George Dyson: ...How to best transcend the current economic mess? Put Jeff Bezos, Pierre Omidyar, Elon Musk, Tim O'Reilly, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Nathan Myhrvold, and Danny Hillis in a room somewhere and don't let them out until they have framed a new, massively-distributed financial system, founded on sound, open, peer-to-peer principles, from the start. And don’t call it a bank. Launch a new financial medium that is as open, scale-free, universally accessible, self-improving, and non-proprietary as the Internet, and leave the 13th century behind.
An Edge Original Essay
What a fantastic piece. This guy is really smart.
Making Markets: From Abundance To Artificial Scarcity
The economy in which we operate is not a natural system, but a set of rules developed in the Late Middle Ages in order to prevent the unchecked rise of a merchant class that was creating and exchanging value with impunity. This was what we might today call a peer-to-peer economy, and did not depend on central employers or even central currency.
People brought grain in from the fields, had it weighed at a grain store, and left with a receipt — usually stamped into a thin piece of foil. The foil could be torn into smaller pieces and used as currency in town. Each piece represented a specific amount of grain. The money was quite literally earned into existence — and the total amount in circulation reflected the abundance of the crop.
Now the interesting thing about this money is that it lost value over time. The grain store had to be paid, some of the grain was lost to rats and spoilage. So each year, the grain store would reissue the money for any grain that hadn't actually been claimed. This meant that the money was biased towards transactions — towards circulation, rather than hording. People wanted to spend it. And the more money circulates (to a point) the better and more bountiful the economy. Preventative maintenance on machinery, research and development on new windmills and water wheels, was at a high.
Many towns became so prosperous that they invested in long-term projects, like cathedrals. The "Age of Cathedrals" of this pre-Renaissance period was not funded by the Vatican, but by the bottom-up activity of vibrant local economies. The work week got shorter, people got taller, and life expectancy increased. (Were the Late Middle Ages perfect? No — not by any means. I am not in any way calling for a return to the Middle Ages. But an honest appraisal of the economic mechanisms in place before our own is required if we are ever going to contend with the biases of the system we are currently mistaking for the way it has always and must always be.)
Feudal lords, early kings, and the aristocracy were not participating in this wealth creation. Their families hadn't created value in centuries, and they needed a mechanism through which to maintain their own stature in the face of a rising middle class. The two ideas they came up with are still with us today in essentially the same form, and have become so embedded in commerce that we mistake them for pre-existing laws of economic activity.
The first innovation was to centralize currency. What better way for the already rich to maintain their wealth than to make money scarce? Monarchs forcibly made abundant local currencies illegal, and required people to exchange value through artificially scarce central currencies, instead.