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.

Author: Administrator

I think, therefore, I worry.

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