Peter Knight

Peter Knight

I am a Professor of American Studies at the University of Manchester. My research is on conspiracy theories, and the stock market in American culture.


  • Glad you are enjoying it so far, Richard.

  • Glad you are finding our approach interesting, Claudio.

  • Money as a strange form of science fiction -- great way to put it, @tommann !

  • Thanks for joining us, Andy.

  • Buy everything, but buy the orange properties first. If only actual investment was that easy!

  • That's a really interesting question you raise, Edith: what happens if the robo advice all convergences on the same theme? In theory it is based on sensible advice for most people (a diversified portfolio, holding for the long term etc), but I'm wondering what it would mean for the stock market's allocation of resources and discovery of prices if the vast...

  • Although it might be thought a good thing to make stock trading seem ordinary, this is surely a recipe for disaster, making trading little different from gambling apps. Most research shows that the most sensible strategy is a long-term, passive approach with a diversified portfolio.

  • Yes, it does seem that it is far easier for ordinary people to now get investment advice.

  • That's interesting @AlysonKelman ! Some people have suggested that a lot of stock market activity is driven by a sense of risk and sport and danger (often framed in stereotypically masculine language), that some of us just don't feel.

  • That's a useful distinction, @BarbaraDavis. I'm wondering about your use of the term "theory" here. One argument that has been put forward recently (by the sociologist Jens Beckert) is that capitalism in general and the stock market in particular often work not through a set of rational calculations of risk, but by imaginative stories of what possible futures...

  • @DACruz The idea that pleasure is an essential element of gambling is an intriguing one. In theory we would all like near-risk-free speculations (that's often the attraction of an inside tip), but part of the appeal is the excitement, the not knowing.

  • I'm wondering whether your account of the "numbers" game in cities like Chicago suggests that some form of gambling is perennially attractive, ironically among those who have the least resources (but who therefore find attractive the potential of life-changing riches).

  • I think you probably share this view with many people, Marshall. However, market professionals have long argued that speculation is actually a socially useful and necessary service, because it channels money into riskier (but potentially lucrative ventures) and it helps provide a useful form of hedging against uncertainty for ordinary people.

  • That's a great metaphor, Mike!

  • Yes, I wonder whether your view will have changed by the end of the week, Melinda! One distinction that was important in the late nineteenth century was that speculation should be left to professionals who were able to shoulder the risk, and that ordinary people should therefore avoid that kind of individual, risky punt.

  • Interesting, Leny. I wonder where we should draw the line between long-term and short-term?

  • Yes, Sheena, you're definitely right that many more people now have a stake in the stock market because of our pensions, although our involvement is often quite a passive one.

  • I wonder whether attitudes are changing, as more people become invested in the stock market through large pension schemes? In most cases we tend not to think about the investment decisions our pension fund managers make on our behalf, so it feels a long way from active, exciting investment.

  • Thanks for your input, Arijit. Should the research you talk about be into the underlying fundamental value of the company, or the behaviour of its stock market price?

  • Thanks, Michael, that's really good to hear. We find these stories and ideas fascinating, and are keen to share them.

  • Peter Knight replied to [Learner left FutureLearn]

    In my study I have a sheet of Conferedate bonds, to the value of hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately they are of course completely worthless. Well, worthless at face value, but they weren't exactly free when I bought them on eBay!

  • The lion is William Jennings Bryan, the leader of the Democrats (and the Populist Party), who was an inspiring speaker (how he could roar!), but ultimately his side in the 1896 election was defeated. The irony is that at the time the Populists were dismissed as ignorant hicks who didn't understand economics, but pretty much everything that they were demanding...

  • Yes, the sugar-coated pill approach! Most people don't feel qualified to talk about money and economics, but we've found that literature, art and history can be a good way in to think about some of the issues.

  • In the 1890s (the time of the gold standard debate in the US, when the Wizard of Oz is set) there was deflation rather than inflation. The farmers and the industrial workers argued that there should be more money in the economy (whether back by silver which was more plentiful in the US than gold, or whether simply by printing more paper notes), because...

