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Money: The Unauthorized Biography--From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies Paperback – January 6, 2015

4.3 out of 5 stars 48 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Does money really need to be explained? Apparently it does, as economist Martin challenges the conventional theory that money emerged from the barter system. Offering a broad historical perspective, Martin begins with the pre-money society of The Iliad and The Odyssey. When the numeracy, literacy, and accounting concepts of ancient Mesopotamia met with the Greek concept of universal social value, the components of money took shape. He traces uncanny similarities in ancient and modern history of monetary maneuvers and crises and how citizens have created quasi currency—IOUs, checks, vouchers—in reaction to government stumbles in Ireland, Argentina, and Russia. Martin details how the great merchant houses of Europe developed the banking system we currently know. Tapping philosophers and economists, including Plato, Locke, Marx, Bagehot, Keynes, and Greenspan, Martin clearly explains why, even though it seems arcane, it’s important to understand the theory behind money, its origins, and how it has operated through the ages. This is economics written with sharp pacing and often amusing perspectives, raising mundane considerations of supply and demand to philosophical discussions of the meaning of value. --Vanessa Bush --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review

Praise for Money:

Finalist for Guardian First Book Award

"'Money is often held to have arisen as a solution to the shortcomings of barter: traders needed a universally acceptable 'medium of exchange.' In this lively history-cum-polemic, Martin says that the theory is 'entirely false,' and that the essence of monetary exchange is not 'the swapping of goods and services for this commodity medium' but a 'system of credit accounts and their clearing.'"

"Compulsively readable . . . Money is a fascinating and entertaining pep talk for bankers, economists and armchair revolutionaries dissatisfied with the current financial system, and an attempt to galvanize them into action."
Heidi N. Moore, New York Times Book Review

“Felix Martin's remarkable book asks the big question: do economists have any idea what money is? His compelling answer is: no. You may not agree with the answer. But it will certainly force you to think.”
—Martin Wolf, author of Why Globalization Works
 
“Felix Martin has written a wonderfully original and entertaining history of money. If you have ever wondered why the whole system seems so dangerously and chronically unstable, this is the book to read.”
—Liaquat Ahamed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lords of Finance
  
“Felix Martin’s remarkable book Money is economic history–and indeed cultural anthropology–with a difference . . . his sparkling book is worth taking seriously.”
—Raymond Tallis, Prospect
 
"An excellent book . . . Full of interesting history and insight . . . a beautiful and sometimes even entrancing study of human thought about money."
Tyler Cowen, Times Literary Supplement

"Blending history and economic analysis in his engaging first book, economist and bond investor Martin explains the development of sovereign currency and its critically important function in modern economies. . . Martin approaches his subject in entertaining fashion, discussing monetarism and monetary theory, from John Locke to the Federal Reserve System. . . Fluent, discursive, and informed. It holds considerable appeal for investors, their bankers, and those drawn to the mechanics of wealth."
—Publishers Weekly

"[A] critical essay fizzing with ideas.”
—Noel Malcolm, Sunday Telegraph
 
“Stimulating and timely.”
—David Priestland, Guardian
 
“The virtue of Martin’s book is that it exposes the deep flaws in the way we have traditionally thought about money. The exposition is clear . . . Fresh.”
—Alex Brummer, New Statesman
 
“Felix Martin condenses the broadest of subjects into a searing and potentially life-changing read that destroys all accepted knowledge of this thing we sell our souls for.”
Shortlist
 
“So replete with literary and historical examples that the story almost tells itself . . . a lucid, colorful introduction to 3,000 years of monetary history.”
—Martin Sandbu, Financial Times
 
“[Martin] wants to change the way you think about money. He rejects the textbook idea that it’s an alternative to barter, the oil in the engine of the world economy. He sees money as a liberating (though unstable) system of creating and exchanging credit. This original and thought-provoking history of what’s in your wallet also offers some controversial solutions to the financial crisis, such as raising inflation levels and writing off national debts.”
The Guardian (UK) Summer Book Roundup
 
“A most accessible and thrilling read. If you want to read just one book about money, this is it.”
—Ha-Joon Chang
 
“Combines breadth of scholarship with a wealth of practical experience in tackling the most elusive of economic subjects–the nature of money.”
—John Kay
 
