What I’m Reading: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

My quest to understand the world we live in continues to focus on capital and finance with The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, like another book I recently read and reviewed, Money – this was written on the eve of a major financial catastrophe – though Ferguson, to his credit, is much more aware … Continue reading “What I’m Reading: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson”

My quest to understand the world we live in continues to focus on capital and finance with The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, like another book I recently read and reviewed, Money – this was written on the eve of a major financial catastrophe – though Ferguson, to his credit, is much more aware of the systemic instability he is writing in than Robertson was. And, unlike the Great Depression, the onset of the Great Recession had already begun at the time of Ferguson’s writing and by the time he wrote the revised conclusion of the paperback version – the major effects had already been felt and dealt with and the recovery efforts were well underway.

This was a good book and offered a wealth of information about the transition of money from hard currency to fancifully re-packaged imaginary money based on money that was loaned but which never actually existed and then even to the most chimeric form of capital yet – the hedge fund. Ferguson’s telling of the birth of banks, stock companies, paper currency, debt markets, and derivatives was both entertaining and informative. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand capitalism and money.

That being said, Ferguson is a cheerleader of capitalism and an enthusiastic supporter of the positive benefits of money. For Ferguson, there seems to be no possibility of imagining a world in which unfettered capitalism, collecting interest, and central governmental oversight of monetary instruments could possibly exist. There is a palpable admiration present in his tales of swindlers, con-men, and thieves enriching themselves at the expense of honest workers and virtually no empathy present as he ignores the human toll that the financial escapades of men and governments wreak upon five centuries of humanity. He is a gifted storyteller and a talented teacher of economic principles and history – but ultimately, it is clear that he is a capitalist and not a humanitarian.

Still, the book is a must-read as these several notable passages illustrate:

..there were few mourners when the last meaningful vestige of it {the gold standard} were removed on August 15, 1971, the day that President Nixon closed the so called ‘gold window’ through which, under certain restricted circumstances, dollars could still be exchanged for gold. From that day onward, the centuries old link between money and precious metal was broken.

In his chapter about financial bubbles, Ferguson tells the colorful tale of John Law, a murderer fleeing justice in his native Scotland, who managed to take complete control of the French Royal Bank and essentially destroyed the treasury of France (and her citizens) through selling shares in the Mississippi company which was responsible for leaving France bankrupt and in need of the capital that selling the Louisiana Purchase to the fledgling United States brought. According to Ferguson, Law was single-handedly responsible for the founding of New Orleans and the ascent of Britain over France. I would love to see a movie about Law, but I’m glad to have not been one of his direct victims.

And finally, this quote struck me as incredibly powerful. It’s worth holding onto and thinking about deeply.

Longer life is good news for individuals, but it is bad news for the welfare state and the politicians who have to persuade voters to reform it.

And that, is perhaps the most powerful, though unintended message of this book – what is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the capitalist or the capitalist state. Buyer beware indeed.

What I’m Reading: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

I’m a fan of R. Buckminster Fuller and his work. One of the greatest things I’ve ever read was his admission in Nine Chains to the Moon (which is how many continuous chains of people we could make to the moon by standing arm in arm circa 1971 or so) that he was a failure at everything he ever tried until he decided to do something that didn’t just benefit him or his loved ones, but all of humanity. So, when I see an R. Buckminster Fuller book, I usually buy it and read it – even if, like Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth , I had read it in the past.

This time, however, it just didn’t click with me. I just wasn’t feeling Bucky Fuller. In fact, his style of writing actually grated against my brain – phrases like ‘comprehensively commanded automation’ annoyed me with their pseudo-intellectual vibe and bothersome alliteration – and – and this is probably a big part of it – his annoying optimistic predictions which were completely and totally wrong. He forgot to foresee the greed and stupidity of the baby boomers as they glorified ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous’ became completely obsessed with looking at themselves in the disco-ball mirrors, and turned the United States into a country ruled by Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and Dallas. All those well meaning intellectual hippies either got consumed by the culture of greed or were shoved into back corners where they tell themselves that the best thing to do is to let it run its course.

Still, there were tidbits that I found inspiring such as where he describes the true miracle of economic growth that took place after World War II – it wasn’t because of the industrialization of the machines of war or the driving force of industry – it was because after the war there were a bunch of shell shocked young men who were the healthiest and best informed our nation had ever produced and none of them could get a job in the industrialized post war society, so the government, rather than letting them run amok created the G.I. Bill and sent them all to colleges, trade schools, and universities. This emergency measure to prevent chaos created many billions of dollars of new wealth through ‘increased know-how and intelligence thus released’. It was this reckless spending of wealth that produced the greatest prosperity humanity had ever known.

