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Looking Back

Will P1 million fit in your palm?

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Watching Chief Justice Renato Corona dig his own grave on nationwide television was sad and painful. It was not so much the Chief Justice as the Supreme Court that took a beating. To think that many Filipinos till then believed, or wanted to believe, that the high court was the only branch of government left unblemished by corruption and scandal, but found that it, too, had feet of clay. If the nation is like Humpty Dumpty pushed over the wall, then our next task will be to pick up the pieces and try to put these together again.

Embattled, the Chief Justice had sounded great, based on the quotable quotes from his defiant speeches at the Supreme Court that saw print in the newspapers; carefully chosen sound bytes made by Midas Marquez on radio and TV gave one a sense of the majesty and gravitas of the Supreme Court, making us expect more from the Chief Justice. Then we were terribly disappointed to listen to a tired man, rambling for three hours, slamming the hammer repeatedly but missing all the nails. With all the Latin we heard during the impeachment trial, I was reminded of quotes from the religious—one from a La Salle brother that goes “Excrementum cerebellum vincit” (Bullsh-t clouds the mind), and another from a Benedictine about St. Augustine commenting on an athlete running around an oval: “ Amici, bene curris sed extra viam” (Friend, you run well, but you’re outside the path).

The Chief Justice did not have 82 dollar bank accounts, only four. But didn’t he claim he had no dollar accounts? Now that the cat is out of the bag, what is the total balance of these accounts? Why wasn’t this declared in his statements of assets, liabilities and net worth? I pity the defense lawyers who were not told the truth before and during the impeachment trial. All their efforts seem to have led to nothing. A short, well-written, well-delivered statement would have swayed the nation, but the Chief Justice bored everyone.

For those who cannot imagine what P1 million is like in physical terms, that is multiplied over 40 times if the amount is in dollars. How big and how heavy will P1 million be in P1,000 bank notes?

The idea of money came to mind while watching all those diagrams detailing the purported dollar transactions of the Chief Justice. For ordinary people, money are coins and bills in wallets or pockets, but when you speak in millions, everything is done electronically. No physical money changes hands; everything is done with a computer. Money has become abstract.

In its earliest form, money began as barter for goods, often food, or the exchange of physical objects of equivalent value. You exchange a chicken for rice, or pay a debt with a pretty maiden or rent out a muscular man to carry heavy loads or work in the field. In some places, monetary value was reckoned with in staple foods like rice in China or Japan, grain in Egypt and Mesopotamia. One of the earliest coins, the drachma, was based on the weight of grain; one of the earliest paper money in Japan, the koku, was based on rice either in storage or even in expected yield (an early example of futures trading). As societies became more complex, other inedible products were also given exchange value: pearls and cowrie shells from the sea, and finally processed precious metals from the earth like gold and silver or copper and bronze.

While coins came before paper money and were more durable, these were physically more difficult to transport in large quantities. Thus, individuals, banks, and governments started to issue paper as a promise to pay a given sum with equivalent value in gold or silver. This made transactions easier, safer, and more lightweight. While some form of paper money was used in ancient China to address the shortage of coins circa 960 AD, the acknowledged first bank note in history is dated to Ming China in 1375. Sheets of paper made from the mulberry tree, the size of an A4 sheet today, were printed and exchanged for 1,000 coins printed on the bank note. That this piece of paper was worth three kilos of coins illustrates the advance and practical use of paper money. In the West, the earliest bank note was issued in the 17th century, in Sweden in 1660, and by the Bank of England in 1694.

In the past, bank notes were convertible into physical precious metal like gold or silver. A bank note as stated in the British pound states: “I promise to pay the bearer” followed by a given amount. It is just a piece of paper, almost worthless in itself. Yet, depending on what is written on it and the guarantee of the person or institution that issued it, it is a promise, a written contract to pay in a given value. These are like checks; you make out an amount that is to be drawn from your current account as payment. A check can be “encashed” into physical money.

What amazes me is how bank notes or paper money in our wallets gain their value. These are not convertible into precious metals anymore, so what is their true value? When we use a credit card to buy something online, we can see how we have come a long way from barter, to shells, to gold and silver, to paper, and now plastic. When does money really become money? Or, to paraphrase the question on how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, will P1 million fit in your palm?

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