Ice Creams, Che Creams: Understanding Money and a dual economy

Yay for Ice Cream (or a reenactment of fighting pirates in Santiago) by Isaac Holeman.


We use big numbers all the time. In the US we’re all about big, but in reality human brains are pretty crappy at comprehending really big numbers. It’s easy to go without noticing this because brains are very clever, and they figure out ways to get by – often by making concrete or social approximations. For example, it’s really hard to understand what that sleazy financial manager is talking about when he says your initial investment of just $980.00 will double 10 times in the next forty years, but it’s easy when he finishes the idea – this means over one million dollars by the time you retire. We can understand one million dollars really well because we know what millionaires are like – their class, style of living, and many other social assumptions. Likewise, saying that Bill Gates makes a jillion dollars a month or that the Occupation of Iraq costs us hundreds of billions a year is isn’t nearly as interesting as hearing that Bill Gates shouldn’t pause to pick up $100 bills because he earns money faster when he is working, or that Occupying Iraq has thus far cost us (or our children) about 1,800% of Bill Gate’s total net worth (1,104 billion for Iraq includes 650 in future spending on existing health problems of soldiers, see wikipedia article Financial Cost of 2003 Iraq War).

Most people conceptualize money in terms of an item that they use money to purchase (or think about purchasing) in their daily lives. I’ve long been fascinated by which objects specific individuals choose to use to understand numbers. Mine used to be hamburgers, but since starting college I get hamburgers in the cafeteria and I’ve stopped buying them regularly. I now count in either bottles of beer (not in our cafeteria) or cups of coffee (don’t trust the cafeteria coffee). When I was thinking about buying the computer I am using to type this message, I figured out that this computer would cost me about one cup of coffee each day in between then and my graduation (three years more or less). My Dad drinks about this much coffee, one cup a day plus an occasional second or third. I decided I was willing to forgo that much coffee while in college, so I bought the computer.

Here in Cuba, there are two currencies. One is pegged to the Euro and is worth about one dollar. The second is worth 1/24th that much, it’s only used by residents of Cuba. This is a very small number (~ 4 cents), reconciling two currencies is confusing, and many other price dynamics make the Cuban economy difficult to understand. One astute friend, Alex, quickly discovered that you can get a soft serve ice cream cone on the street for one peso (~ 4 cents). At that price we knew these treats would be a major facet of our lives here and we almost immediately began referring to this currency as “ice creams.” Imagine how thrilled we were when we found a stand where you could buy an ice cream for about 4/5 of an ice cream! There is a coin with Che Guevarra on it that is worth three ice creams. When we discovered a cool street stand that sells hard ice cream for three ice creams (or one Che coin), we quickly began to refer to the hard ice cream, as well as the three ice cream coin, as Che creams.

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