Fuller also talks about how charity is a holdover from the pirate days when it was thought there could never be enough to go around and then he points out that we know better now, there is enough for everyone, but it is being hoarded by those who don’t need it and kept from those who do. Charity, he warns, is necessitated by a working assumption that we cannot afford to take care of all the helpless ones.

Yes, there is so much common sense and goodness in the writing of Bucky Fuller, but something happened to the boomers in the late 1970s and 1980s that has taken humanity on a bad turn. Instead of turning their backs on the competitive society (which is poison for all, but not at the same time) and embracing the cooperative society that the 1960s seemed to be pointing us towards, they did the opposite. I’ve given some thought to this – a lot of thought actually – and it might come down to this.

The boomers were the first generation to regularly see pictures of themselves. Not moving pictures which showed their fat rolls or double chins or acne, because video reveals our worst, but nice, posed snapshots and portraits. Like Narcissus, they fell in love with their own reflection and mistook the blue of the sky behind them for a halo of their own making. My generation (Gen X) was forced to see awkward videos of our first dance, first day at school, getting our heads shoved into the ground during middle school wrestling, and more. Editing VHS was never easy. The grainy VHS tape video didn’t do anyone any favors – it’s hard to fall in love with yourself when you are on VHS – so there is a realism, a cynicism that is inherent in us – we were born during the years when our parents had ideals and then we got to see them prostitute themselves to money, go through the ugliest selfish mid-life crisis’ in history, and now get to watch them pretend to have a shred of dignity left and if we want to have any sort of relationship with them, not remind them of what assholes they have always been. The millennials, on the other hand, have been filmed from the time they were in the womb and every bit of it has been edited to perfection – they are oblivious to the cameras that are trained on them every moment of the day. The cynicism of their parents (Gen X) seems to have created a sort of optimism in them that we lacked. The fear, of course, is that they are simply Re-Boomers. I don’t think so, I think they are better than the boomers, less innately insecure, but that’s my two cents worth on this.

Back to the book, I can’t really recommend it. It might have turned me off of Fuller for a good while.

What I’m Reading #2 – Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill

Yesterday, I finished reading (for the 3rd time) Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. It’s a worthy book and recommended for anyone and everyone – even if it sometimes goes pretty far afield.

I read this book in my teens and then in my late 20s and recently had it recommended to me by an older man who has achieved some measure of success in the world – where success is measured with wealth – so I picked it up again and gave it another read. First a little background – the book was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, America’s first billionaire. Napoleon Hill, the author, interviewed 500 of the most successful people in America in doing research for the book and then composed a formula that any person could use to achieve monetary wealth. Among those interviewed were Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Wilbur Wright and every other luminary of the gilded age you can think of (not this gilded age, the one that led to the Great Depression). His book has sold 70 million copies and Hill managed to make several fortunes (and to lose them) with his work.

Hill’s focus on a ‘burning desire for money’ is an annoyance, but it makes sense. His book is the original “Secret” and the best selling self help book of all time. I’ll tell you right now – Hill comes across as what he probably was – a shyster and a confidence man. There are no records that he actually met with all the people he claimed to have met with – in fact, all records (Hill claimed) were burnt in a fire. Hill was convicted of creating a sort of fraudulent ‘Trump Academy’ and then try attempting to sell shares in it using an illegal valuation (Blue Sky Laws). From what I can tell, Hill actually met with Carnegie but the rest may have been imaginary meetings with famous men. A type of meeting which he details in later chapters of his book when he meets with famous men who were long dead.

So, all of that being said – the book is a worthy read. The book shared the spotlight with the book I wrote about yesterday The Art of Thinking by Ernest Dimnet during much of the 1930s -1950s. People were hungry for achievement during this time, but Think and Grow Rich was born of the self help books which started appearing in the late 1870s – Emerson was the best known of these writers, but I’ve come across many – together they are referred to as the New Thought writers.

There were a few very valuable takeaways from Think and Grow Rich which deserve mentioning. The first is the idea that true success can only be achieved by working harmoniously in co-operation with other individuals or groups of individuals and thus creating value and benefit for them to create sustainable achievement for oneself. Hill refers to this as building a Master Mind Group – and other writers I’ve read, notably R. Buckminster Fuller take the idea even further – Fuller states that unless what you are doing will benefit EVERYONE, than you will not succeed.

Another idea which deserves mentioning from Think and Grow Rich is the idea of “transmutation of the sexual emotion” into energy to create wealth with. This idea by itself could probably turn half of the population from failure towards success. Imagine if all of the energy that goes towards getting laid were focused on financial or other achievements? I would have been a millionaire by the time I was twenty, probably a few times over.

