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The Present Value of the Distant Future in the Financial Revolution

Thursday Lecture Series

dateNovember 29, 2012 timeThursday, 12:15pm EST location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

Few computational practices are more fundamental to the logic of financial capitalism than that of “present value,” by which the exponential action of compound interest is deployed to translate the economic future into present terms. Critically, and as a rule, such present-value techniques heavily discount the value of future economic events. But such definitions of economic reason, however foundational, are not historically timeless. At the beginning of modern financial culture, the rectitude in early-modern terminology, “ready money”—techniques were not taken for granted.

Beginning with arguments arising out of the financial consequences of the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, Dr. Deringer explored how financiers, journalists, and politicians during Britain’s age of “financial revolution” disputed what the distant future was worth. Arguments about the proper value of very long-term annuities, for example, were not simply narrow technical disputes, but rather pitted different visions of economic rationality against one another: the common sensical versus the mathematical, the vernacular versus the elitist. These arguments, Dr. Deringer showed, resonated more broadly in British culture, shaping how Britons came to think about the possibility of controlling the political future.