Thomas A. Bass

Selected Works

Review of Ken Burns's Vietnam
“This book is precious. It makes a real contribution to our struggle for liberty and democracy in Vietnam.” – Bui Tin
The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An's Dangerous Game
"I was deeply impressed by this book"--John le Carré
A team of physicists take on the bull market of the late 1990s with hilarious results.
--Reader's Catalog
"A funny and outrageous tale of gambling and high tech." --Tracy Kidder
"[I]t will undoubtedly prove to be one of the essential documents about that war."
--Tobias Wolff
"Thomas Bass overwhelmingly fulfills his intention to convey the incredible richness Africa offers the inquiring mind. He explores the continent with impeccable research, enthusiasm, wry humor, and unsentimental humanity."
--Nadine Gordimer
Iconoclasts, rebels, and Nobel prize winners talk about science as the dominant metaphor of the twentieth century.
Magazine Articles
April 8, 1996. All hell has broken loose in the Chicago exchanges.
Wearables are already bringing us "heads up, hands free" augmented reality in the workplace.
On the advice of an astrologer, Nguyen Van Thieu, South Vietnam's last president, changed his birthday to a more auspicious day. The spirits were not fooled.
A profile of Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab

The Future of Money

He used to be the most powerful banker in the world. Now he's talking like a cypherpunk. An amazingly frank Wired Interview with Walter Wriston about money, the economy, and the Digital Era.

Want to know about the future of money? Talk to Walter Wriston.

Wriston was there at the creation of the modern wired economy, when money began turning itself into bits and bytes and started flowing around the world through satellite transponders and fiber-optic cables.

Wriston bet the bank on technology during his 17-year reign as chair and CEO of Citicorp/​Citibank. Under Wriston, Citibank set out in the 1970s to "wire" its customers into automated, online, checkless, international users of "financial supermarkets" based on CATs and ATMs. This "thin branch" of customers wired into a global network would be the engine of Citibank's financial growth.

By the time Wriston retired in 1984 - turning the bank over to John Reed, the wunderkind who had implemented much of Wriston's technological vision - Citibank was America's largest bank, and its investment in computer hardware and software was approaching US$1.75 billion.

Wriston, who has served on the boards of several dozen companies ranging in size from Silicon Valley start-ups to General Electric, is the author of two books on money (Risk & Other Four-Letter Words, 1986, and The Twilight of Sovereignty: How the Information Revolution Is Transforming Our World, 1992). The basis for wealth, he says, has evolved from land to labor to information. "Information about money has become almost as important as money itself," he said - a famous remark now inscribed in the lobby of New York's Library of Science, Industry, and Business.

Wriston is the subject of a 1,000-page biography called Wriston: Walter Wriston, Citibank, and the Rise and Fall of American Financial Supremacy (1995), which regards him as the kingpin of modern American finance. "I'm too busy to read it," says the 77-year-old banker. "That's the past. I'm interested in the future."

Thomas A. Bass: What is the future of money?

Walter Wriston: The revolution that's waiting in the woods is smartcards. They issued 300,000 during the Olympics in Atlanta. It was the first mass use of smartcards in America.

TAB: Explain smartcards.

WW: One kind is an electronic purse. It's basically a traveler's check that makes exact change. You give 7-Eleven 50 bucks, and they give you a card that goes in vending machines. When the card is debited down to zero, you throw it away.

The second kind of smartcard is rechargeable. A third kind involves identification. It holds a computer chip with your DNA signature or a digital picture.

This technology is on the verge of exploding, and when it does, people will think of smartcards as money in the same way they now think of traveler's checks as money.

TAB: Can anyone issue smartcards?

WW: The United States had no central bank until 1913, so every bank issued its own dollar bills. In the early days these bills were different colors and sizes, and some of them weren't worth the paper they were printed on. The same thing is happening with smartcards. 7-Eleven is issuing smartcards.

TAB: Why switch from greenbacks to smartcards?

