When the rest of the world are mad, we must imitate them in some measure.
—John Martin, Martin's Bank, 1720
As long as the music is playing, you've got to get up and dance.
—Charles Prince, Citigroup, 2007
It would be fair to guess that Charles Prince’s echo of John Martin, a banker who was nearly ruined by the South Sea Bubble, reflects a sincerity that was blissfully ignorant rather than an irony that wasn’t. One might even be willing to bet on it—if, that is, certain information about Prince’s knowledge and state of mind were actually forthcoming. A wager entails uncertainty, but without the prospect of a future event coming to pass, uncertainty is worth little besides the mystery it affords.
To cast lots for Christ’s robe, as Pontius Pilate’s soldiers did, was to play a game of chance. Gambling is one of those activities, along with religious worship and prostitution, that was popular already by the time any recording of history began. Our modern financial system owes much to this desire to make a fortune off of Fortune, though a society that organizes itself around financial risk-taking, whose national assets oscillate in an invisible cloud of ones and zeros, requires a very particular understanding of what the future can hold. Finance makes a commodity out of expectation, something to be bought (preferably low) and sold (preferably high). In the case of the worried farmer or the worried breadwinner, the future can also be viewed with suspicion, but finance enables the anxious to trade one possibility for another: both the speculator and the hedger are seeking the best future that money can buy.
As much as the old saw about money and happiness gets deployed by the usual suspects—grandmothers, clergymen, credit-card commercials—there seems to be some confusion in this country over which one is the legitimate object for pursuit. If anything, the optimistic strain that runs through American history has been a boon to the financial industry, which has literally capitalized on the belief that in the future lies prosperity. Technology has made it possible for finance to transcend the limits of the material world: so much money changing invisible hands has long since become the stuff of American dreams. And for the Chicken Littles who equate the future with decline and decrepitude, financiers found a way to make money for them (and, naturally, from them), too. Insurance for those who don’t want to lose, and short-selling for those who still want to win.
But the future was not always so amenable to our business plans. As long as the future belonged to the gods, there was little arguing with the inevitability of fate. Despite his parents’ deployment of the ultimate avoidance strategy—tie baby’s ankles together; order servant to abandon baby on mountainside—Oedipus killed his father anyway. In Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, Peter Bernstein points out that the future had to be something other than “the murky domain of oracles and soothsayers” before it could be put “in the service of the present.”
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