image with essay


Behold! Ladies and jellyspoons, allow me to present the mysterious object which has haunted my sociological brain for the past five weeks.

Can you spot the two lines in this drugstore receipt that made my brain make a sound like this?

I was so overjoyed to finally be able to buy my favorite toothpaste again, after almost 25 years, that I almost failed to notice that my cash register receipt stated the price of my two tubes of Oligodent (gout verveine) not only in euros, but in French francs–a currency that was supplanted by the euro more than 10 years ago.

The French were probably more aware of that transition than anyone else, because they minted the first euro coin in history, in May 1998! When the euro became the country’s official currency on the 1st of January 1999, the exchange rate was forever fixed at the rate shown on the receipt: 6.55957 francs to the euro. By now, that conversion ought to be old hat, right?

While it’s certainly considerate and pragmatic to provide “dual pricing” information during a period of transition–francs were accepted as legal tender in the French economy, in parallel with the euro, until January 2002–it’s a little surprising to see it still in use after a decade.

An ecu minted by Louis IX.
An écu minted by Louis IX.

If they’re going to do that, I wondered, why not go all the way and show the value of a euro purchase in terms of the écu–the defining currency of France, which served her from the Middle Ages through the Enlightenment, from the reign of Louis IX (who minted the first écu in 1266) through that of Louis XVI (who lost his head in the Revolution of 1789)?

Some readers might be saying to themselves, “That’s an easy one:  The French don’t print register receipts showing prices in écus because the last person who saw one has been dead for two hundred years–whereas there are lots of people alive right now who grew up using francs.”

Which raises an interesting and relevant point: decades after the Revolution and the establishment of francs as the national currency, the French–including people who probably never saw an écu in their lifetime–were still using the old currency as a reference point:

The écu disappeared during the French Revolution, but the 5 franc silver coins minted throughout the 19th century were but the continuation of the old écus, and were often still called écu by French people.

This took me back to the mid-1980s, when I spent my senior year of high school living with a French family, in which the parents still talked about prices in terms of “old” francs–a currency that had ceased to exist 25 years before! And today, living in Germany, it’s still very common to hear people talk about contemporary prices in terms of Deutsche marks, even though they went out of circulation over seven years ago, and you never see dual pricing (i.e., prices in both euros and marks) in stores or on receipts. People just do the math in their heads (clever people, those Germans).

It makes some sense for them to keep referring to marks, however, because their national bank (the Deutsche Bundesbank) has agreed to redeem marks for euros indefinitely: that is, should you happen to find a 100 mark note stashed away in a vintage purse, you can take it to any branch of the Deutsche Bundesbank worldwide and get it exchanged for euros, at the irrevocable rate of DM 1.95583 = one euro.

It’s not like that in France, however: the Banque de France stopped exchanging 100 franc notes for euros in February of this year, and will stop exchanging all other denominations of franc notes as of February 2012. (Pity the holders of the 12.4 million 100 franc notes that are still floating around unredeemed! And someone please inform the gentleman with 40 thousand French francs in his fridge.) This means that while the Deutsche mark will always have some exchange value, the French franc will soon be no more than a pretty piece of paper. Which makes the attempts by the French people to keep the franc alive through dual pricing even more puzzling.

Consider again the receipt that started this train of thought: the euro-to-franc currency conversion it shows was printed by a machine, purpose-built and programmed to perform that function. It bespeaks a kind of institutionalization process, which involves more than just remembering and talking about the franc, but literally embedding it in calculative devices. This might be an opportune moment to review W. Richard Scott’s definition of an institution:

Institutions are social structures that have attained a high degree of resilience. [They] are composed of cultural-cognitive, normative, and regulative elements that, together with associated activities and resources, provide stability and meaning to social life. Institutions are transmitted by various types of carriers, including symbolic systems, relational systems, routines, and artifacts (2001: 48).

“Resilience”? Check. “Stability and meaning”? Check. “Symbolic systems” and “artifacts”? Check and check.

That drugstore receipt is the product of the institutionalization of a currency system, which is in turn linked to national identity and a whole set of emotional and cognitive associations around what it means to be French–as distinct from being European. Lest you think that j’exagére un peu, let’s hear it from an Actual French Person™:

According to the original schedule [Franc] notes and coins were to be withdrawn in February 2002, and dual pricing in Francs and Euros would end at the beginning of the following year. The notes and coins duly disappeared more or less on schedule. Dual pricing should have disappeared by now, but the schedule has had to be revised under the pressure of popular opinion. Business who had already switched to pricing only in Euros have had to restart labelling prices in Francs as well. Too many people simply do not like the new currency.

