Big riches
December 9, 2006 8:41 AM   Subscribe

"There are several factors which determine the value of stone money. The first is the number of human lives that were lost on the journey to bring the stone home..." The giant stone coins of Yap were used for hundreds of years before the island experienced inflation of the most literal kind due to the entrepreneurship of a shipwrecked American fugitive. Today, the Yap islanders are trying to save their currency, as well as their caste system; while an economist at the Federal Reserve considers what Yap says about our money. [last link pdf, some html excerpts here]
posted by blahblahblah (22 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
yap. yap. yap.
posted by quonsar at 9:40 AM on December 9, 2006

it's eponysterical!
posted by quonsar at 9:40 AM on December 9, 2006

Sounds like something out of a Neil Stephenson novel. (as well as totally cool)
posted by delmoi at 9:49 AM on December 9, 2006

Money is, as Bryan points out, only loosely applicable to these stones. Again, as he says, they are a form of communal memory, one that is far more vivid than a spreadsheet..
posted by imperium at 9:53 AM on December 9, 2006

Good links, good read, thank you blahblahblah.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:55 AM on December 9, 2006

Shhh quonsar, this was a fascinating post. And the value attached to the stones made me think, of course, or nothing less than the value of diamonds in our culture, which is just as culturally determined and symbolic.

Thanks for a great read (while I consider the portrait of my possible relative, the "shipwrecked American yankee").
posted by jokeefe at 10:26 AM on December 9, 2006

Great post. Along the same lines as jokeefe, it's funny how it makes more sense when you replace "limestone" with "gold"
posted by thrako at 10:30 AM on December 9, 2006

Sounds more like Jack Vance, than Neil Stephenson to me.

Since the stones are not generally moved public memory is relied on to keep track of who owns what. This is startling and admirable transparency. Essencially the big stones are credit extended by the village which operates as a bank. The economy is supplimented by a more portable currency of shells. and whatnot. Cool stuff!
posted by wobh at 11:38 AM on December 9, 2006

Yeah. This is definitely added to my growing Examples of Human Nature file under the "anything can gain value through arbitrary cultural decisions" category. (Also known as "Ooh! Shiny Things!") It sits beside the "Destroy natural resources, causing social collapse marked by religious hysteria and warfare, survivors move on" file and other such depressing ones.
posted by jokeefe at 12:08 PM on December 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

The bit about the caste system is fairly depressing though. In principle I applaud people maintaining their traditions as far as they want to, but aristocracy sticks in my throat.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:14 PM on December 9, 2006

This is fascinating. There's a remarkable similarity to techniques in "cost" related to spam filtering. For example, one proposed idea was a cost per email (maybe $.0001), which would prevent a spammer from sending millions of emails out daily. However, these sorts of micropayments are difficult to implement, so there's a new policy being tried. For every email sent, the server needs to compute something that is computationally difficult. The mail sender is imposed a "cost" for every email sent, based on computation time and the mail receiver knows that the email has some value based on the cost associated with it. It's like the the Yap on a very small scale.
posted by null terminated at 12:20 PM on December 9, 2006

The first link is significant for the fact that a Cental Banker admits that we don't really know what money is. This is rarely confessed. It means that economics is a form of reasoning at best and that game theory rules.
posted by Brian B. at 12:29 PM on December 9, 2006

Brian B.
You mean the last link?

Yeah. This is definitely added to my growing Examples of Human Nature file under the "anything can gain value through arbitrary cultural decisions" category. (Also known as "Ooh! Shiny Things!")

What's depressing about that? Of course anything can gain value through arbitrary cultural decisions. There's no such thing as something that's intrinsically valuable, unless you count something like "knowledge" or "love" which would not be useful as currency...

And it's not really arbitrary at all. The use of gold or rai or anything for currency is a very logical one. The first and last links show why. In the last link, Bryan notes that money needs credibility to be useful:
"It may be that the Yap chiefs did not have sufficient "credibility" to simply decree an object's value. That is, the Yapese may have needed some assurance that the object on which value has been assigned could not be easily replicated merely for the benefit of the issuer."

