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Biography of the Dollar: How the Mighty Buck Conquered the World and Why It's Under Siege Hardcover – February 26, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In this colorful but sometimes superficial survey of the history and present role of the U.S. dollar, Wall Street Journal reporter Karmin tackles the complex dynamics that have placed American currency at the top of the global economy and the forces that now threaten its position there. In six loosely linked chapters—one offers a peek inside a currency-trading hedge fund, while another takes readers to Ecuador, which in 2000 abandoned its own currency and adopted the dollar as its only legal tender—Karmin examines the dollar's unprecedented role as the first truly global currency that is trusted and accepted around the world, a phenomenon based on little more than faith in the U.S. government and the idea of America. The book is studded with interesting trivia, especially in a chapter about the Department of Engraving and Printing, which produces $529 million in banknotes every day and once printed counterfeit Cuban pesos as part of a government plan to destabilize Castro's regime, but Karmin occasionally sacrifices depth and explication in order to maintain the book's fast pace and glib tone. It's a fun read, but doesn't add up to more than the sum of its disparate parts. (Feb. 26)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
"For decades the dollar has reigned supreme, so much so that many take it as part of the natural order. But we're in an era of rapid change and the dollar is not immune. Craig Karmin's Biography of the Dollar is an indispensable guide to understanding the way both the U.S. and the world economies work and the dollar's role in keeping the economic skids greased. Karmin's great skill is his ability to take what in lesser hands would seem like complex and opaque ideas and make them transparent, understandable and relevant, whether you are an entrepreneur, work in a Fortune 500 company or simply trying to understand what in the world is going on."
—Ram Charan, author of Know-How and co-author of Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done
"After 50 pages, I was able to hold my own discussing currency trading with a vice president at JP Morgan Chase. This is an incredible book that should be required reading for anyone whose future depends on understanding how the dollar is valued and manipulated. Whether you work in finance, travel internationally, or simply haven't been taught why the dollar rises or falls in relation to other currencies, read Biography of the Dollar now—or suffer the consequences."
—Timothy Ferriss, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The 4-Hour Workweek
Top customer reviews
Mind you, my attention to high finance extends only to balancing my checkbook, paying the bills on time, socking away as much as I can, and making sure I live within my budget. (In these regards, especially the last, I at least do better than my state and federal governments.) I don't even pay attention to the annual reports that come from my 401k plan. So, for me, BIOGRAPHY OF THE DOLLAR by Craig Karmin was pretty much unexplored territory.
To call this book a "biography" is perhaps a misnomer. Such implies that the story begins with the origin of the $ as a monetary unit, and this isn't the case. Karmin begins the historical part of the story with the establishment of the First Bank of the United States in 1791 and proceeds fairly quickly to the dollar's disengagement from the gold standard in 1971. There's also virtually nothing about the evolution in size, color (or metal content) and denominations of the currency as coin or paper over decades since it became the official legal tender of the U.S.
If I was a dollar come to life - one of the rarely seen $2 bills, I think - and asked to write a narrative containing what's in this volume, I would perhaps entitle my essay "What I Did on Several Summer Vacations" since the bulk of the text is dedicated to my experiences with currency speculators, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (especially the Mutilated Currency Division), Ecuador, which abandoned the sucre and adopted me as its sole currency in 2000, the central banks of various overseas nations (particularly in Asia), and my battles to fend off the advances of the euro, Chinese yuan and Japanese yen.
The intent of BIOGRAPHY OF THE DOLLAR is apparently to trace the Mighty Buck's fortunes, so to speak, of the recent past and present in the global marketplace as it's challenged by trade imbalances, vacillating interest rates, currency markets, recessions, government and central bank approaches to currency reserves, and an ever growing supply of itself. Perhaps the writing of the volume was two years premature. It makes the reader wonder what the author would say now after the bursting of the U.S. home mortgage bubble, the rising unemployment, the bankruptcies and bank failures, the bailouts, and the prospect of increasing Federal indebtedness and budget deficits under President Obama's social re-engineering plans. In any case, whether or not the dollar will lose its place as the world's dominant medium of exchange is a question Karmin can't, or won't, answer definitively. That's probably the safe course.
For the reader savvy in the ways of international finance, the BIOGRAPHY OF THE DOLLAR would likely be too much of a beginner's class. But, in my ignorance, I found it enlightening, interesting, and sometimes entertaining. But, I'm still not going to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal or read my 401k's annual report.
A free-flowing, stable currency is what makes all trade possible- both domestically and internationally. A lack of confidence in the underlying value of a currency can bring entire economies to a screeching halt. The results can be devastating- life savings are wiped out, hyperinflation can take root, debt is defaulted on, investment dries up. It can take decades for economies to recover.
If you're like me, you probably haven't given much thought to these issues. Because, as Americans, they seem to be such remote possibilities. But are they . . . ?
Karmin's book does an excellent job of informing the reader of how the US Dollar is created, distributed and used not only in the United States; but, throughout the world. Karmin covers many aspects of the Greenback- from printing (it costs 5.7 cents to print one) to foreign government's hoarding (60% of the dollars in circulation are overseas) to lending and interest rates (thank China, not the fed, for keeping US consumer borrowing rates low).
Karmin also brings to light the intense pressure that the Dollar is under every day from seemingly all sides:
-the U.S. Government's unwillingness to balance the budget,
-Asian and Middle Eastern countries growing less interested with "subsidizing" the value of the Dollar,
-the solidifying of the Euro as an alternative global currency, and
-the U.S. consumer's never-ending desire to "borrow-and-buy" their way through life
All of these factors have already played out to a certain degree in the declining value of the Dollar over the past couple years. Will the trend continue and how far will it go? Those questions are explored as well.
I highly recommend that anyone read this book- it is an eye opener without getting technical (economist-types will miss their I-L-S-M diagrams)- and it poses all the right questions to get American's thinking about the implications for the future- whether that be as vital as national security or as trivial as the cost of a hotel room in Paris.
If you still think that the dollar will remain mighty forever, and will be the world's reserve currency forever -- then read this book.
If you still don't appreciate what "get out of jail free" cards we (as Americans) have received as a side effect of the dollar's global use -- then read this book.
Be prepared for some repetition; it could have used a more aggressive editor.