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+ - Book Review: Money: The Unauthorized Biography->

Submitted by jsuda
jsuda (822856) writes "Most of us know that making money is difficult and saving it is even harder, but understanding money is easy–it's just coins and folding certificates, a mere medium of exchange.

That's wrong! according to Felix Martin, author of “Money: The Unauthorized Biography.” Not only is that understanding wrong but it's responsible (in large part) for the 2007 Great Recession and the pitiful “recovery” from it as well as a number of previous financial and credit disasters.

Mr. Martin draws a comparison of the orthodox understanding of money as a mere medium of exchange as typified by material objects–coins, gold bars, measuring sticks, and the like and a different way of thinking about it--as a social accounting construction based on mutual trust. That way of thinking acts as a primary social organizing tool. As such, a monetary system is much more sophisticated than just a logical extension of primitive bartering systems. It is imbued with major political aspects which account, in part, for the differences between the haves and have-nots, the policies selected to address financial/economic busts, and the relationship of the state to the monetary/financial systems.

The differing understandings of money underlie even now the varied explanations by economists of the causes of the Great Recession and the varied reactions of political leaders to it. It is also relevant to the deliberate removal of the government from the monetary system in favor of an impersonal computer network, as in the digital coin system now developing.

The author is a professional economist, bond trader, and analyst with the George Soros Institute for Economic Thinking. The book is a very worthwhile look at the concept of money as a (implicit, at least) political and social determinant and is quite topical as alternative monetary systems (mostly digitalized) like Bit Coin and competitors are garnering much attention. While the book does not address those new developments, it's clear that the digitalized coin systems imply acceptance of the orthodox understanding of money as a commodity. Some of Martin's criticism of the limitations of the orthodox view seem to apply to these alternatives, as well.

Mr. Martin writes in a relatively accessible manner relating stories, mostly, about money in historical and global contexts. His approach reminds of Malcolm Gladwell's books which use elaborate historical stories to illustrate relatively complex topics. Gladwell writes better but, arguably, covers simpler issues. However, this book, too, is relatively simple. It is no treatise on money or systems; it doesn't cover every issue which relates to money and exchange; and it seems a bit thin on theory even on those topics it does focus on. The major topic is the nature of money–a medium of exchange or social/political organizing tool and that issue has been theorized differently for centuries.

Mr. Martin starts his critique of the orthodox view of money by explaining how the early Pacific island Yap culture relied upon the symbolism of large stones (known as “fei.") These stones were kept by individuals as value storage devices, even though they had few of the characteristics which typically would be present in money systems–tokens of some sort small enough to carry and to hide, a consistent look, ease of exchange, a readily determinable unit value, etc. None of that was relevant for the Yaps as they understood money as mere transferable obligations, commercial or otherwise, based on mutual trust. The bigger your stone, the more value you had to trade, even though no stones physically moved anywhere. The Yaps had a small community and violations of community trust were easily discouraged. The stones (including a large one on the bottom of the ocean) were only tangential to the much more relevant element of social trust.

Mr. Martin reviews a large handful of other historical situations involving credit collapses, bank runs, recessions, and big bank/governmental associations to make his main point that when money is rigidly understood merely as a commodity of exchange, bad things can happen to financial, credit, economic, and political systems, especially in difficult times. Take, for instance, the Irish potato famine of the mid-19th century where potential government/social aid to the jobless and hungry was stymied by creditor interests who valued the absolute sanctity of (bond and debt) contracts even at the consequences of millions of deaths. As they saw it, those victims were either responsible for their own problems or just losers in a competitive economy. Some economic thinkers at that time believed that those awful consequences were just part of the natural order and represented (unfortunately for the victims) unavoidable consequences of “good” finance.

While Mr. Martin doesn't address it much, most of the little people in America and elsewhere were also victims of the absolute sanctity of debt contracts. They lost jobs, homes, pensions, and savings in the Great Recession while big bondholders who legally had assumed investment risks lost nothing. Their debt contracts were inviolate. (The personal and social contracts of the little people naturally were worth nothing.)

Some of the major policy implications of money deal with: 1) inflation and deflation where a political decision is implied involving the contrary interests of creditors and debtors: 2) social responses to credit collapses and the role (if any) of government in moderating them; 3) who or what entities are or should be guarantors of trustworthiness (i. e., big banks? government? a computer network? 4) the role of formal contract law versus the principle of the good social good, and more. These are not mere abstract matters of formal theory but highly consequential matters of life and death (as the Irish potato farmers and lots of little people have found out.)

The author spends a lot of time explaining how trust works--in small organizations and communities, nations, and in globalized financial systems. At the top of the trust ladder (even for the most libertarian types) is the sovereign, i. e., government. There are important reasons why governments are generally lenders of last resort, stabilize financial and economic systems, and ultimately, the only potential savior for citizens from total economic collapse (as in the Great Recession.) There are various alternatives for the governmental role, none of which please everyone.

Hence, the political dimension of the money-social relationship. Mr. Martin comes down hard in favor of the flexible, social understanding of money. He praises John Maynard Keynes, Walter Bagehot, and even Salon, of centuries ago for their insights. He blames the great liberal philosopher, John Locke, of all people, for having a decidedly ill-liberal and ill-formed understanding of money. Lock was an orthodox monetarist and helped justify the philosophy which is still prominent. Each of the two philosophical approaches discussed here offer both liberal and conservative themes though rarely opposed as such.

That raises one major objection to Martin's thesis that orthodox monetary theory is wrong. He wants to substitute the social tool concept for it, but it seems pretty obvious that both frames of reference have their utility and truth. It's not easy to discredit respect for contract rights. On the other hand, it's hard to accept the starvation of millions of people to maintain them fully intact.

Nearly all such fundamental frames have their truths, even if inconsistent with the other. The better philosophical view is that we are guided (or not) by multiple, logically inconsistent frames. That is a philosophical point which he doesn't address well enough. He does concede that the orthodox theory mostly works well when times are good (but breaks down horribly when circumstances are bad.) This seems to imply a need for high-level judgment somewhere in the system, e. g., democratic political processes, a conclusion which tends to support his position.

He offers a couple of not very well-explained alternative monetary systems designed to remedy the faults of the orthodox approach while maintaining its virtues. He ends the book by suggesting that even if his thesis is correct, that getting the rest of the world to accept it is difficult–most people have rigid orthodox views, fiercely held. He lamely suggests without any elaboration that the power is within each of us to change those views. That would seem to require another book.

There is a lot of good meat, so to speak, to chew on in this book.

(FTC disclosure (16 CFR Part 255)): The reviewer has accepted a reviewer's copy of this book which is his to keep. He intends to provide an honest, independent, and fair evaluation of the book in all circumstances.)"

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Book Review: Money: The Unauthorized Biography

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