WW: The idea of carrying a card with both built-in identification and money has a certain charm, as opposed to carrying a bunch of cash that can get lost or stolen. The card is secure, because it won't work unless you know the personal ID numbers. In France, they introduced smartcards by fiat: they just announced one day that you had to use smartcards for all automatic teller machines. Smartcards are very big in Germany, and in 1995, 400 million smartcards were shipped to Asia. You can't make a phone call in Japan without one. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think money is about to remake itself.

TAB: How does new money compare with old money?

WW: Yap islanders kept huge stones in their front yards. The size of your stone indicated how rich you were. Nobody could move these stones, but nobody cared, because they knew you had the money "in the bank." We've used wampum, beads, silver, and gold, and now we use paper and call it money. The next transition will be to smartcards.

TAB: What does the government think of smartcards?

WW: The first thing the government will want to do is regulate them: "If it's new it must be bad." For the moment, smartcards exist outside financial regulations. What effect will this have on the velocity of money? The quantity of money? What if 7-Eleven, instead of taking your cash, puts it on the cuff and extends credit? Nobody knows.

TAB: What is the velocity of money?

WW: The number of times a dollar bill turns over in the course of a year.

TAB: Is it a constant, or does it increase over time?

WW: The money supply turns over on average about three times a year. When economists fail to predict the future, it's not because they don't know how much money has been created by the Federal Reserve Board and released through the banks. It's because they don't know what people are doing with it. When people feel threatened, they put their money in the bank and the velocity goes down. When they feel good about life, they buy everyone a beer and the velocity goes up.

TAB: How about the velocity of money in international finance?

WW: The velocity of this kind of money is increasing. The churn in the international markets is enormous. When I first entered the banking business, the entire foreign exchange market in New York was $50 million a day. Now it's $1 trillion a day.

TAB: You're credited with inventing the idea of the financial supermarket. What's the future of one-stop shopping for all your banking, insurance, and investment needs?

WW: The real issue is who is going to run these financial supermarkets. Will it be something called a bank? Or will it be General Electric, Merrill Lynch, or Fannie Mae? All I can tell you is that the banking business used to have about 70 percent of the financial assets of the world. Now we have about 30 percent. Do you know any industry that went from 70 down to 30 percent of market share and survived?

TAB: But the market you're sharing is bigger.

WW: It's still an unanswered question if America's heavily regulated banks can compete against huge corporations with massive cash flows. All I'm saying is that the share of financial assets administrated by banks is shrinking every day, while the share administrated by the General Electrics of this world is growing. Small-town bankers worried for years that Citibank would steal their business. But in the end, it was stolen by Merrill Lynch.

TAB: How did Merrill Lynch steal their business?

WW: Don Regan, when he was running Merrill Lynch, changed the world, which doesn't happen very often. He invented the cash management account. The CMA consolidated checking, savings, investments, and borrowing all in one account, which is invested in a money market fund. The last time I looked, Merrill Lynch's assets under management were four times the size of the largest bank in the world. While everyone in the government was worrying about bank monopolies, these guys were eating our lunch. If we hadn't come up with something similar, the banks would have been dead.

TAB: Besides smartcards, what other changes are in store for money?

WW: There's a lot of talk these days about electronic money. One strategy for making it work involves securing electronic cash with government bonds held in depository. This is a back-to-the-future idea that reminds me of what the United States government did in 1863. It passed the National Bank Act, which said that all dollar bills had to be backed 90 percent by government bonds. The banks had to buy the bonds to issue the dollars that financed the Civil War. It was very clever. This could happen again with ecash issued by 7-Eleven or DigiCash.

TAB: What is Citibank doing with ecash?

WW: Colin Crook of Citibank has designed a whole parallel system of money, which goes out on a proprietary company network. It has both token cash and real cash. He has applied for dozens of patents, many of which have been granted, and it could well become a standard. But it remains to be seen whether people will believe this is real cash.

TAB: What do you do with token cash?

WW: You pay your bills. The bottleneck for all these systems is the security of the network. There are too many 16-year-olds with gold chains around their necks who are breaking this stuff. RSA and Pretty Good Privacy claim to have it covered. But I'm from Missouri when it comes to thinking about security on the Net. You can tackle the problem by hardware (proprietary systems firewalled from the Net) or by software, but this stuff is moving so fast you'd be a fool to say which one is going to win.

