of raising the animals and crops, but their value didn’t derive from the effort put into raising them; they were valued for their deliciousness.
  3. The little slip of paper from the ATM that tells us our current balance is as close as most of us get to holding our wealth in our hand.
  4. Money is not a cow. Money is valuable and a cow is valuable, but a cow’s value is that it produces milk, and eventually meat, and therefore directly helps a body survive, whereas money has no nutritional value. Its value is only symbolic of someone else’s willingness to trade it for a cow.
  5. Our dollars today are pure instruments of faith. On Yap they would have been useless because the Yap would not have traded for them. But here, Wawa accepts them because Citgo accepts them out of faith that Citibank will accept them.
  6. The dollar bill is not a pack of chips, but it’s almost as good as long as the Wawa will accept it in return for a pack of chips.
  7. We mostly care about government backing for our money only when the government is our customer. If you give the barber money in return for a haircut, the government’s hardly involved; the barber’s only concern is that the sub shop will accept the money you gave him as payment for a sandwich.
  8. The real value of any money is that the society that uses it is willing to accept it as payment. For example, cab drivers in Egypt LOVE to be tipped in American dollar bills, much more so than in Egyptian pound notes, but they won’t take a US dollar coin because they know nobody else will take a dollar coin.
  9. Wawa decides that a dollar bill is worth a pack of chips, but the government—the issuing agency of the currency— decides that one bill is worth 100 of the other bills. That relative value of the bills is the only way the government “decides what the money is worth.”
  10. The end of barter is not the end of negotiation. Even with currency, our system permits a good deal of negotiation too, because market value is local. Today in South Jersey a farmer will get widely different prices for a squash, depending on what farmers’ market he’s selling at.
  11. On Yap, stealing would have been meaningless because physical possession was irrelevant. The stone outside my house might not be my stone, so there would have been no point in rolling someone else’s stone to my house if everybody knew it belonged to someone else. Our money is different primarily because, except for the serial numbers, our dollars are identical.
  12. Baseball cards are pretty worthless pieces of paper until somebody is willing to pay a lot of money for them. And by and large the only reason they’re willing to pay is the faith they have that somebody else will pay them even more. I couldn’t use baseball cards to buy my groceries though, unless the grocer agreed to their value. So we use money for convenience in both transactions
  13. If I wanted to build a house on the island of Yap, I hired some islanders to roll a huge limestone rock, almost the weight of the house I wanted to build, to the contractor’s hut and leave it there. And the islanders I hired? They got paid in limestone rocks too, or maybe one that they’ll share until they figure out how to divide what it can buy.

Some examples of advice I have given to students for getting more cows and chips into their essays.

  1. Readers are much more likely to be engaged with your topic (and even feel some of the alienation from their money you’ve been feeling) when you can put something tangible in their hands. Make them visualize that odd slip of paper, feel its flimsiness, and they might start to ask themselves: hey, yeah, what is this really worth?
  2. When we question the value of money, we start to question the value we place on everything. Regarding diamonds, for example, would you consider their beauty and rarity intrinsic values? Diamonds aren’t utterly useless, even if we’re being uncharitable about them. They are attractive adornments. Less defensibly, perhaps, it’s hard to understand why they’re “worth” more than extremely good fakes that sparkle just as much and that only a jeweler can distinguish.
  3. If you want to say that our currency has no value independent of the valuable things it represents, or that it is merely a form for presenting value, readers will have an easier time understanding you if you introduce a cow. Here’s how it looks: Money is not a cow, you say. Etc. (see above).
  4. You and I both appreciate the oddness of the wealth conveyed by that stone on the floor of the ocean, but what is it you see in your life today that convinces you that you have money? That little slip of paper at the ATM that tells you your current balance is pretty flimsy evidence, don’t you think?
  5. Your first few sentences are the written equivalent of warm-up throws, or rubbing your hands together to improve your grip before picking up the sledgehammer. Both serve a purpose, but they don’t compare to the live action. We can do something else while you’re getting ready. For example, those painted Xs on the limestone fei. That’s a nice curve ball. Serve that up. “Painting Xs on the fei was the physical equivalent of putting a freeze on the Yap’s entire national bank account.”
  6. If you want to make a point about a concept we use subconsciously, so that we no longer notice it, you need to put something in our hands. We’re more likely to think about the unthinkable if you make us handle it than if you ask us to think about it. If it were thinkable, we’d have thought it. So, instead of a series of rhetorical questions, how about a quick illustration: The stone at the bottom of the ocean is a foreign bank account. Its owner never puts his hand on the money it contains. Nobody ever sees it. But its existence—if no one disputes it—is enough to persuade contractors to build its owner a new house.

2 thoughts on “Cows and Chips”

  1. I understood today’s lesson about cows and chips. I remember the island of Yap and how the people used limestone as their form of currency.


  2. I was at class today and understood the lecture. I learned how Yap used limestone as currency, which is really interesting.


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