Sunday, August 07, 2016

Both numeracy and literacy were invented in the service of finance and commerce

That comes from a book review in the NY Times. See Finance Is the Master Technology — and It’s Funded the World by Felix Martin.

The book reviewed is Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible by William N. Goetzmann. He is a Professor of Finance and Management Studies at Yale University. Excerpts:
"finance is a “technology of civilization” — a way of thinking about and doing things that has been the central facilitator of the material, artistic and cultural accomplishments that we call civilized life. Indeed finance, Goetzmann argues, is a sort of master technology, from which an astonishing range of our most basic habits of mind derives."

"Autarkic subsistence farming had to be replaced by specialization, the division of labor and coordination on a massive scale. The innovation developed by the clerical bureaucracies to enable this transition was the invention of financial accounting. And it was only as part of this new financial system that writing and abstract numbers — those epochal inventions that so clearly transformed the subsequent history of humanity in so many other fields — were invented."

"finance is responsible for our modern conception of time. Pre-monetary society operated on sacred time, with the day divided up by ecclesiastical offices or prayer times, and the year into high days and holy days that reflected the cycle of the seasons or the phases of the moon. Financial reasoning and, in particular, the calculation of compound interest demanded a more regimented scheme arbitrated by objective mathematical rules rather than clerical authority."

"“financial technology is a time machine” — a set of ideas and practices that enable us to shift economic value backward and forward through time."

"the ancient Sumerians introduced a 360-day year in order to make calculating interest easier.'

"Modern ideas of probability and risk, of ethics and morality, and of appropriate models of commercial and even political organization — all were forged in the furnaces of finance,"

"“Like other technologies,” he writes, finance “developed through innovations that improved efficiency. It is not intrinsically good or bad.”"

"One does not have to be a hard-core Marxist to entertain the idea that finance is not, and did not evolve as, a neutral tool to improve the operation of the free market — itself an ethically colorless state of nature in human relations. This alternative view is in perfect agreement that finance is indeed one of the most powerful tools for the organization of human activity ever invented. But it holds that it arose historically, and continues to be used today, to codify and enforce relationships built on power and luck as much as to facilitate voluntary and rational decision-making."

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