Photo Notes

October 20, 2017

Thoughts About A Penny

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Siskin @ 9:57 am

In these days, in which our symbols and our differences are taking up so much of our collective attention, I would like to say a few things about money.

First, money has a bad reputation; people say money that is the root of all evil. Frankly I haven’t seen any of that. In fact I think money is the most important invention our species has ever made. In addition I think money is much more likely to lead us to peace than to war. I also think that misunderstanding money causes pain. When we look at money as an end in itself, or as power, we misunderstand. Money is trade.

When a client pays me the effects of that transaction spread like ripples in a pond. I may purchase a product made in China, or pay for health care in Indiana. There is no such thing as a single exchange. Like ringing a bell the vibrations spread out into the world.

I didn’t start this essay to discuss economic interconnectedness, as important as I think that is. I wanted to say something about symbols. Symbols have had a large effect on our culture recently, especially the flag and statues of members of the Confederate States of America. While these are important symbols, I’d like to remind people about the symbols associated with money.

Abraham Lincoln is on the front of the penny. When I grew up Lincoln was called the Great Emancipator. The Civil War was about slavery, but it defined much more than that. The fact that the United Sates won that war proved that there would be a UNITED States of America, not just some loose association, with different rules and different standards everywhere across the continent. In many ways it made us one country. The power and wealth of our country flows from this fact. In addition this fact has made us a country of moral values: a country where the rights and opinions of all citizens are protected. Of course we are not perfect, but we are striving to become a more perfect union. So on the back of the penny it says UNITED STATES oF AMERICA.

On the front of the penny is the word LIBERTY. If Liberty was not a central value of the United States then we would long since have descended into the tyranny that afflicts so much of this planet. I would never suggest that we have secured a perfect personal liberty for ourselves, and our descendants, still we can speak, worship and associate freely. That is a lot.

On the back of the penny it says E.PLURIBUS.UNUM. I was taught that this means “From many one.” It is a traditional motto of the United States. One country that is the effort and result of many, many people. We are mostly descendants of immigrants who came here to secure liberty and a future for themselves and their children. We can only secure these things as a nation. No person is immune from harm individually; we make ourselves safe when we come together. This association places limits on liberty. Personally I agree with some limits and not others, but as a citizen I value the benefits of association. Without all of us, all of our experience and opinions, and values, we are less than we could be.

Above President Lincoln’s head are the words “IN GOD WE TRUST”. One of the greatest accomplishments of this country is the freedom to worship, or not worship as each person sees fit. The first part of the first amendment to the constitution protects this human right. This is not a universal human right, nor are the other rights protected by the first amendment universal. They are protected by our United States of American and the constitution, which defines our association. So this statement can remind us of our rights as citizens and the importance of placing our ultimate trust in something greater than our individual selves. This statement does not name a god, or any particular deity, it respects our personal right to believe or not. While some will disagree with me, I think it would be very difficult to write a more important reminder of our rights on a penny. Still, in this essay at least, there is room for the complete first amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That is a great statement of some of our basic freedoms.

I hope that the next time you see a penny on the ground you’ll pick it up and dust it off. And maybe we can hope that all our leaders will be wise and generous and remember the importance of a single cent.

John Siskin

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