Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Niall Ferguson, _The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World_

A BRISKLY READABLE account of where money, banks, bonds, stocks, insurance, the secondary market in mortgages, and hedge funds came from, obviously written for a lay audience, and a good thing it is, as I could hardly have made much headway otherwise. All we citizens need to know more about this stuff, but I for one feel at an enormous disadvantage. To me, as a humanities person, the processes of how credit flourishes and withers seems spectral and bewitched. No wonder Pound never emerged from the labyrinth.

Ferguison mentions several times in the book that he finished writing in May 2008 -- as if he knew enormously worse news was in the offing, as it certainly was.

Ferguson provides relatively little technical explanation (no equations) and a good many anecdotes, featuring among others the Medicis, the Rothschilds, the Scottish Widows, and George Soros. As an historian, he seems at his most comfortable and sounds at his most reliable when delving into origins.

When he turns to the contemporary scene, he's less persuasive. He takes a sickeningly indulgent view of the IMF and Pinochet's Chicago boys, for example.

Reading a book on the history of finance that has no equations is probably like reading a book on the history of music that has no musical notation -- which reminds me, I need to finish that Alex Ross book -- but for someone with my limitations, Ferguson's book is quite helpful. But how thick is his head if neither Naomi Klein nor John Perkins, whom he has obviously read, made no deep impression?

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