Cows and Chips

More Cowbell

Nothing enlivens a dry conceptual essay like a cow. So, if you have to keep your readers awake long enough to follow a detailed abstract argument, hire as many cows as you can afford. Also consider providing refreshments. A bag of chips is nice (but not cow chips).


For dramatic evidence that this is good advice and that clever professionals use it all the time to good effect, breeze back through Milton Friedman’s brilliant brief essay, “The Invention of Money,” which blew our minds about the trippy-ness of currency without ever having to resort to esoteric terminology. Instead, it made excellent use of dramatic, tangible illustrations and allowed us to draw our own conclusions about the abstract thinking that underlay the drama.

We remember

  • the shipwreck,
  • the stone tablets as big as a car,
  • the same tablets painted with black crosses,
  • and the labeling of the drawers in the gold vaults, among other items and physical actions.

We use those physical objects and events as touchstones to remind ourselves of the entirely cerebral drama that makes them so significant. The concepts alone we might forget; the details stay with us and guide us back to the ideas.


Animated language helps readers visualize abstract concepts:

  1. THE DOLLAR BILL. Ever since reading about The Invention of Money, I can’t look at a dollar the same way. These flimsy slips of linen covered with silly green symbols seem so worthless; do I really work hard at my job to earn a handful of these?
  2. VALUE. Before there were coins, barter occurred using items that could be, for example, eaten: cattle and grain. No doubt those commodities represented the work of raising the animals and crops, but their value didn’t derive from the effort put into raising them; they were valued for their deliciousness.
  3. BANK BALANCE. The little slip of paper from the ATM that tells us our current balance is as close as most of us get to holding our wealth in our hand.
  4. INTRINSIC VALUE. Money is not a cow. Money is valuable and a cow is valuable, but a cow’s value is that it produces milk, and eventually meat, and therefore directly helps a body survive, whereas money has no nutritional value. Its value is only symbolic of someone else’s willingness to trade it for a cow.
  5. CHAIN OF VALUE. Our dollars today are pure instruments of faith. On Yap they would have been useless because the Yap would not have traded for them. But here, Wawa accepts them because Citgo accepts them out of faith that Citibank will accept them.
  6. EXCHANGE. The dollar bill is not a pack of chips, but it’s almost as good as long as the Wawa will accept it in return for a pack of chips.
  7. GOVERNMENT BACKING. We mostly care about government backing for our money only when the government is our customer. If you give the barber money in return for a haircut, the government’s hardly involved; the barber’s only concern is that the sub shop will accept the money you gave him as payment for a sandwich.
  8. ELASTIC VALUE. The real value of any money is that the society that uses it is willing to accept it as payment. For example, cab drivers in Egypt LOVE to be tipped in American dollar bills, much more so than in Egyptian pound notes, but they won’t take a US dollar coin because they know nobody else will take a dollar coin.
  9. DENOMINATIONS. Wawa decides that a dollar bill is worth a pack of chips, but the government—the issuing agency of the currency— decides that one bill is worth 100 of the other bills. That relative value of the bills is the only way the government “decides what the money is worth.”
  10. REGIONAL VALUE. SEASONAL VALUE. The end of barter is not the end of negotiation. Even with currency, our system permits a good deal of negotiation too, because market value is local. Today in South Jersey a farmer will get widely different prices for a squash, depending on what farmers’ market he’s selling at.
  11. UNIFORMITY OF VALUE. On Yap, stealing would have been meaningless because physical possession was irrelevant. The stone outside my house might not be my stone, so there would have been no point in rolling someone else’s stone to my house if everybody knew it belonged to someone else. Our money is different primarily because, except for the serial numbers, our dollars are identical.
  12. APPRECIATION. Baseball cards are pretty worthless pieces of paper until somebody is willing to pay a lot of money for them. And by and large the only reason they’re willing to pay is the faith they have that somebody else will pay them even more. I couldn’t use baseball cards to buy my groceries though, unless the grocer agreed to their value. So we use money for convenience in both transactions
  13. FUNCTIONALITY. If I wanted to build a house on the island of Yap, I hired some islanders to roll a huge limestone rock, almost the weight of the house I wanted to build, to the contractor’s hut and leave it there. And the islanders I hired? They got paid in limestone rocks too, or maybe one that they’ll share until they figure out how to divide what it can buy.

Some examples of advice I have given to students for getting more cows and chips into their essays.

  1. Readers are much more likely to be engaged with your topic (and even feel some of the alienation from their money you’ve been feeling) when you can put something tangible in their hands. Make them visualize that odd slip of paper, feel its flimsiness, and they might start to ask themselves: hey, yeah, what is this really worth?
  2. When we question the value of money, we start to question the value we place on everything. Regarding diamonds, for example, would you consider their beauty and rarity intrinsic values? Diamonds aren’t utterly useless, even if we’re being uncharitable about them. They are attractive adornments. Less defensibly, perhaps, it’s hard to understand why they’re “worth” more than extremely good fakes that sparkle just as much and that only a jeweler can distinguish.
  3. If you want to say that our currency has no value independent of the valuable things it represents, or that it is merely a form for presenting value, readers will have an easier time understanding you if you introduce a cow. Here’s how it looks: Money is not a cow, you say. Etc. (see above).
  4. You and I both appreciate the oddness of the wealth conveyed by that stone on the floor of the ocean, but what is it you see in your life today that convinces you that you have money? That little slip of paper at the ATM that tells you your current balance is pretty flimsy evidence, don’t you think?
  5. Your first few sentences are the written equivalent of warm-up throws, or rubbing your hands together to improve your grip before picking up the sledgehammer. Both serve a purpose, but they don’t compare to the live action. We can do something else while you’re getting ready. For example, that slip of paper with numbers on it. That’s a nice curve ball. Serve that up. A good first sentence that uses it might be: “The little slip of paper from the ATM that tells us our current balance is as close as most of us get to holding our wealth in our hand.”
  6. If you want to make a point about a concept we use subconsciously, so that we no longer notice it, you need to put something in our hands. We’re more likely to think about the unthinkable if you make us handle it than if you ask us to think about it. If it were thinkable, we’d have thought it. So, instead of a series of rhetorical questions, how about a quick illustration: If I want to build a house on the island of Yap, I hire some islanders to roll a huge limestone rock—almost the weight of the house I want to build—to the contractor’s hut and leave it there. And the islanders I hire? They get paid in limestone rocks too, or maybe one that they’ll share until they figure out how to divide what it can buy.


In-Class Exercise


Once you’ve read these examples and are comfortable with the technique for using concrete examples to illustrate abstract concepts, go back to your own Invention of Money post and find the abstraction most in need of illustration. Using the Reply field below your post, write a revision that improves your post by adding cows. Of course, I’m only half serious. Cows are often a good choice, but you can use other farm animals, semi-precious stones, warm sandwiches, an ounce of ceviche, or MORE COWBELL!