The Fable Of The Marbles And The Teacher

By Aitor Calero García

Once upon a time, in a small and remote village across the mountains, in a faraway country, there was a small rural school. It was one of those schools with children of different ages together in a single classroom, a village school like any other, but this is a minor detail. It had a strict teacher. However, everybody in the village loved the teacher, as she was just and fair and she cared very much for her pupils. She was the kind of teacher who gave advice like “you always have to not live beyond your means.”

One day, the school’s teacher proposed a new game to her pupils. It was an easy game to play. The teacher showed the students a big bowl containing marbles. Marbles of many different colors, with some opaque as if made of clay and others made of glass and some of these contained spirals inside. But the shape and sizes of the marbles were not important for the game. The teacher said:

Do you see these marbles? From now on, these marbles will be your money. For each successful task you complete in class, I will give you one marble. If you want to leave school today and return to your family you will need to collect 10 marbles. The objective of this game is to learn how the economy works, and the importance of not living beyond our means.

And the game started. The teacher assigned tasks and exercises and the students began to collect marbles. As you can imagine, there were some students smarter than others and quickly some had collected more marbles than others. In fact, one of them, the second oldest and the smartest student in the school, collected the required 10 marbles very quickly, even before the bell rang. The oldest student was the village’s fool. As you can imagine, this student had barely completed 2 exercises and one paper. The rest of the students had completed some papers as well, but none had the ten required, except for the smartest student, Edward.

When Peter had completed his fifth exercise he went to the teacher’s desk to collect his next marble.

The teacher said “I’m sorry Peter, I do not have any more marbles in the bowl”

“But, teacher! I’ve finished my exercise and you said that when finished I would receive a marble in return. What should I do now? This is not fair!” came Peter’s reply.

“You’re right, but that’s the way the economy works. It’s important to know that we have to not live beyond our means, so you will have to look for the marble elsewhere, because I do not have any more.”

“I can loan you a Marble”, said Edward, the smart student. “I have 5 spare marbles, so I will still have 4 extras”. And Edward, who was also generous as well as smart, loaned Peter one marble.

Sandra came to the teacher’s desk and asked for 3 marbles! And Anne, asked for 5, as did Susan, and Anthony. Quite suddenly all of the students had finished their exercises and started to ask for their marbles.

There were not enough marbles for all! It does not matter how hard they worked or how generous Edward could be, it was impossible for every student to have the 10 marbles required to get out of school.

At the end of the day, parents came to the school’s front door to pick up their children, but only Edward came out. He had provided help to his friends by loaning his 5 spare marbles, but it had not been enough. Only he had obtained the required ten marbles. Now, he was alone and sad. There were no other kids to play with him at the park.

The rest of the parents asked, “Where are the other children?”

“Our teacher will not allow them out, until they collect 10 marbles”, said Edward explaining to the parents how the game works.

One father said: “It seems right to me! Our kids have to understand that they cannot live beyond their means! The ones that have not collected the ten required marbles should have completed the task earlier. If they have not done so, it was probably because they are either lazy or have wasted time”

“So true!” said another one, “It’s going to be a great lesson for our kids”. The rest of the parents agreed, and all went back home, in order for their children to learn the lesson.

The parents returned the next day to pick up their children. Once again no one was waiting for them at the front door of the school.

“Why are there no children today?” some parents asked.

They knocked on the front door and spoke with the teacher. She informed them that no one else had yet obtained the required ten marbles and therefore were not allowed to leave.

But a mother who had been giving serious thought about the situation said, “Wait a moment! There’s something wrong here. There are children that are smaller than others, and therefore are going to finish the exercises later than other. It’s not that they are lazy or are wasting time; it’s just that they have less experience or less knowledge. It’s not fair that just because they need more time, they do not get the marbles. There should be marbles for them as well, why they do not have marbles?”

The teacher replied that there were no more marbles in the bowl.

“But, that’s absurd! Why don’t you cut up pieces of paper and give them in place of marbles when a child has finished a task? They have met the requirement; it is not their fault that you do not have enough marbles in the bowl!” said the angry mother.

