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Taking a Long View

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[Dave Birch] The always interesting Michael Mainelli of Z/Yen invited me along to the Long Finance Institute "do" in the City, where a number of people were talking about the long view of finance, another perspective on the "Long Now". I have to say first of all that it was a thoroughly enjoyable event. The basic question behind the long finance agenda is "how will we know when the financial system is working?". I know this sounds a bit vague, but the conversation, discussion and debate that it enables are very valuable, and it caused me to think about a number of the innovation-related discussions that I'm involved in. Some new thinking is always welcome.

I was particularly interested in the "eternal coin". An eternal coin? Here's the schtick. Would it be possible to design a coin that never loses it value? Could such a thing exist? If it could exist, what would it be made of? Thought provoking. They have a logo made from a Moebius strip, which I'm not sure about to be honest (although I treasure the souvenir one that they gave us), so rather than critcise I thought I'd try and come up with another one sometime. Sadly, I'm not terribly artistic, but I'm sure Brian Eno (that chap from "Question Time" — turns out he used to play piano in a popular beat combo) must know some, so perhaps it would be better to leave it to them. Michael said that the "eternal coin" is the iconic focus of the Long Finance project, analagous to the eternal clock of the Long Now Foundation, which I thought was a good description.

But back to Long Finance. They have mapped out eight themes within what they call a "meta commerce" structure:

  1. Long-term versus short-term, an obvious theme for finance, one I'll comment on later.
  2. Fiscal versus monetary.
  3. Free versus regulated. No-one believes that totally free markets are desireable (look at Somalia) but
  4. Selfish versus selfless. I am somewhat on the "greed is good" side of things, but clearly we act in ways that contribute to the long-term good.
  5. Mutual versus public-sector versus private-sector. I think this is quite a hot topic because of the banking crisis and I'm keen to hear to different opinions.
  6. Rational versus emotional. Financial markets may want to see themselves as entirely rational, but they have a herd mentality.
  7. Sustainability versus robustness versus resilience. For a long time, we lived sustainable lives in balance with nature. Of course, we only lived to 25 and had an infant mortality rate of 90%, but you can't have everything. What does long term sustainability even mean? In the long term the universe isn't sustainable. But I digress.
  8. Theory versus practice. It's not clear to me that we have a theory of finance for the next 10,000 years so we probably have to build on what we've got and try use the practical lessons learned so far.

Some of things that were discussed (such as "retirement cohorts") were genuinely fascinating, although I am absolutely not qualified to comment on whether they are mad or not. As I'm obsessed with thinking about the future of money and payments, this was a wonderful day out.

P.S. I loved the affectation of showing the date everywhere with five digits as 1st February 02010.

P.P.S. Would have loved to twitter, blog and otherwise big up the event from inside, but the wifi wasn't open. Tut tut.

P.P.P.S I thought the idea of having audience singalongs between the sessions was great, but I don't think we'll be bringng this innovation to the Digital Money Forum.

Oddly, the event drew me back to thinking about the question that I asked Bruce Sterling, the "science fiction" author, about why the speculative fiction around money is so underdeveloped. HIs answer — because it's boring — is only part of the story. As the Long Finance discussions showed, people don't generally really think long term at all (science fiction isn't really about the future, it's about now). It's fun to speculate, Asimov-style, on the far future, but for most people in the financial world the "long view" means "after the next quarter"

The real awesomeness of the future — so far, at least — turns out to have not nearly so much to do with technical fireworks and the kinds of techno-conveniences that brute-force computational power can achieve, but rather with the new lifestyles, new patterns of autonomy, and the new forms of social relationships that relatively simple but increasingly pervasive technologies, have helped facilitate.

[From Rad Geek People’s Daily 2009-12-31 – Claim Chowder: Ray Kurzweil, “2009,” in The Age of Spiritual Machines]

Surely this is correct, but what does it mean for money, payments and banking? As I've written before, the longer-term future cannot possibly be one of a "universal dollar" or "galactic credit" or anything else based on currency areas that encompass fundamentally different economic situations, systems and schemes (eg, the euro).

Forum friend Bernard Lietaer gave a presentation on demurrage (the "parking fee" for money) as the basis for a different kind of currency that would change the long term view of the value of the resources and explained his proposal for the "terra", a unit of account based on a basket of a dozen key internationally-traded commodities and services, with a 3.5% demurrage. In his plan, the central bank of the "Terra Alliance" would buy commodities that make up the basket and issue terras in receipt but balance to ensure that all terras in circulation are 100% backed by inventory receipts.

Again, not sure, but I did agree strongly with his point that the future is about lots of currencies, not one. I think that (while I don't know what the answer is) the idea that some combination of globally-interconnected local (in the post-modern sense) relationship-based systems of money that are enabled by, but not fixed by, information and communications technology will operate in a different way that has unpredictable social consequences. And that's what makes it fun.

Another P.S. During one of the discussions, fund manager Edward Bonham Carter (brother of the more famous Helena), was asked whether the City is endemically short term and he said that the City is "rationally responding to the set of incentives that they are given" and that people are "hard-wired not to think long term". Hear hear.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

One thought on “Taking a Long View”

  1.' Andrew Curry says:

    Long term vs short term: I’m doing some scenarios work (thinking about 2050) for a client where there’s a strong split between an operational focus and a strategic view. ‘2050?’ one said, of the operational types. ‘You’ll be all right as long as they think you’re talking about ten to nine’.

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