From prolific historian Ferguson (History/Harvard Univ.; The War of the World, 2006, etc.), a sweeping survey of money and its many instruments.
Some years ago, writes Ferguson, a hitherto unknown tribe appeared at the edge of the Amazonian rainforest. The people had subsisted for generations on hunting and gathering. They had no conception of money; not surprisingly, Ferguson adds, they had no concept of futurity, either. Now they live near a city, subsisting on food brought by strangers with no demand for anything in return. Shedding the hunting-and-gathering lifestyle was a first step toward the larger prosperity of humankind, Ferguson suggests—contra Marshall Sahlins’s Stone Age Economics (1974)—while other instruments compelled us farther along the evolutionary path. One was the development of credit and debt, “as important as any technological innovation in the rise of civilization, from ancient Babylon to present-day Hong Kong.” Ferguson takes a view similar to that of Jacob Bronowski (the title being homage to The Ascent of Man), and he offers plenty of nuts-and-bolts information. Every day, $2 trillion changes hands, and every single second of the day someone is selling something to someone else, a far more congenial use of time and energy than war, counting coup and other pastimes of our tribe writ large. War, after all, is a leading cause of inflation, one of the constant enemies in Ferguson’s pages; another is bad faith, which Ferguson attends to in a nicely scathing exegesis of the Enron affair. The author is a fluent interpreter, whether writing of the origins of the hedge fund, the workings of international trade deficits or the securitization of home mortgages—the last of which is the cause of so much current worry. He avoids the aridity of economics without skimping on details, offering lots of bang for the buck.
A useful introduction to the world of drachmas, dinars and dollars.