Skip to Content

Material World: Money – a waste of resources

Material World

Perhaps you think that the money system is a necessary means of allocating scarce resources. In that case, you won’t regard the resources that society devotes to operating the money system as waste. But have you tried to assess the sheer scale of these resources? 

One approach is to see how many people are kept busy at tasks that would not exist in a society without money. I focus on the United States, but I don’t think the overall picture is much different in other countries. My figures come from the May 2010 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm#00-0000). 

The occupational classification used in US government statistics divides the employed workforce into 22 broad occupational groups, which are subdivided into specific occupations. When we search these groups for money-related occupations, here is what we find.

Group 11. Management occupations

There are 516,000 sales, marketing and advertising managers, plus 479,000 financial managers. At least a fifth of all managers manage monetary flows rather than material processes.

Group 13. Business and financial operations occupations

This group includes:

1,072,000 accountants and auditors
221,000 financial analysts
272,000 purchasing agents
63,000 claims adjusters, examiners and investigators
262,000 market research analysts and marketing specialists
184,000 cost estimators, etc.

Some of the market research analysts might still be needed in a socialist society for the non-manipulative analysis of consumer preferences.

Group 33. Protective service occupations

This group includes:

1,007,000 security guards
644,000 police officers
111,000 detectives and criminal investigators
458,000 jailers and correctional officers

As most crime consists of offences against property, few of the functions performed by these two million people will exist in a socialist society.

Group 41. Sales and related occupations

All of the 13,438,000 people in this group directly service the money system. Here we find: 4,155,000 retail sales workers; 1,172,000 supervisors of retail sales workers; 3,354,000 cashiers; 1,748,000 sales representatives; 415,000 counter and rental clerks; 319,000 insurance sales agents; 289,000 telemarketers, etc.

Group 43. Office and administrative support occupations

This group includes:

1,675,000 bookkeeping, accounting and auditing clerks
556,000 tellers

883,000 clerks processing and collecting bills
232,000 clerks processing insurance claims and policies
40,000 meter readers, etc.

Other money-related occupations lie scattered among various other groups. Actuaries, tax inspectors, teachers of business studies – the list goes on and on. Then, combining related occupations assigned to various groups, we discover 145,000 people working at casinos and other gambling joints and 519,000 people who do nothing but handle loans (interviewing and checking out loan applicants, processing repayments, pursuing defaulters, etc.).

There are many money-related jobs that the occupational classification does not allow us to count separately. Thus, Computer science occupations must include many people working with computer systems for storing and processing financial information, while Legal occupations includes many people working in areas like commercial law and inheritance.

Next there are all the people who design, manufacture, transport, install and repair money-related machinery and equipment, such as ATM machines, cash registers (for all those cashiers!), safes, slot machines, credit card verifiers, gambling machines, and those contraptions which prevent you from getting into the underground without a ticket. Not to mention the people who actually make coins, banknotes and gold bars!  
 
Then there are the workers who build, maintain and clean the premises used by banks, insurance companies and other money-handling offices, those who transport money handlers to and from work, and so on.

My best estimate is that about one fourth of employed Americans are engaged in tasks that would not exist in a moneyless society. To these people we must add members of the armed forces, workers in military industry, most non-working prisoners, the unemployed as usually understood, and the unemployed as unusually understood (otherwise known as the idle rich). All these people could be making a useful and productive contribution to society.

Let’s return now to the question of waste. The money system is commonly justified as a rational way of coping with scarcity of resources. And yet, as we see, the operation of the money system consumes enormous human and material resources. We should also take into account the resource costs of such capitalist practices as built-in obsolescence, the use of patents to suppress innovation (Socialist Standard, February 2007) and luxury production for the wealthy (Socialist Standard, June 2011).

So how serious would the problem of scarcity be if all these costs were eliminated together with capitalism and the money system? Can any reasonable person avoid concluding that money is itself largely responsible for the problem to which it is supposedly the solution?

STEFAN