Learning the language of finance.

The most important mystery of ancient Egypt concerned the annual inundation of the Nile floodplain. The calendar was divided into three seasons linked to the river and the agricultural cycle it determined: akhet, or the inundation; peret, the growing season; and shemu, the harvest. The size of the harvest depended on the size of the flood: too little water, and there would be famine; too much, and there would be catastrophe; just the right amount, and the whole country would bloom and prosper. Every detail of Egyptian life was shaped by the flood. Even the tax system was based on the level of the water, which dictated how successful farmers would be in the subsequent season. Priests performed complicated rituals to divine the nature of that year’s flood and the resulting harvest. The religious élite had at their disposal a rich, emotionally satisfying mythological system; a subtle language of symbols which drew on that mythology; and a position of unchallenged power at the center of their extraordinarily stable society, one that remained in an essentially static condition for thousands of years.

But the priests were cheating, because they had something else, too: Nilometers. These were devices that consisted of large, permanent measuring stations, with lines and markers to predict the level of the annual flood, situated in temples to which only priests and rulers were granted access. Added to accurate records of flood patterns dating back for centuries, Nilometers were a necessary tool for control of Egypt. They helped give the priests and the ruling class much of their authority.

The world is full of priesthoods. On the one hand, there are the calculations that the pros make in private; on the other, elaborate ritual and language, designed to bamboozle and mystify and intimidate. To the outsider, the realm of finance looks a lot like the old Nile game. In The Economist, not long ago, I read about a German bank that had some observers worried. The journalist thought that the bank would be O.K., and that “holdings of peripheral euro-zone government bonds can be gently unwound by letting them run off.” What might that mean? There’s something kooky about the way the metaphor mixes unwinding and holding and running off, like the plot of a screwball comedy.

Read more here http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/04/money-talks-6

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