“Magnificent–hugely imaginative, clear, coherent.”
—Robert Skidelsky

"[I]n this improbably lively account [...] Martin seeks a deeper understanding, relating money especially to power [...] Refreshingly free of jargon and long on ideas—including the thought that if it’s money that got us into our current mess, it’s money that can get us out of it."
Kirkus
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (January 6, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0345803558
  • ISBN-13: 978-0345803559
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #408,986 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
This is an admirable attempt at trying to make money and monetary policy interesting by writing it in the style of an investigative historian trying to solve a puzzle. I found it easy to read, and quite engaging. Sometimes I thought the author made some conceptual leaps without good explanation (possibly due to the style of the book) but this book is certainly thought-provoking.

His view, that money is a social technology, an accounting concept and transferable debt, is not entirely new. Many non-mainstream economists (such as the MMT theorists) have made similar arguments based on different historical evidence, perhaps not in such readable style. I think the evidence in this book, and elsewhere, is quite convincing - money is much much more than simply a way to pay for things, and conventional views certainly miss a lot of the significance of money. If you have never come across these views, this book will make you look at the world differently.

The thesis that many of our problems emerge from a lack of understanding of money is one with which I agree. There is certainly a problem when a profession (economists like myself) can influence policies driven by an understanding of money that is not derived from the social reality or the actual practice of banking (I have met countless economists who hold naive textbook views about the financial system which they would change if they actually worked in a bank). Whether this new understanding will save capitalism as the author claims, probably goes a bit too far. One of the final policy conclusions (narrow banking, a system where banks only take deposits backed 100% by the national currency) is controversial, and not easy to reconcile with his thesis.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This is ultimately a book promoting a specific policy masquerading as an economic history masquerading (extremely superficially) as a biography.

As for policy: it's an odd mix of conventional Keynesian economics with throwing out useful ideas like central bank independence. The author has an exceptionally high degree of confidence in "democratic institutions" to work in their own long-term self interest; the real crisis in time is not the liquidity transformation of long-term assets and short term liabilities in banks, but short term voting cycles and public attention span, short to medium term sacrifice, and inherently delayed benefits in public policy.

As a history: he cherry picks examples, but ignores historical examples when they are completely counter to his argument -- Scottish free banking, the successful operations of gold banks in China and elsewhere (separate from the pre-war or Bretton Woods systems). In his accounting of the 2008 financial crisis and aftermath, he does correctly point out the socialization of risk, privatization of profits which have existed in finance since at least the 1990s, but doesn't dig into why that was allowed to persist for so long (aside from a superficial appeal to "it was overly complicated"). Failures at LTCM and other institutions provided clear warnings roughly a decade in advance of the problems looming. (Regulatory capture and self interest by employees and boards of banks, vs. shareholders and the public, would seem to be the true root cause.)

As for the writing -- maybe in an attempt to interest normal readers, the language is overly flowery, and thus difficult to read quickly (not as much in the beginning, but it seems like the editor checked out around 30% in).
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Format: Kindle Edition
Felix Martin tempts fate by opening with a quote from A. H. Quiggan: "Everyone, except an economist, knows what 'money' means." Martin is a former World Bank economist, and at the end of this book, I sympathised with Quiggin.

After 260 pages of heavy-going argument, Martin concludes that money is: "not a thing but a social technology - a set of ideas and practices for organising society. To be precise (!) ... [money] is a concept of universally applicable economic value."

Earlier he states that: "Coins and currency ... are useful tokens to record the underlying system of credit accounts and to implement the underlying process of clearing."

Rather than providing a new and counter-intuitive insight into money, which he claims, there is analytical confusion.

A logical fallacy in much analysis of money is repeated here: because debts have often been used as money, it does not follow that money is a debt. Martin's novel version of this fallacy is to argue that because we use credit accounts and a clearing system to net off payments, this makes the credit and clearing system "money". This is a logical error. The standard definition of money - anything accepted as payment for goods and services - is clear, and distinguishes it from debt and the clearing system. This definition does not assume, as Martin implies, that money is a "commodity". The accepted means of payment, as his many examples illustrate, can be physical, or abstract (or virtual).

This is really a history book, which claims to have identified an unconventional and more relevant understanding of what money is. There is lots of history, but the central thesis is unconvincing.
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