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Money: The Unauthorized Biography--From Coinage to Cryptocurrencies Paperback – January 6, 2015
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What is money and how does it work In this tour de force of political cultural and economic history Felix Martin challenges nothing less than our conventional understanding of one of humankinds greatest inventions Martin describes how the Western idea of money emerged in the ancient world and was shaped over the centuries by tensions between sovereigns and the emerging middle classes Money he argues has always been an intensely political instrument and that it is our failure to remember this that led to the crisis in our financial system and the Great Recession He concludes with practical solutions for making money serve us-and in an introduction and epilogue new to this edition a discussion of what Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies mean for moneys future From John Locke to Montesquieu from Sparta to the Soviet Union Money is a far-ranging and magisterial work of history and economics with profound implications for the world today
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Through the ages, Martin argues, the predominant view of money is that it is a commodity — a thing like any other — used to facilitate exchange. “The problem,” Martin writes, “is that money is not really a thing at all but a social technology: a set of ideas and practices which organise what we produce and consume, and the way we live together. When it comes to money itself — rather than the tokens that represent it, the account books where people record it, or the buildings such as banks in which people administer it — there is nothing physical to look at.”
By contrast, the alternative view — the correct one, in Martin’s view — is that money is simply a form of credit, an IOU. Coins and currency are simply representations of money; so are bonds, letters of credit, commercial paper, and other financial instruments that facilitate trade today. Once upon a time (actually, before 1973, when Richard Nixon took the US off the gold standard) money was given value by precious metals, either silver or gold. This led to what Martin sees as confusion, giving kings, bankers, and the practitioners of that dismal new social science, economics, reason to believe that money possessed some objective reality quite irrespective of the parties to any financial exchange. Many policymakers today, including (I deduce) those in the (US) Republican and (UK) Conservative parties, still make that same mistake, which has led them to shrink the money supply when it should be expanded and focus on specific inflation targets when they should instead pay the most attention to providing enough credit for business to grow and consumers to buy its products. Why? Because “hoping that the market mechanism will impose limits on itself is a pipe dream.” For example, it was these mistaken policies that helped turn the Crash of 1929 into the depths of the Depression.
Although much of Money relates the intellectual back-and-forth among philosophers, economists, and politicians, Martin manages to lift the discussion well above the level of an economics textbook by bringing to life the circumstances and ideas of the principal debaters. Among the stars in Money are familiar 20th- and 21st-century figures such as John Maynard Keynes, Milton Friedman, and Lawrence Summers. However, Aristotle, Plato, Adam Smith, John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, and other influential thinkers from the past join the cast, too. Martin pays special attention to Locke and Bagehot, who represented opposing poles in the debate about the nature of money.
Much of Money is devoted to answering a question posed by Queen Elizabeth II to the faculty of the London School of Economics just seven weeks after Lehman Brothers had collapsed and sent the world economy into a tailspin: “why had none of them seen the crisis coming?” The answer they gave half a year later was “that nobody had seen the big picture: that whilst ‘[i]ndividual risks may rightly have been viewed as small . . . the risk to the system as a whole was vast.'” But Martin regards Alan Greenspan’s answer in testimony before the US Congress as far more satisfactory: “He did not deny that his job had been precisely to understand how the economy worked as a whole. The problem was, he explained with admirable honesty, that his understanding had simply been wrong.”
Felix Martin knows whereof he writes. He describes himself as a macroeconomist and bond investor, who happens to have a Ph.D. in Economics from Oxford University. Money is his first book.
I enjoyed reading this book very much. I also learned a good deal. This is not a 'dry' economics textbook, more like a historical novel. It is pleasant to read and easy to understand. However, there is also an excellent bibliography and numerous annotated notes, if you want to deep deeper and study further.
If you want a general overview of the history of money and monetary policy, it's a dense but good read. If you are interested about Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, look elsewhere.
It goes ahead in a feat of intellectual gymnastics to propose a solution to the problem that is at once audacious but simple. An essential read for all central bankers, treasury officials, bankers ... Wait! The final lesson of the book is that we all need to change our mind about money for this brave new world to take hold.