In everyday conversation many people around here now operate three different systems depending on the value involved. For prices up to around €100 Euros are used. For higher values Francs are used – New Franc that is, except for values of 10,000 New Francs and more which are still quoted in old Francs. It is easy to sympathise with the old lady who echoed the complaint made when Britain decimalised in the 1970s: “I don’t know why they don’t wait until all us old people are dead before introducing this new money.”

That’s right: French people keep three parallel currency systems running in their head at any given time. As if that weren’t impressive enough, they also apply those price measurements selectively, based on the value of the item in question: the price of trifles can be expressed in euros, but something truly precious can only be priced in old (pre-1960) francs! This seems closely related to that classic status distinction among the rich: those who represent “old” money enjoy more prestige than the nouveaux riches, even if their net worth is identical to the penny.

There’s something complicated happening here, involving not just money and memory, but also status and value, in the broadest sense of the term. This is where sociology and anthropology really part ways with economics. While economists can acknowledge that there is more going on with currency than its material exchange value, they’re generally not interested in finding out what that “more” is (unless they can repackage sociology and anthropology as Freakonomics–which represents a whole disciplinary status war in its own right) because they don’t (yet?) have the means to shoehorn institutions and culture into tidy mathematical models.

Procrustes' bed.
Procrustes' bed.

Fortunately, sociologists and anthropologists are under no such obligation to force the messy, multi-faceted world of human behavior into the economists’ Procrustean bed. Many of us still do quantitative analyses, but our professional norms place far more value on empirical data than on elegant mathematical models.


If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between economics and economic sociology, this classic article is a good place to start. And for a fascinating visual representation of the geographical path of euros through France via trade with neighboring countries, click here.



* For those who have not already noticed, I feel obliged to point out that this title includes a bilingual pun. Thank you. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.

Anyone reading this blog is probably aware of the LOL-fad: the addition of witty captions to photos of cats, fashion models, and so forth, which has taken th’ interwebs by storm.

So in a moment of inspiration, I wondered: why couldn’t we do the same for economic sociology? I mean, I know I’m not the only one who spontaneously thinks of puns that mash up pop culture with “The Great Transformation,” right? Right? [Tap, tap, tap.] Is this thing on?

If the blogosphere is good for anything, it’s for allowing microscopically small interest groups to band together and share the kind of thoughts that would be greeted with disbelief or incomprehension by others. If the Ferret Fanciers of Greater Milwaukee can do it, why can’t economic sociological punsters?

Rather than keeping those gems of humor to ourselves, let’s enjoy them together. Friends, Romans and economic sociologists, send me your LOLs!

Here’s one that came to me when I ran across this picture of the Angel of Death during the earily days of the market meltdown–I know you can do better! So send in YOUR LOLpix! Operators are standing by!


“Talk to the Invisible Hand!”



I knew someone was on this…ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the funniest site I’ve seen in ages. Here’s today’s LOL with a snippet of the accompanying text:

sandy-weill-lol This one’s for all you crazy kids out there who said Sandy Weill’s experiment of creating a banking supermarket could never work, that its sheer size and the scale and multitude of services offered under a single roof were unsustainable, that no one management team or board of directors could possibly oversee its many arms. You were absolutely right!

Since today marks the end of a catastrophic calendar year in the financial markets, these snippets of etymology I ran across recently seem particularly appropriate, in a gallows-humor way.

On the origins of the term “money,” from the Latin monetas, meaning “warning:”

Here's the Federal Reserve building in Washington, DC; looks kind of like the Parthenon with a flag stuck on top where the Romans might have put a sculpture of the goddess.
Here's the Federal Reserve building in Washington, DC; looks kind of like the Parthenon with a flag stuck on top where the Romans might have placed a sculpture of the goddess.

The Romans kept their coinage in the temple of Juno on the Capitoline Hill, putting the money under the protection of the goddess. Ever wonder why so many banks look like Greco-Roman temples? That’s why. “In God(dess) We Trust!”

Before she became the guardian of the Imperial Treasury, one of her original functions was to warn the Romans of impending danger; she was known as Juno Moneta, or Juno-Who-Gives-Warning. So her role as protector of the money supply and protector of the city were conflated, leading to the modern English word “money” for all forms of currency.

On the origins of the term “securities:”


The Latin words se and cura combine to form this word, meaning literally, “without care.”

This conjures up MAD magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, whose slogan seems to have been taken up by our securities regulators.


In my ongoing quest to document the under-examined world of populist economic sociology, I submit for your inspection this surrealist gem, snapped in Milan, 26 May 2007 on the wall of an alleyway.

I hasten to include the date because if the image were more recent, I would have taken it for a witty visual metaphor for the sub-prime mortgage crisis: the one-eyed pyramid representing the US government, via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, reeling in borrowers with the promise of easy money, only to “get them on the hook” for debts they couldn’t service.

