Buying Tomorrow

Jen-thumb-490x274-2624Jennifer Szalai in Lapham's Quarterly:

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.