Thought Provoking

Mariner and his wife consider The Atlantic the premier magazine in print today. The Atlantic provides thoughtful, rational and valuable articles that cover society from one end to the other. Below, mariner presents the opening portion of an article by Eli Cook that tells about how in the 1700’s we measured people not by their worth in dollars but rather by other qualities.

The article starts here:

Money and markets have been around for thousands of years. Yet as central as currency has been to so many civilizations, people in societies as different as ancient Greece, imperial China, medieval Europe, and colonial America did not measure residents’ well-being in terms of monetary earnings or economic output.

In the mid-19th century, the United States—and to a lesser extent other industrializing nations such as England and Germany—departed from this historical pattern. It was then that American businesspeople and policymakers started to measure progress in dollar amounts, tabulating social welfare based on people’s capacity to generate income. This fundamental shift, in time, transformed the way Americans appraised not only investments and businesses but also their communities, their environment, and even themselves.

Today, well-being may seem hard to quantify in a nonmonetary way, but indeed other metrics—from incarceration rates to life expectancy—have held sway in the course of the country’s history. The turn away from these statistics, and toward financial ones, means that rather than considering how economic developments could meet Americans’ needs, the default stance—in policy, business, and everyday life—is to assess whether individuals are meeting the exigencies of the economy.

At the turn of the 19th century, it did not appear that financial metrics were going to define Americans’ concept of progress. In 1791, then-Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton wrote to various Americans across the country, asking them to calculate the moneymaking capacities of their farms, workshops, and families so that he could use that data to create economic indicators for his famous Report on Manufactures. Hamilton was greatly disappointed by the paltry responses he received and had to give up on adding price statistics to his report. Apparently, most Americans in the early republic did not see, count, or put a price on the world as he did.

Until the 1850s, in fact, by far the most popular and dominant form of social measurement in 19th-century America (as in Europe) were a collection of

social indicators known then as “moral statistics,” which quantified such phenomena as prostitution, incarceration, literacy, crime, education, insanity, pauperism, life expectancy, and disease. While these moral statistics were laden with paternalism, they nevertheless focused squarely on the physical, social, spiritual, and mental condition of the American people. For better or for worse, they placed human beings at the center of their calculating vision. Their unit of measure was bodies and minds, never dollars and cents.

Yet around the middle of the century, money-based economic indicators began to gain prominence, eventually supplanting moral statistics as the leading benchmarks of American prosperity. . .

. . . What happened in the mid-19th century that led to this historically unprecedented pricing of progress? The short answer is straightforward enough: Capitalism happened. In the first few decades of the Republic, the United States developed into a commercial society, but not yet a fully capitalist one. One of the main elements that distinguishes capitalism from other forms of social and cultural organization is not just the existence of markets but also of capitalized investment, the act through which basic elements of society and life—including natural resources, technological discoveries, works of art, urban spaces, educational institutions, human beings, and nations—are transformed (or “capitalized”) into income-generating assets that are valued and allocated in accordance with their capacity to make money and yield future returns. Save for a smattering of government-issued bonds and insurance companies, such a capitalization of everyday life was mostly absent until the mid-19th century. There existed few assets in early America through which one could invest wealth and earn an annual return.

By the Progressive Era, the logic of money could be found everywhere.

Capitalization, then, was crucial to the rise of economic indicators. As upper-class Americans in both the North and South began to plow their wealth into novel financial assets, they began to imagine not only their portfolio but their entire society as a capitalized investment and its inhabitants (free or enslaved) as inputs of human capital that could be plugged into output-maximizing equations of monetized growth. . .[1]

Stop article.

Mariner finds it almost inconceivable that commerce was once valued by how much it helped common man. Yet this concept existed at the beginning of our nation. Is this the concept that must return in order to balance fairness and human dignity in the future? Is that even possible? It is the nature of capitalism that more money and investment make more money – and limits human dignity to nothing more than a source to make profit for someone else. Common man may not be chattel slaves but it sure sounds the same. Are common people slaves to capitalism as an investment? In 1860, the nation fought a war about this notion. Mariner always thought the movie Matrix[2] was an allegorical representation of capitalism; humans are born and placed in a casket for life to be used as batteries. An artificial reality is fed into their brains so they think they are living a normal life. Don’t let this image frighten you; thanks to television, computers, the Internet and, it is how we live now.

In a related article from The Atlantic,[3] economic trust becomes a measure of benefit to the common man. Intellectually, ‘trust’ could include other values to the common man as well; not the same thing as pre-capitalist commerce but at least a distraction from capitalism.

Ancient Mariner


[1] How Money Became the Measure of Everything: Two centuries ago, America pioneered a way of thinking that puts human well-being in economic terms. The Atlantic, Eli Cook Oct 19, 2017. See:


[2] Released in 1999 with sequels; available online.

[3] Reimagining Money: What if markets were designed to build trust instead of wealth? See:


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