Bryan goes on to note that this is a problem faced by any fiat currency, and that modern countries have had to learn this lesson the hard way. Now combine that with this from the first link, where John Tharngan describes how the rai system developed:
"Several hundred years ago, some people from Yap went on a fishing trip and got lost and arrived accidentally in Palau. They saw the limestone structures that occur naturally on that island and thought they looked great. They broke off a piece of stone and did a bit of carving on it with shell tools...It was a time when the chiefs on Yap were struggling for power. In those days all sorts of commodities were being used as valuables, including shells and turmeric and so the concept of bringing something in from outside, that didn't exist on Yap, was very attractive."

Rai brought monetary stability to the island by providing a thing that can store value but is hard to replace. If I want something you make but you don't want what I make, I need some way to store the value of my production so you can use it later. So we must pick something we all agree is a store of this value. But if you pick something arbitrarily, like shells, then anyone with power can easily introduce something else as a store and render your stores less valuable. If you spent your time earning shells, and all of a sudden a chief says coconuts are currency, you're out of luck. And Tharngan says this was the situation on Yap, just as it was in ancient times in Europe and elsewhere. So when someone comes along with something that's very hard to get, and thus hard to replace, it's great. Now you can be sure that if you store your production value in this thing, then it will stay good. So it's not that gold is valuable because it's shiny and people like shiny stuff, it's that gold is pretty hard to get, and people like to know that their money will stay good and not be replaced tomorrow.
Also, it provides a boon to the government because they can more easily control the money supply. Any fisherman can get shells or whatnot, so it's harder to regulate them. But mining gold or getting rai is very costly and difficult, so the chiefs or kings can control the supply simply because only they have enough resources and manpower to get them.
So, anyway, it's not surprising or sad that this happens. It's just natural.
posted by Sangermaine at 3:06 PM on December 9, 2006

Brian B.
You mean the last link?

posted by Brian B. at 3:25 PM on December 9, 2006

They have one of these on display in the back lobby of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. When I was young, the display label said that this stone would be worth one canoe or two wives. They've replaced that with a much less interesting description.
posted by me & my monkey at 3:40 PM on December 9, 2006

The latimes article implies that women "have to go topless," as if it were a horrible thing--I am more inclined to believe that it just an imposition of western modesty upon the Yapese. For people in Yap, shirts were not worn by anyone until probably the third or fourth westernized nation came through and imposed their ideas upon them.
posted by that girl at 7:28 AM on December 10, 2006

I'm still thinking a lot of trouble would be solved if we made money edible.
posted by Smedleyman at 7:53 AM on December 10, 2006

I'm thinking a lot of trouble would be solved if we all stopped wearing shirts.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:38 AM on December 10, 2006

that girl:

"When they come back they are more outsider than Yapese," Gov. Robert A. Ruecho said. "They don't want to remove their tops."

Chief Ruepong says any Yapese who want to abandon traditional ways should leave.

"If they don't want to be topless, they can live in Guam," he said. "Everyone has to participate in the community. If a woman has to be topless, she has to be topless. That goes for everybody. That's the sense of being part of a community."

Excuse me, but this (and the passages re. violence against women) rather makes me think that going topless is imposed on the Yapese women, and that, as such imposition, it is rather horrible.
posted by Skeptic at 3:55 PM on December 10, 2006

Drop that beat meatbomb, I'll take it off for you.
*turns on strobe*
posted by Smedleyman at 7:02 PM on December 10, 2006

I spent a week in Yap on business in 1998 and was (ahem) warned about the topless women. The only ones were dancers in a ceremony in our small hotel. Most others were clothed... I didn't see an imposition of toplessness of any kind.

Yap is a lovely place, calm and unspoiled.
posted by zarex at 3:44 AM on December 11, 2006

zarex: That was my impression as well, when I was there for about a month. I suppose, however, that things are likely different when it comes to the outer islands.

Skeptic: The enforcement is not universal. Almost all women who I saw come to the hospital on Yap wore shirts. However, I live with no illusions that I saw the full spectrum of the Yapese castes. I do know that Yap has a history of keeping men and women separate, to the degree that restaurants have been slow to catch on, because the custom is/was for men and women to eat apart.

However, if the alternatives for any women are to be uncomfortable with how they present themselves or to move to another place, then I would think that poor decisions are being made. The islands are facing a high rate of emigration already--those young and ambitious enough to go abroad for an education are much less likely to come back.
posted by that girl at 5:55 AM on December 11, 2006

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