The book is worth reading – all of it- even the out there parts or the parts that sound like they are a lecture from Trump University – but for me, I would say the most valuable section came towards the end when Hill details the impediments to success and the symptoms which arise – his insights here are profound – the fear of poverty, fear of ill health, fear of what others think – these are what truly hold people back – it may sound funny that a fear of poverty keeps one from becoming wealthy, but after reading this, I think it is probably the number one reason why people do not succeed.

To sum up, this seems to be the gist of the book: Find an idea you are passionate about, write it down, create a burning desire to achieve it, obsess about it, don’t let fear stop you, trust your instincts, never give up.

Writing Online

I’ve been writing online for a while now – mainly because Microsoft made their office products online products that you have to pay for, Google documents are free, and open office doesn’t work for me how it once did. So, I write online – at the very least, I’m connected when I’m writing and in general – I’ve decided I don’t like that. Also, my laptop a Gateway touchscreen thing I bought a few years ago for way too much money is the worst writing computer I’ve ever owned. The point of all of this – if there is one – is that technology has become less useful for me as it has (I’m told) progressed – I did more writing on my bricklike laptop back in 1997 and my 1995 boat anchor desktop actually functioned as a better word processor, than this amazing advanced machine I use now…in fact, a typewriter in a room with no connection to the outside world might have been the machine that allowed the most creative writing productivity – all of this stuff we call technology is a distraction. My next computer is going to be a word processor first and foremost with an ergonomic keyboard and an internet off switch. I’m not sure they make such a thing any longer so maybe it will be a Commodore 64 or a Remington typewriter.

Jesus and his rainbow pooping Unicorn

I am working on a book of stories for my daughter about Jesus who rides through the universe on a rainbow pooping Unicorn called Love. They will have many adventures and meet many different historical and spiritual figures. I’ve posted the first picture we have drawn on my instagram account. At the moment, no one else has written anything on the internet about Jesus and his rainbow pooping unicorn called Love – so this is my proof of concept invention. Remember, Jesus is waiting for you – and he is going to give you exactly what you deserve.

Thoughts after Attending a Book Festival as an Author

The book festival yesterday was thought provoking. Lots of thoughts were provoked. Here are a few of them. As a young person (and today as well) I read a lot – I was inspired by great storytelling from the likes of Tolkien, Verne, Piers Anthony, Robert Heinlein, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, Twain, and London. I am inspired by well written history, thought provoking philosophy and spirituality, and approachable, practical how-to books. I like books that allow me to learn. I love books that allow me to visit far off destinations and exotic cultures and landscapes.

As a younger adult – I was also dazzled by the reckless and dangerous lifestyles of many writers. Hard drinking, hard drugging, hard loving, emotional roller coasters – like Hank Moody from Californication – I wanted to live like that.

I was never inspired by popular fiction like detective novels, thrillers or best sellers. I never wanted to be some boring baby boomer slaving away over a word processor and sitting in empty halls filled with tables behind which boring baby boomers sit eyeing potential readers with hunger.Yesterday, I found myself right there. Best selling author Philip Margolin was there too, sitting behind a table, trying to smile, signing books. I had no desire to be him. I had no desire to read his books.

I’ve not wanted to be Hank Moody or Jack Kerouac or Hemingway for quite a while now. The desire has passed. The idea of being an older Jack London type, building a ranch, hosting friends, fighting for good political ends…that appeals to me. I’d still love to write compelling stories…but they need to be stories with a purpose, stories that have more substance than a Moody-esque “I drank, I got fucked up, I got fucked, it was awful, I survived, I did it again, something awesome happened, I was miserable, I did it again”

My books previously have been a combination of how-to, travel to exotic places, introduction to exotic ideas, and fucked-upness with an over-exaggerated desire to attract attention by offending. I was using offense as a hook…which was (perhaps) novel in the 80s and 90s but now, in the age of the internet, is just boring.

I’ve changed a lot. I admit it. Enough that I can see foolishness where before I thought there was brilliance. Enough to see problems where before I thought there was quality. I was in love with my title “Douchebags, Fags, and Hags” I thought it was hilarious…yesterday, honestly, I was embarrassed by it and while I still love the novel – am pretty sure I would have sold a lot more if I had called it “The Sultanate of Baboob” or “Pig and the Sexy Nun” or even just “Pig”. There were other things I noticed and was shocked by, such as my putting of an ancient pre-Columbian artifact showing two dogs fucking on the back of my rather serious “Liminal Travel” – I remember thinking it was funny – an artifact from the MET referencing an off-color joke on the back of my book – but it has nothing to do with my book. Why did I put it there? Probably the same reason I put the horrible back cover on Smooth Living – enough to see that Slackville Road is a good idea with bad execution…and an ugly cover. I was blinded with love for my own creations…and I think the time I’ve taken off from writing has been a good thing.

The money and time I spent yesterday did not yield a financial return, but even so, I think it was well spent.