“Sorry, but that is not possible. The rules of the game state that this game can only be played with the marbles that were present at the start. They cannot live beyond their means, and they simply are not allowed to go out until they learn the lesson”, said the fair teacher.

“But that does not show them anything!” protested the mother. “Well actually, it only shows that the bigger kids always win and that the slower or weakest always lose because there are stupid rules about marbles!”

Then, the fair teacher smiled and said to the young mother: “Welcome to the European Union”.

On that day, everyone in the village learned a lesson. The lesson was that a fiat money system, does not have value per se and that the ones who produce it, can and should, create as much of it as necessary to allow everyone to be paid for the job.

Edward, the smart student, was happy once again. Finally, the other children were allowed to play with him in the park.

Original Spanish version of the fable is available here.

Aitor Calero Garcíais is technical advisor for IT projects related to geospatial sciences. He has been blogging at www.uncafelitoalasonce.com since 2008 about many issues. Since 2009 with the start of the crisis in Spain and Europe, economy, sutainability and public policies for employment have been his main focus. In his words: “not an expert just an Spanish ‘aficionado’.”

12 responses to “The Fable Of The Marbles And The Teacher

  1. Great piece. Love when the language is simple. MMT’s battle is not just against traditionally educated economics minds, but also to change the views of the average person, and essays like these serve well.

  2. Vassilis Serafimakis

    Since I was an eye witnesse at the episode, I can testify that what the teacher actually said was,

    “Welcome to the Eurozone!”

    Keep up the good work.

  3. The story doesn’t make much sense. The kids can’t exchange their marbles for goods and services from each other, and only seem to be able to loan out their marbles once. The teacher (government) doesn’t seem to be able to ‘tax’ or borrow marbles and then ‘spend’ them either. Therefore the story has nothing to do with how money works at all.

  4. The story doesn’t make much sense. y

    Because it left out that population growth occurs? Or that P1 = P0 + I0 in an endless feedback loop of increasing debt?

  5. Make that Pn+1 = Pn + In.

  6. You are right y it doesnt make much sense, but it is an accurate portrayal of how a gold standard would work, at least in theory or at least in those who cry out for sound money. Thinking that having a fixed supply of gold that determines what one can spend is exactly how the marbles story works.

    The teacher being able to tax or spend is irrelevant, actually she does a have a ten marble tax to leave the classroom, however she doesnt have enough marbles available for everyone to acquire enough no matter how hard they wish to work. That is the flaw in hers and any neoliberal model.

  7. Not sure why people are saying this example does not involve tax. The restriction that students can’t leave is the tax. Duh!

    Further, when the first kid pays the 10 marble exit tax, doesn’t the teacher now have 10 marbles? Why can’t he/she start paying students to do more chores? Basically, velocity would increase above 1, and a small marble base supply will be able to facilitate larger amounts of payment.

    Finally, if this happens on multiple days, then interest is no problem. The borrower could do some extra chores tomorrow and hand the payment marbles to the creditor. Or, if this seems “unfair”, the students can take turns on who gets out first each day.

    • Hello marris,

      You’re right about recycling but remember that Edward was a fair guy and he decided to borrow his marbles. What would happened it he decided to not borrow his spare marbles? Moreover, what would happened if, at the end of the day, decided to get out of the school with the extra marbles? Remember that there is no upper limit for the number of marbles collected. If Edward, even with reclycing taxes, if he went back to school the next day, and got another 15 marbles, the situation would be even worse.

      In fact, it’s actually what is happening now in Spain, deposits are flying!

      Anyway, it’s a fable to point out a simple fact. Someone have to create a medium of exchange, and this medium of exchange should be flexible enough to get things moving

  8. Out of marbles? Spain food shortages force people to dumpster dive.
    Check it out.
    Video 1: Spanish with English subtitles
    http://youtu.be/mbfoErxRW4w

    Video 2: Spanish only.
    http://youtu.be/mzI36PJNmCU