Money: The Unauthorized Biography

Overview

From ancient currency to Adam Smith, from the gold standard to shadow banking and the Great Recession: a sweeping historical epic that traces the development and evolution of one of humankind’s greatest inventions.

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 ...

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Money: The Unauthorized Biography

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Overview

From ancient currency to Adam Smith, from the gold standard to shadow banking and the Great Recession: a sweeping historical epic that traces the development and evolution of one of humankind’s greatest inventions.

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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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

"Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons."—Woody Allen. Money bedevils us all, yet we all take it as a given. Understanding its history and how money markets work can benefit us even if it doesn't necessarily make us richer or even make sense. (Who was it who said that a bank is a place that will lend you money only if you can prove that you don't need it?) Felix Martin is a world class economist who, unlike many, possesses the talent to communicate. His new book serves as both a readable not-and-bolts history of monetary matters and a memorable primer on economic thinkers. Think of it as a pleasurable investment. Editor's recommendation.

The New York Times Book Review - Heidi N. Moore
…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.
Publishers Weekly
12/02/2013
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. This is familiar territory for both economists and non-specialists, but Martin approaches his subject in entertaining fashion, discussing monetarism and monetary theory, from John Locke to the Federal Reserve System. He pauses to consider “excessive accumulation, consumption, and competition for status,” which he dismisses as “hard-wired into the human brain,” though he fails to consider greed in a world divided into asset holders and not. Martin stresses the connection between money and freedom, explaining why money is a “one of the most powerful and important tools of democratic government.” He calls for “radical reform,” but it’s difficult to find Martin’s magic rabbit or discern what his actual reform program would entail. His puzzling Socratic dialogue to try to explain things at the end falls flat. Though possessed of a meaningless subtitle, Martin’s book is breezy, fluent, discursive, and informed. It holds considerable appeal for investors, their bankers, and those drawn to the mechanics of wealth. 19 illus. Agent: Natasha Fairweather. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
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

Kirkus Reviews
2014-01-23
What is money? If you think you know the answer, then you may not have thought hard enough about it, a problem that kings and commoners alike have shared throughout history. The Micronesian residents of the island of Yap, long a case study in the history of money, reckon currency by giant stones that, even if sunk in the ocean and therefore inaccessible, nonetheless have value. Their system matches the symbolic abstraction of money with a concrete basis for it. However, writes investor/economist Martin in this improbably lively account, that concreteness no longer underlies our modern economy: "The vast majority of our national money—around 90 percent in the US, for example, and 97 percent in the UK—has no physical existence at all." So is money merely symbolic? By one measure, perhaps. But Martin seeks a deeper understanding, relating money especially to power: If on one hand it served as an instrument of rule for sovereigns, it also reined in those sovereigns as something even mightier than they. By that light, as one medieval philosopher formulated it, money "is not the property of the sovereign but of the entire community that uses it." Martin expands on this provocative idea, suggesting that money is a system for allocating economic risk "by making a simultaneous promise of stability and freedom." All this talk can get quite heady, and that's not to mention the ancient Chinese proverb that "the fish is the last to know water"—i.e., those of us who use money are so deeply steeped in it that it's hard to think about, let alone answer the more important question: How much power should money have to govern our lives? 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.
Library Journal
02/01/2014
The use of money seems second nature to most, and perhaps many people do not think about how monetary systems work. However, a deep understanding of these systems can create new financial opportunities and advantages. Here, London-based economist Martin (formerly with the World Bank; associate of George Soro's Inst. for New Economic Thinking) shows that money is one of the greatest inventions of mankind, tracing its roots to interactions between Mesopotamia and ancient Greece. He chronicles the different kinds of money used by various cultures and through these discussions defines the concept of money. Martin skillfully draws parallels between the old world and the present-day and explains how individuals throughout the ages have made profits in money markets. The perspectives of great economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, and John Maynard Keynes are included. VERDICT This insightful monetary history gives readers a better appreciation of money and its evolution and of current systems and financial events, especially crises. Because money is a complex and abstract concept, this book is geared toward readers with economic backgrounds or financial academic training in money and banking.—Caroline Geck, Camden Street Sch. Lib., Newark, NJ
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307962430
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/4/2014
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 241,352
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Felix Martin was educated in Britain, Italy and the United States and holds degrees in classics, international relations and economics, including a doctorate in economics from Oxford University.  He worked for the World Bank and for the European Stability Initiative think tank, and is currently a partner in the fixed income division at Liontrust Asset Management plc.  He lives in London.
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