  • The US election of 1896 was completely dominated by the question of whether money should be backed by gold or silver (or a combination of both). It seems highly unlikely that Baum's story is *not* about this debate!

  • Yes, Bill -- it's a question of what leveraging ratio is acceptable. In the final week of the course we discuss this problem in relation to the 2008 crash.

  • At one point in the nineteenth century in America, there were over three thousand different banks issuing their own banknotes. Needless to say, it was very hard for people to tell whether any out-of-town notes were counterfeit or not. Some banks would issue guidebooks (called counterfeit detectors) to show shopkeepers the difference between real and fake...

  • What if we discovered vast deposits of gold on the moon (and it was somehow economically viable to ship it back to Earth)? Very handy for the electronics industry, but would there still be a demand for gold in jewellery? And if the world still operated on a gold standard, would it mean that there would be boom times, a crash, or no difference?

  • There is a wonderful short story by the American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, 'The Diamond as Big as a Ritz'. It provides a fascinating commentary on the problem of whether anything can be truly valuable. If you discovered a diamond as big as the Ritz, would it make you the richest person ever, or someone who owned a big lump of a mineral that now turned out to...

  • This raises an interesting question: have there been more financial and currency crashes since the end of the gold standard? It can sometimes seem that way. But we also need to remember that the gold standard also created enormous problems. At times in the nineteenth century in the US, for example, there wasn't enough gold to allow for an expansion of the...

  • In these corona times, many countries have moved to electronic-only payment. Even in my local market the vendors won't take cash, only contactless.

  • That's intriguing, Stephen. Young children also often prefer tangible cash as a sign of money. I remember my daughter used to ask to change any banknotes she received for Christmas for coins, as they seemed more 'real' to her!

  • Interesting, Henry. Does introducing money fundamentally change the nature of the activity? For example, some countries pay people for donating blood, and others consider that it is a gift. Or what about when some nurseries, in order to reduce the problem, started fining parents for collecting their children late . . . but then more parents picked up their...

  • Interesting question, Leny. The seemingly crazy value of these works of art might start us wondering about the value of everything. If someone is prepared to pay the asking price, is that its value -- nothing more to be said? Or do we think that sometimes there is a gap between the value of something and its price? And if so, how do we explain that?

  • You might be interested in the work of the American artist JSG Boggs. He made painstakingly detailed drawings of dollar bills, that he would then try and exchange for goods and services (e.g. a restaurant meal). He insisted that the value of the drawing was its value as a work of art, rather than the literal face value of the bank note he was copying.

  • Yes, Amelia -- in the current pandemic, suddenly the meaning of work and money have become very different. What does it mean when a government steps in and provides a replacement income for lots of its citizens, as is happening in some countries? And what does it mean in places where that is not happening?

  • The idea of money as a way of displaying the relative status of individuals is very interesting. It suggests that it's not really about the nuts and bolts of what money does, but its symbolic value.

  • Yes, all very plausible, and this is what we're usually taught. But what if the sequence is the other way round: we acquire the goods and services first (i.e. we go into debt), and money is created as a record of that debt, that we then have to generate something to wipe off the slate? And how does money assign a known value to particular trades?

  • Do you think about any of your "pots" of money differently -- do you they have different emotional meanings for you? For example, if you received an inheritance from a beloved relative who would want you to spend the money in a particular way, would you keep it separately and think of it differently? Or would it all go in the same bank account and just be...

  • As an archaeologist, you might like one of our favourite examples of money: the rai stones of Yap Island in the Pacific. It really makes you think differently about how money works. Some more information here:

  • The (fictional) story of the origin of money that economists often return to is Robinson Crusoe. But anthropologists have shown that what came first was not barter (and the invention of money to make the exchange of goods easier) but debt.

  • Yes, money as debt -- that's a really significant idea we'll be exploring more in the course.