Then again, that seems to be the modus operandi of the US government in relation to other countries, as well. The record of American presidents offering cash-for-compliance to foreign governments goes way back: for an account straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were, click here; for an anecdotal account of the practices (a bit thin on supporting evidence, in my view, but nonetheless an entertaining read) click here. The practice of withholding cash to punish non-compliance with the US agenda has an equally long history, Cuba being one of the most glaring examples.

So perhaps this graffito simply reflects the way US power is experienced overseas: as a kind of “fishing expedition” to see what other countries can be made to do in return for cash. It’s worth noting, however, that according to the OECD, Italy actually deploys a larger percentage of its GNI overseas than the US (source document):


These data could be interpreted in a number of ways in relation to the graffito. Perhaps Italians see a significant qualitative difference in the way their country uses foreign economic aid, in contrast to the US strategy. Or maybe the sheer volume of money the US has to distribute overseas (in absolute terms, rather than as a percentage of GDP) leads to the perception that we can lure other nations as easily as a skillful fly fisherman working a stocked pond.

But then, what are we to make of the angelic wings on the one-eyed pyramid? Do they suggest benignity or ubiquity?

What do you think?

I also wonder why the best graffiti I’ve seen anywhere in the world–both in terms of aesthetic value and socio-economic commentary–come from Italy. I’ve seen graffiti everywhere in my travels around Europe, Asia and the Americas, but the Italians produce by far the most intellectually sophisticated and visually appealing images (see my “Socialist Snail” post below for another example). I wonder if it has something to do with Italy’s strong Communist Party affiliations, and the excellence that current and former Communist countries have exhibited in producing propaganda…a more formal medium than graffiti, to be sure, but one with similar persuasive objectives. I’ll try to find some photos from my personal collection of Chinese, Russian and Cuba propaganda posters to illustrate my theory…watch this space!

Did you notice that international stock markets had a little party this week, despite worsening economic news? The latest US unemployment report is shockingly bad, most of the nation’s retailers are reporting double-digit declines in sales (bad news in a country where consumer spending represents two-thirds of GDP), and American stock markets remain in the tank, with the DJIA 40% lower than this time last year. And things don’t look much better in Europe and Asia, where signs of recession are multiplying despite frantic efforts to shore up their economies with stimulus packages and interest rate cuts.

Japan's Nikkei Index
Nikkei Index

So what should we make of the chart on the right?

It shows Japan’s Nikkei Index, which–despite all the bad news, and with no end in sight–experienced a significant surge on Wednesday.


In fact, markets around the world did a little happy dance following the US Presidential election.

Hang Seng Index
Hang Seng Index

Did someone declare a global holiday from doom-and-gloom?

French CAC40
French CAC40

Whatever it was, the words “President-elect Obama” seemed to make financial markets temporarily giddy and blissed-out, much like spectators in Grant Park on Tuesday night.

German DAX
German DAX

Here in Germany, people are celebrating and offering congratulations to any American they meet. They were practically singing “forget your troubles, c’mon get happy”–an unexpected burst of optimism in the nation that coined the term schadenfreude .


But it looks like Wall Street didn’t get an invitation to the party.

While the Dow was up on election day itself, once the results were in, it went right back down.

S&P 500
S&P 500

As did the S&P 500…


..and the NASDAQ.

Maybe the US markets are more in touch with the grim reality of the world economic crisis. Or maybe US markets are just more sanguine than others. That interpretation might seem risible given the extreme ups and downs we’ve seen in the past month, but it’s supported by the historical evidence. Over the past 50 years, momentous events in politics have rarely made much of an impact on US stock prices. Indeed, Cutler, Poterba and Summers showed in their 1989 Journal of Portfolio Management article that even events of world-historical significance, like the JFK assassination or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, have barely registered on the US markets.

Which makes it all the more fascinating to see the financial exuberance (which may or may not be irrational) that greeted the news of Obama’s election overseas. Let’s see if there’s another surge on Inauguration Day. And here’s hoping that next time, the party will last a little longer and include the US markets.

David Fitzsimmons, Tucson Daily Star, 5 November 2008

Ubiquitous in American commercial establishments, this object is a monument to the social meaning of money.

This one, snapped in a coffehouse in Santa Cruz, California, is based on a premise that any label-conscious teenager could explain:

How you spend is who you are.

Postscript: Tip Jar Theft

Several years ago, I heard from a friend who managed a teahouse in Providence, Rhode Island that the store’s tip jar had been stolen right off the counter; it had been placed in the traditional “tip jar spot,” right next to the cash register, in full view of the cashier, staff and other customers. The thief apparently just grabbed the beer stein full of change and ran out the door onto the crowded college-town main street before anyone could stop him.

