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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 money. He describes how the Western idea of money emerged from interactions between Mesopotamia and ancient Greece and was shaped over the centuries by tensions between sovereigns and the emerging middle classes. He explores the extraordinary diversity of the world’s monetary systems, from the Pacific island of Yap, where value was once measured by immovable stones, to the currency of today that exists solely on globally connected computer screens. Martin shows that money has always been a deeply political instrument, and that it is our failure to remember this that led to the crisis in our financial system and so to the Great Recession. He concludes with practical solutions to our current pressing, money-based problems.
Money skips nimbly among such far-ranging topics as John Locke’s disastrous excursion into economic policy, Montesquieu’s faith in finance to discipline the power of kings, the social organization of ancient Sparta and the Soviet Union’s ill-fated attempt to abolish money and banking altogether. Throughout, Martin makes vivid sense of a chaotic and sometimes incoherent system - the everyday currency that we all share - in the clearest and most stimulating terms. This is a magisterial work of history and economics, with profound implications for the world today.
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By Philo on 03-19-14
Meandering, repetitive, pseudo-clever; not all bad
Take a reasonably interesting idea: e.g., the Yap islanders' use of largely stationary stones as money (seen many times in other books), and various interesting implications of that. Repeat it ad nauseum, as if the listener was too dense to get the simple logic of it. (How many versions and iterations of this simple explanation must I hear? Did you think I forgot since the last Nth time you repeated it? Is there an editor in the house?)
Lard on all sorts of low-information padding, strings of words roughly in the nature of 'you might be astonished to hear ...', interrupting the flow of actual information, which add bulk and a wordy pseudo-academic sound, but no meaning. (At least it is read in a clear and pleasant voice!)
Purport to challenge various common ideas and traditional (and quite useful) understandings about money, but don't really raise an effective challenge; just say they are wrong. Insert colorful descriptions of such things as long-dead peoples' intentions in doing certain acts, without good evidence. Pretend that a few easy inferences about money (apparent to any clear thinker who has done much of any reading in the field) are new or clever ideas, while these are often repackaged truncations of existing ideas or obvious inferences.
Dress it up, perhaps in a UK-centric style, try for a gravitas-but-wide-audience-snappiness reminiscent of Clarke's 'Civilisation' or Ferguson's 'Ascent of Money' (anticipating a TV special maybe?), with colorful stories and a lofty British tone. Now you are getting close to sensing some of what goes on here.
So what do I like about this book? It is a nice fit for walking around my river park, reflecting, pondering certain stories and features of money and credit, without being taxed too hard mentally. It gives nice gentle nudges to the imagination from lots of angles about these topics. Since this subject is of great interest to me, it doesn't hurt to do walk-throughs from lots of viewpoints. Here and there a novel phrasing of some idea is a nice fit with my growing knowledge. It is a pleasant presentation and, for someone with an interest in this (and perhaps not quite as far along the scholarship curve), and subject to some of the above issues, time pretty well spent.
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