TAB: If you were still running the bank, you'd have to put your money somewhere....

WW: In the real world, over time, proprietary systems won't work. "Open" has become the pretty girl at the party. Nobody quite knows what open means, but the world is demanding that systems talk to each other.

TAB: This lets the bad guys listen in.

WW: One day Jack Scantlin, the inventor who designed Citibank's electronic systems, came into my office and asked, "What are you worrying about?"

"I'm worried about someone putting a pair of alligator clips on the back of our mainframe, taking out $10 million, and putting it into a Swiss bank account."

"That's simple," Scantlin said. "You solve that by encryption."

Several months later I got a phone call from someone who introduced himself as the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Security. "Do you know a guy named Scantlin?" he asked. "He has invented a cipher and applied to patent it under American law. He ain't gonna get that patent, and you're never going to use that cipher overseas. Is that clear?"

"Yes, sir," I said. So this was one cipher we never used.

TAB: I thought bankers were exempt from crypto export laws?

WW: Not to my knowledge. We suffer the same export controls as people like Netscape. They recently implemented a crypto system that the French broke in no time at all. This happened because the Netscape people couldn't export their domestic system, which isn't all that good, either. But it's a lot better than what they're permitted to export.

TAB: Should the US government lift the export controls on strong encryption?

WW: Yes, I think so. You can buy better stuff in Europe than you can here. We don't have a monopoly on brains.

TAB: So why is the government so intransigent?

WW: Imagine you're Secretary of Whatever and your red phone rings. The president says, "You're in charge of preventing terrorism in the United States. The first plastique that blows up, you're out of here, buddy."

The means to prevent terrorism is intelligence. How do you do that? You tap people's phones, and you don't want their messages encrypted with anything the NSA can't break. Wired has one view on encryption, and the secretary charged with antiterrorism has another - we have a policy dispute, and one way out of the room is to think of escrowing the crypto keys.

TAB: If I'm a German banker or Singaporean stock trader, I don't want my crypto keys held by the FBI. This means American technology is unsellable in the world market.

WW: Maybe, unless the secretary charged with antiterrorism phones up his or her counterpart in the Common Market and says, "We're all at risk. So let's create an international standard." I think this will probably happen, because it's necessary for the safety of the world. It's like a nonproliferation treaty for atomic weapons.

TAB: So who's going to hold the keys?

WW: You could create an international agency, or a consortium of the world's great banks could work together. No one would get access to anyone's private keys without a court order, which is similar to what we have now in the United States, where you can't tap someone's phone without a court order. All I know is that the world's governments have to work together, because they've lost control of a lot of things they used to do by themselves.

TAB: You've been in the crypto business for 50 years.

WW: When the United States entered the Second World War, we had no ciphers, except for a little five-alphabet machine we had bought from United Fruit Company. (The secretary of war, a fellow named Henry Stimson, believed that "gentlemen do not read other gentlemen's mail.")

During the Allied invasion of Anzio in May 1944, the Germans broke our codes and murdered us. After that, we jumped to an electromechanical machine known as the Sigaba, which was never broken, either by the Germans or our own people. I was guarding two Sigaba machines on the Pacific island of Cebu when I was relieved of duty by a newly commissioned second lieutenant. This was one of the happiest days of my life, because they took a dim view - like shooting you - if you lost these machines.

TAB: If we have unbreakable ciphers, why can't we use them?

WW: The public policy question boils down to this: Is the security of the world's financial network as important as communicating with our SAC bombers? That's the issue in a nutshell.

TAB: What's your opinion of the Clipper Chip and other attempts by the government to build backdoor eavesdropping into our communications channels?

WW: The Clipper Chip was a clumsy attempt by the government to say to people, "Terrorism is important, we need to prevent it by reading the mail, and you can trust us." But the world doesn't trust them. Mail was originally a government monopoly - the King of England wanted to steam open envelopes and find out who was plotting against him. Nothing has changed since then, except that we do it in nanoseconds, without a tea kettle.