This prompted a cascade of reactions on my part, in roughly the following order:

  1. Shock
    Tip jars, like the “poor boxes” found in many churches, are part of the informal “gift economy” that long predates the contemporary payment economy–the one in which money is transacted as payment for goods and services. The two economic systems coexist, sometimes clashing with and sometimes reinforcing one another.

    Stealing a tip jar is a lot like stealing the “poor box” from a church–it means taking gifts intended for other people. That makes it more than a property crime: it’s also a crime against the basic law of social life–reciprocity– which has been found in every society, everywhere in the world, in any historical period for which data are available. (I’m happy to send references to those who would like to geek out on this…)So the money in that tip jar was given voluntarily, like a gift, above and beyond the formal price of the good or service purchased. Whatever the tippers’ motives–perhaps gratitude for a good tea recommendation?–their gesture enacted an age-old practice that serves in part to express goodwill and fellow-feeling within what can otherwise be sterile, impersonal transactions.

    The tip jar theft story induces the same kind of shock we experience in response to any form of desecration–thus, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to be appalled by the destruction of the Bamiyan sculptures by the Taliban. By stealing the tip jar, the thief dragged an emblem of the pre-capitalist “gift economy” (back) into the commercial matrix, desecrating a symbol of secular sanctity. The result was a kind of reverse-transubstantiation: turning gifts back into “just money,” there for the taking by anyone willing to bear the social opprobrium.

  2. Surprise
    After I got past my initial “Dang, that is cold” response to the story, I started thinking like an economic sociologist again and my reaction turned to surprise…specifically, surprise that this was the first time I’d ever heard of a theft of this kind. And, like all good cases of feral economic sociology, it caused me to consider a question that had never before crossed my mind:

    Why don’t people steal tip jars more often?

    It’s money literally sitting on the table (or counter, as the case may be), open and unsecured. You’d think this sort of thing would happen all the time, and that businesses would either stop the practice of the tip jar entirely, or take measures to protect it from theft (as my friend did in his teahouse, by chaining the new tip jar to the cash register).

    Yet the very vulnerability of the tip jar, sitting there unprotected on the counter, is a very important part of its appeal and its symbolic resonance. Perhaps that’s why the custom persists, despite problems of theft. Display of an unsecured cache of tips, easy to spot and easy to steal, represents a very positive thing for any society: impersonal trust, the ability to rely on the basic honesty and fairness of strangers. On this, the integrity and robustness of whole societies, and particularly economies, depend. The past month in the stock market is a testament to what happens when people lose that trust, in one another and in institutions (Alan Greenspan, of all people, explained the problem very well in his 1999 commencement address at Harvard).

    The “invisible hand” is the one that isn’t stealing from the tip jar. Or the “poor box.” If I had to propose a “decline of civilization index,” the frequency of such thefts–along with the destruction of other public goods and symbols of impersonal trust–would rank high on the list of index components.

I snapped this photo of plaque over the front door of a house in Seville, Spain, because it records a Hobbesian state of socio-economic affairs: a world without public goods.

Used to be that there was no such thing as a public fire department. If your house was ablaze and you wanted help, you’d better have one of these plaques over your door, or you were SOL. If you wanted a fire brigade to come to your aid in such emergencies, you had to join a kind of club with private membership fees. It worked like this: you ponied up the fees, the club gave you a plaque to put over your front door, and then if fire swept through the neighborhood, the club dispatched help, but they *only* assisted paying members. So if you didn’t have that plaque over your door, the fire rescue teams would pass you right on by. It would not be uncommon to find that your house burned down while the one next door would be saved.

Sometimes, these clubs indulged in what laissez-faire economists might call “healthy competition.” This from Wikipedia’s entry on fire stations:

In many western countries, fire brigades were originally created by insurance companies to safeguard the property of their policyholders. Those who bought policies were given a plaque that would be mounted in a prominent position on the structure to denote its protected status. These plaques can still be seen on some historic buildings, particularly in the United Kingdom. Firemen summoned to burning buildings were expected to look for these plaques before fighting the fire. If the fire was in a building covered by a rival insurer, some brigades would deliberately obstruct that company’s fire brigade in an attempt to give rise to greater property damage (and subsequent expense to the insurer).

Some would call it savage and inhumane. Since the Reagan 80s, others have called it just desserts: if you don’t have the smarts or the money to insure yourself, then you must bear the consequences of not taking “personal responsibility.” And as we all know, privatization of public services has been such a rollicking success in domains such as:

Etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum. Actually, privatization of public goods has repeatedly resulted in economic, social and ethical disaster (example: England’s 18th century Acts of Enclosure, or the privatization of France’s war debt by John Law), so why are we still talking about this?

That was a a rhetorical question. The answer is: because privatization makes some people incredibly rich.