How Finance Made Civilization Possible
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A financial economist’s view of credit, investment, speculation, and other matters of the pocketbook.

The study of finance is traditionally the finest layer of dust on the stack of arid tomes devoted to the dismal science. The Cyndi Lauper echo of the title aside, Goetzmann (Finance and Management/Yale School of Management; co-editor: The Origins of Value: The Financial Innovations that Created Modern Capital Markets, 2005, etc.) doesn’t exactly shift the discussion into pop territory. However, his book is more accessible than many in the field, positing that the instruments of finance have done more than their share to make civilized life possible. The author invites us to consider that a principal effect of finance is to travel in time: that is, finance “reallocates economic value through time,” linking present and future while also shifting the burden of risk to allow investors and states to do such things as build infrastructure. Finance also involves an increase in social complexity, requiring alphanumeric language for record-keeping and bureaucrats to keep track of things, so that finance is responsible for state-building. Among the earliest financial documents we have, writes Goetzmann, are clay tablets recording impossible debts denoted by absurdly gigantic numbers: “The ability to imagine and then to express such vast quantities,” he writes, “would not have been possible without the leap of mathematical abstraction in the Uruk period.” So, too, with Chinese record-keeping systems involving great quantities of grain offered in tribute by great numbers of people. Throughout, in perhaps an accidental theme, Goetzmann’s narrative offers numerous examples of the inequalities wrought by financial systems, whether the medieval practice of “tax farming” or the speculative schemes floated by a well-known Founding Father. Of considerable interest is the author’s brief closing look at future possibilities for financial regimes, such as a sovereign wealth fund to bolster some version of social security.

For the numerate and fiscally wonky, an accessible survey that does a fine job of reallocating past, present, and future.

Pub Date: June 1st, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-691-14378-1
Page count: 576pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2016


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