TAB: How about the First Amendment protection of free speech?

WW: I support the First Amendment in all cases, but I also think we should have libel laws that mean something, which we don't. The First Amendment is a fundamental issue, but in my opinion it's moot in relation to the Net. There will be a lot of sweaty debate on this subject, but there is no way on God's green Earth the government can exercise censorship on the Net in any meaningful way. Politicians love to get up and talk about pornography. They never think to tell their kids to turn off the PC.

TAB: So the Net is technologically untouchable?

WW: I'll give you an example. Five years ago, expecting a visit from Gorbachev, the Chinese government proudly installed an automatic telephone exchange in Beijing and invited the media to cover this historic event. They're waiting for Gorbachev to arrive, when, suddenly, everyone all over the world sees a kid standing in front of a tank - the prelude to the Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese corked the pictures, but they couldn't stop the faxes because of their automatic telephone exchange.

Later something similar happened to Gorbachev. As soon as he leased a Russian satellite transponder to CNN, the ballgame was over.

The world is now so porous to news that there is no way you can put any weather-stripping around it.

TAB: It's also porous to hackers causing mischief on the Net.

WW: I would be interested in knowing if there is more thievery going on now than there was in the days of Jesse James. I wonder if the only difference is that today, when Russian hackers steal $10 million from Citibank it's big news. Ten million dollars is what somebody gets when they knock over an armored car. But it doesn't have the same sex appeal, because that's yesterday's technology.

The biggest electronic transfer of funds in the world is the Clearing House Interbank Payments System in New York. CHIPS handles a trillion dollars a day clearing Eurodollars. It's been doing this successfully for a long time, with no breaches in security.

TAB: You've said the Eurodollar market - the offshore trading of American dollars - is the most perfect market in the world. No one regulates it. No government controls it. Is this our financial future?

WW: The Euromarket was created at a time when American banks were prohibited from paying interest on checking accounts. So all our money began moving overseas. It became stateless money. The Euromarkets are now the greatest mobile pool of capital in the world. Money goes where it is wanted and stays where it is well treated, and that's all she wrote. This annoys governments to no end.

This huge pool of stateless money is destabilizing. It can move instantly, and it does. It's also annoying to governments because the market isn't in any one place, geographically. It resides in cyberspace. London today is the center of Euromarket trading, but if the British put on reserve requirements or other controls, Bahrain is waiting. In just a couple of keystrokes, the whole market could be gone.

Technology has overwhelmed public policy. People keep predicting this will lead to a crisis, but I don't think it will.

TAB: Who invented the Euromarkets?

WW: The Russians. They were afraid we'd freeze their dollar accounts, so they wanted to put them in Europe. Bayer - as in aspirin - had its assets frozen during World War II, and they didn't get unfrozen until Bobby Kennedy negotiated their release in the 1960s. So a lot of people are justified in not trusting the US government.

TAB: As well as frozen money, you bankers also talk about hot money. What is hot money?

WW: Money that can move. It's the opposite of patient money. But money really has no volition of its own. It all depends on the people who own it and use it. If you get nervous and pull everything out of the market, at the end of the day you'll be holding hot money.

TAB: What are the destabilizing influences of the Euromarkets and hot money?

WW: I'll give you two examples: during the heyday of the huge Japanese trade surpluses, the Japanese bought United States government bonds to use up their dollars. They owned a sizable percentage of the American debt. So the folks who specialize in terror wrote articles about how someday, if the Japanese "pull all their money out of America," the government bond market will collapse.

My second example comes from the Arab oil embargo. When the price of oil went from 2 bucks to 20 bucks, people said, "The Arabs are going to own the world," and one day they'll "pull all their money out of America," and the country will collapse.

What happened in these two scenarios when the world was supposedly headed for destabilization? Today Saudi Arabia has a huge balance of trade deficit. They're not paying their bills on time, while the Japanese are trying to sell Pebble Beach for a third of what they paid for it.

TAB: Were we ever in danger of a financial meltdown?

