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Latest Issue

Time Has a Price

July 1, 2022

One benefit of human progress is the way we gain “common knowledge” that was once anything but common. We observe basic facts—for example, water boils if placed over a flame—and then build on them. Boiling water took us to steam engines and then much more. But that path wasn’t always obvious.

We see a similar evolution in finance. Early humans (the Sumerians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and eventually the Romans and the Greeks) developed a concept of “property” in which a certain person possesses a particular object.

Then came the idea one could “loan” their property to another, giving up immediate control but retaining ownership, in exchange for some kind of reward. This reward came to be called “interest” and now it’s the foundation of every investment decision.

Ironically, these transactions were originally recorded on clay tablets, which were broken when the loan was repaid. But numerous surviving unbroken tablets recording unpaid loans give us an idea of their loan terms, which often made today’s credit card companies look generous.

This is likely obvious to you. It certainly is to me. Yet it clearly isn’t obvious to everyone, and particularly to some central bankers and their advisors. This leads to many of the problems I discuss in these letters.

Last week I mentioned a forthcoming book by Edward Chancellor, The Price of Time: The Real Story of Interest. I’m reading an advance copy and it’s every bit as gripping as any science fiction novel. (Those who know my...

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