I need some paper with ink on it. I could make my own but the market isn’t confident. In fact the market has so little confidence in my paper with ink on it that I am in danger of arrest and/or ridicule if I try to use my brand of paper with ink on it. I need some special paper with ink on it. What makes it special? Someone told me it was special and I believed them.
If I had some illuminated numbers on a screen I could always change those into some special paper with ink on it but, yet again, my own illuminated numbers on screens don’t give the market confidence. The illuminated numbers on screens that I produce make the markets disappointed and the ones that they give me have a tiny line, -, illuminated on their screens. This apparently means that the market is not just lacking confidence but is actually angry with me. Personally. They won’t give me special paper with ink on it.
And that sucks.
My landlord wants some paper with ink on it. The grocery store will settle for some average, circular metal with a random head on one side but prefers paper with ink on it, and I have none of either. Less than none thanks to -. Zero is not as low as you can go. Pepsi lied. I thought –1 apples was a stupid idea but I took a music degree, not economics. I could ask my boss for extra paper with ink on it but a multi-national just moved into town. Now the market is angry with him too. Suddenly he has so little paper with ink on it that I’ve been laid off.
The bank, though, they will swap some special paper with ink on it for nothing more than a promise. It’s a bargain.
I get the special paper with ink on it straight away and the moment that happens I become immediately more attractive to the opposite sex, probably to live on a white sand, palm fringed beach. I’ve seen the adverts. It’s as effective as beer. I might even get a free pen. Free!
How do I make that promise they want? Easy. I sign my name on a dead tree and simply give them that piece of paper with ink on it. Then they invent some illuminated numbers onto a screen and I get some special paper with ink on it personally handed to me by a machine. All I have to do is give them back more paper with ink on it than they give me. And I can worry about that tomorrow. Mine’s a coconut daiquiri . . . palm trees here I come.
Now I can pay my landlord, I can feed my children, I can feed the insatiable monster of consumerism that has been jammed violently into my psyche, like a bile pipe rammed into the gut of a live bear, since I was a small child myself. I’ll slowly forget that those bears, given a chance, commit suicide from the pain and have to be forcibly restrained, immobile for life, to keep the bile flowing. I’ll be surrounded by encouragement to forget that. Bears live a long time, though.
I could write some music instead, after all, I have collected a lot of –paper with ink on it so I could do just that but hey, who doesn’t want new sneakers at $300 a pop? Who doesn’t need a 64 bit quad core computer, that would have been a government-only super computer only ten years ago, just to watch YouTube? And who doesn’t like being super popular because they have paper with ink on it?
Money. Paper with ink on it, illuminated numbers on screens and signatures on dead trees are all just a means of exchange. Ridiculous, or otherwise they are nothing more than a promise from one side to another.
About 1100 AD King Henry 1st of England introduced notched sticks, known as ‘’tally sticks’’, as a form of currency. The Inuits used knotted chords, the Sumerians made marks on clay tablets. Everything from shells, leaves and even bones have been used before now. Just think, if we still used shells then everybody on the coast would be loaded. Maybe.
Probably weirder systems have occurred before now, only to be lost in the mists of history. The method itself is artificial, man-made and, when analysed, inherently ridiculous. And yet we run our very lives on that system, hanging on every pundit’s word, every market view on confidence, and every random number regurgitated by the machines. But in reality, at the core, it is a simple idea.
The constant in exchange contracts is trust between people. The exchange is essentially a promise and without trust no promissory system can work. The more complicated the system becomes, the less trust we have in it. Sometimes that may be because we just don’t understand it any more. Nobody gives easy trust to that which they don’t understand. Sometimes, though, the trust breaks down because the system is cheating, introducing complexity in order to obfuscate, hide and steal. Sometimes, maybe now, it’s both. Have you really read the myriad legalese small print you have given your promise to on bank accounts, auto insurance or health care? Would you understand them if you had?
Today the algorithm is the king of financial trading. Think of them as the deceptive bastard cousins of illuminated numbers on screens. They are ruthlessly effective at making a profit, when they work, and fiendishly complicated. In trading houses today you’re as likely to meet a Ph.D. physicist as a barrow boy from the East End or a wide boy from the Bronx. People can make a few trades in a few minutes; algorithms can make a few thousand in mere microseconds.
Speed is of such vital importance that banks will place their servers as close to the exchange computers as possible. Sometimes the tiny fraction of a second advantage a Wall Street based computer has over a New Jersey computer is enough to make a killing. And no one really understands how it works. Sometimes, however briefly, an algorithm will do the unexpected. It’s still just as powerful but it’s having the digital equivalent of a mental breakdown. The results can be price spikes, market crashes and have sometimes been a very real threat to the survival of the company that unleashed them. All in a few microseconds.
There is a pervasive feeling in the West today, exemplified by movements such as Occupy and UK Uncut, that the market can no longer be trusted. Some question if it ever could. It is a feeling that the promise is obtained through deceit and coercion, that the process is no longer even human let alone intelligible. It is a feeling that those not in the West have known for decades. Sometimes centuries. The market would argue that this is simply advantage but an algorithm, by it’s nature, is amoral. People, in the majority of cases, are not. Indeed, amorality is so rare in a balanced society that we make laws to penalise the aberrant few that engage in it. Social laws that is – for markets we seem to ignore those controls.
The term psychopath is only a badge of honour to another psychopath; and despite their media prevalence, they are rare. That they exist, and have an extensive, undue, negative impact because of their behaviour, is true. That they are the majority is not even close to true.
Some argue that the way the markets run themselves encourages the psychopathic personality, that it even rewards and values it as a profit generator. A food riot in Djibouti is irrelevant when considering whether to virtually hoard rice and wheat on Wall Street, especially if you care little about starving people. That may have been true once, it may even still be true now, but that no longer matters. The algorithm is king and the algorithm does not know what emotion or morality are. They exist to perform orders, just like the Nuremberg defence used by the Nazis, to make profits regardless of any other consideration. They do nothing else because they cannot do anything else, regardless of consequences. Maybe a deregulated market is not such a good idea after all? I still need some paper with ink on it, but I’m no longer sure that I want it.