WW: It can't happen. If the Japanese own US government bonds, and they decide to "pull out" their money, they have to find somebody who will buy those bonds and pay them cash. Now they have US dollars, which they can't spend in their own country, so they have to find somebody who will buy those dollars for Japanese yen. "The money is always there, but the pockets change," said Gertrude Stein, and she was dead right. Speculators and other destabilizing influences can churn a market, but the dollars in America never change.

TAB: Is stateless money moving around the world with increased velocity?

WW: No question about it. What annoys governments about stateless money is that it functions as a plebiscite on your policy. There are 300,000 screens out there, lit up with all the news traders need to make value judgments on how well you're running your economy. Before the Euromarket and floating exchange rates, the president could go into the Rose Garden and make a statement about the dollar, and the world would quietly listen. Today, if the president goes into the Rose Garden and says something dumb, the cross rate of the dollar will change within 60 seconds. This creates what I call the information standard. The information standard is more draconian than the gold standard, because the government has lost control of the marketplace. It overwhelms it.

TAB: How big is this pool of stateless money?

WW: When I first went into banking, the Federal Reserve could call up Citibank or Morgan and say, "We want you to buy $10 million to support the currency." Back then we controlled 20 percent of the foreign exchange market, so that would stabilize it - boom! Now, the Fed could tell us to buy $100 million, and this would be pooping money down a well.

TAB: You once calculated that if all the assets held by all the banks in the United States were sold on the foreign exchange market, they would be disposed of in 10 minutes.

WW: That sounds right. CHIPS handles a trillion dollars a day. That's a lot of money.

TAB: The Chicago Mercantile Exchange is even bigger.

WW: The increased velocity of money gives you a difference in kind - not just degree. It's like a piece of lead: you put it on your desk, it's a paperweight; put it in a gun, it's a bullet. Same piece of lead. Big difference. The huge volume and speed of the international financial markets has put a brake on the ability of sovereign governments to do a lot of things they used to do.

TAB: As the power of sovereign governments wanes, who is left in charge?

WW: Everybody.

TAB: "Everybody"? Aren't you really talking about a bunch of 23-year-old yuppie foreign exchange traders sitting in front of their Bloomberg boxes punching up deals? Are foreign exchange speculators really the voice of democracy carrying on a global plebiscite?

WW: Why does the guy who changes your oil at Jiffy Lube have a vote in the presidential election? This is the way democracy works. Whether you're a 23-year-old yuppie with a Mercedes on time or a guy changing oil, we all have the same vote.

TAB: But the 23-year-old yuppie churning the foreign exchange market has a lot more influence on world trade than the guy at Jiffy Lube.

WW: Traders are a different breed of cat, I'll grant you that. The US unemployment numbers come out at 5.3 percent. A trader in Frankfurt looks at them and says to himself, "I wonder what that clown at Bankers Trust in London thinks those numbers will do to the US economy? As soon as he makes a move, I'll trade against him." Like any referendum, you have a lot of people making independent judgments, which all come together in the marketplace and show up on your screen as a dollar/​deutsch mark cross rate. You can argue that the 23-year-old yuppie with the Mercedes is a very poor judge of the integrity of the United States of America. But no single yuppie is going to influence the market that much, and by the end of the day, the market will have conducted a referendum reflecting the collective wisdom of people all around the world on what they think of our economic policies. This is one reason I'm an advocate of floating exchange rates.

TAB: What's to keep the yuppies from flushing Bolivia or some other national economy down the drain?

WW: They won't do that, in their own self-interest.

TAB: But hot money jumps in and out of markets all the time. The crash of the Mexican peso is the latest example.

WW: Sure, markets reflect the yuppies' view of the world, but yuppies are also very interested in their ability to make a buck. If the marketplace doesn't share their view, they either switch gears or get run over. Markets are self-correcting. That's why I trust markets more than governments. Governments usually aren't self-correcting, until too late.

TAB: Have you ever made a bad loan as a banker? I mean "bad" in the moral sense.

WW: No. During the Arab oil crisis, there was panic in the streets. The Arabs were going to own the world, and developing countries were going to collapse, because they couldn't buy oil. So we recycled the money, not to dictators, but to foreign corporations, many of which were state-owned. There was corruption in these countries, without any question. It wasn't as bad as the recent corruption down at the Fulton Fish Market in New York, but it was bad. And by this recycling we did in fact save the international financial structure.

TAB: So you never had any second thoughts about a loan that was stolen or put to bad use?

WW: In hindsight, the corruption and the amount of money bled off from those companies was a lot more than anybody knew about, including the United States government, Citibank, and the CIA. We based our loans on economic analyses - will the power plant supply enough kilowatts to pay back its loan? - without realizing that we also had to account for the fact that the head of the power plant was the dictator's brother.

TAB: As we approach the "twilight of sovereignty," what form of social organization will replace the nation-state? Will we have region-states? Netizens? One-world government?

WW: The nation-state is not about to disappear. But the old concept of sovereignty, as governmental acts that cannot be reviewed by any other authority, is no longer valid. The CNN cameras are watching you. Because of those cameras, Iraq can no longer beat up the Kurds, for example, which they've been doing for 2,000 years. The cameras are another kind of global plebiscite conducted on the behavior of nations. The spread of economic freedom is enhancing the spread of political freedom. To the extent that you have free markets and free people, you have an automatic governor on the exercise of untrammeled power.

TAB: Do free markets necessarily create free people?

WW: No, not necessarily. But it's very difficult to have a free people without free markets. Command economies always fail. When they do, and the marketplace comes in - as it has over the last 10 years in Latin America - this is one of the great revolutions in the world.

TAB: When we switched, in 1971, from the gold standard to the information standard, how did this affect the value of money?

WW: This is the first time in the history of the world that every major country has a flat currency that is not based on gold or silver or some commodity. Today, the value of money is hooked to nothing other than the information that flows through it. If your currency becomes worthless, the world knows about it very quickly. If your economic policies are lousy, the market will punish you instantly. I'm in favor of this kind of economic democracy. There's nothing you can do to change it, except do right.

TAB: How does the information standard alter the way we handle money?

WW: We used to study the balance sheet of General Motors, make an educated guess, and then buy a million dollars of commercial paper, which we then resold to GE. Today, GE's treasurer punches up the numbers on his Bloomberg box. Instantly, he knows as much about the credit of General Motors as we do. Intermediaries are an endangered species. The information standard has knocked them out. All the world's financial data is now online, which makes an incredible difference.

TAB: You bet the bank on technology. You wanted to wire your customers into something called a "thin branch." What made you think, back in the '60s, that technology was the wave of the future?

WW: Jack Scantlin came into my office one day and said, "You guys are doing everything wrong. You're working on analog technology, which is yesterday's newspaper. The future is digital."

Ninety days later, he showed up again with what we now call a T1 terminal. He dipped in my Citibank card, and up came my balance. Scantlin designed our ATMs and bank cards and computer systems - all digital. Suddenly the world changed, because we listened to him, and he was right. Scantlin's a genius who now lives on his own island in the South Pacific.

TAB: A lot of people said your technology wouldn't fly.

WW: None of this was well received by our friends in the banking community. "Old people won't use automatic teller machines," they said, "and young people won't use them, because they prefer going to tellers with pearly white teeth." But it turned out that people would rather get their money in front of the Hard Rock Cafe at 11 o'clock at night than get smiled at by a teller.

TAB: Was your ultimate goal to link Citibank's computers into one global brain?

WW: Our greatest challenge was to get everything loaded onto one screen. If somebody has a line of credit in Euro-yen and wants to use it to trade in Saudi Arabian riyals while playing the interest spread on 10-year Treasury bonds, how do you track these moves in real time, which is necessary for risk analysis? We finally succeeded in doing this for our 200 largest customers.

TAB: One innovation that hasn't taken off is home banking.

WW: Who wants to do their banking at eight o'clock at night after a tough day in the office? The jury is out on that. I bank through my PowerBook, which sits here at my elbow. I buy and sell securities, pay bills, transfer funds. The technology is no longer an issue, but home banking has been very slow to catch on.

TAB: You sit on the boards of a lot of biotech, computer, and start-up companies in Silicon Valley. What do you think of the culture?

WW: It's fascinating to watch where the technology is going. The place is brimming over with young people with ideas. There's a lot of nonsense written about America's work ethic going down the toilet. You know it's not true when you see these people working 18-hour days. They pop ideas all the time, and they are changing the world.

TAB: Steve Jobs recently said of today's advanced technology: "This stuff doesn't change the world. It really doesn't. I'm sorry, it's true. Having children really changes your view on these things. We're born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It's been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much - if at all." (See "Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing," Wired 4.02, page 102.)

WW: Far be it for me to argue with a guy who has $500 million and is a real guru, but I don't think his statement stands up. We used to have a life span of 30 years, on a good day, and now people live to be 80 or 90. Our quality of life is an order of magnitude better than it ever was. This is due to medical technology, nutrition, education, environment - all of it technology-based.

TAB: If I asked you to go out and get a hundred bucks, what would you do?

WW: I'd go to the ATM down the street. I haven't been to a live teller in 15 years.

TAB: Behind your desk I see photographs of you with Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Carter, Nixon. And is that President and Mrs. Marcos?

WW: That's Mrs. Shoes herself. I'm being presented with the Order of the Golden Heart, which caused so much uncontrollable laughter among my colleagues that I've kept that picture on my wall all these years.

TAB: There is a lot of anxiety in the land about downsizing, about workers becoming plug-and-play modules in corporate strategies. Does stateless money go with disposable workers?

WW: I don't think so. The unemployment rate in the United States is low, around 5 percent, which is half the unemployment rate in Europe; and it's been stable for 10 years. Our national anxiety, which is very real, has been exacerbated by the media. They have seized on the issue and played to our worst fears. In 1900 we had 20 million people on American farms. Today we have a million and a half. We feed the world. Where did all those people go? Back then there was no media sticking microphones in people's faces, asking them how they felt about losing the family farm. We are engaged in a huge revolution, and in all revolutions you have enormous anxiety. Whenever the old gives way to the new, everybody with vested interests in the old starts crying that the world will stop. There aren't many people with vested interests in the new.

TAB: What is this revolution?

WW: It's the third great revolution in the history of the world. First came the neolithic revolution in agriculture. Then the industrial revolution. Now we're moving to an information society.

Revolutions aren't made by gadgets and technology. They're made by a shift in power, which is taking place all over the world. Today, intellectual capital is at least as important as money capital and probably more so. But the world's accounting system is based on hard as-sets you can see and feel. We don't bookkeep intellectual assets. Take the relative market capitalizations of Microsoft and General Motors. Microsoft, which has no fixed assets except for a few buildings in Seattle, has a market cap of $71 billion. General Motors, which has lots of assets, has a market cap of $38 billion. The marketplace is capitalizing intellectual assets, while the accounting profession is not.

TAB: After the revolution, what happens to money?

WW: The information revolution has changed people's perception of wealth. We originally said that land was wealth. Then we thought it was industrial production. Now we realize it's intellectual capital. The market is showing us that intellectual capital is far more important than money. This is a major change in the way the world works. Just like all the farmers who disappeared during the industrial revolution, the same thing is now happening to huge numbers of people in industry as we move into the information age.

TAB: What other changes are in the works?

WW: In today's revolution, the line between service and industry is being erased. Even the industrialists are beginning to understand this. They used to make Rotary Club speeches about America turning into a nation of hamburger flippers. Then after lunch you'd visit their factories, where you'd find three guys in a control booth, watching screens and running the production line. Is this the service business? Is this the equivalent of hamburger flippers? Obviously, the vocabulary we use is obsolete. We're witnessing a complete change in the concept of wealth, and whenever that changes, you have political change. People invested in yesterday will fight to the last person. People trying to invest in the future will push the agenda of social change.
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Wired Magazine
October 1996

Copyright 1996
Thomas A. Bass