Money: The Unauthorized Biography

Money: The Unauthorized Biography

by Justin Martin
San Francisco Chronicle, April 20, 2014

The Beatles sang about it, Drake raps about it, major world religions warn about the danger of blindly chasing it, and according to a recent study, the average American thinks about it more often than about sex. Now comes a book, “Money: The Unauthorized Biography,” by Felix Martin, a London economist and investment firm partner. That’s some title. And the premise is compelling: Martin aims to treat money like a person, a celebrity even, delivering filthy lucre’s very own biographical treatment and an “unauthorized” one to boot, a hint that there will be some unexpected and possibly scandalous revelations. Sadly, the audacious promise of this book is only partially realized.

Martin is at his best when he’s simply surveying money’s long and colorful story. The earliest example of a debt bearing interest, for example, occurred in roughly 2400 B.C., courtesy of Enmetena, an ancient Sumerian king. Meanwhile, medieval coins were often stamped with images of royalty, but no particular value was assigned. Feudal lords simply announced a coin’s current worth, making outrageous acts of currency manipulation possible. And did you know that the Spartans had no physical currency? Apparently, they feared that would disrupt their much-prized societal cohesion and lead to the kind of decadence witnessed among their neighboring Athenians.

One of the book’s most vivid anecdotes involves the Pacific island of Yap. During a 1903 visit, an American anthropologist discovered that inhabitants used a currency called fei, consisting of stone disks, some as large as 12 feet in diameter. These were hard to move, not exactly pocket change. The islanders simply kept mental accounts, e.g. “I bought a pig from my neighbor who now has legitimate claim to one quarter of the two-ton fei lying in my front yard.” The long, twisted tale of money is replete with such anecdotes. This account could be a thrilling ride, along the way exploring all kinds of ideas about the nature of money. But Martin is not content to stick with a biography. It’s a conceit that he doesn’t seem to trust or feel particularly comfortable pursuing. He is after bigger quarry, and it’s while chasing it that his account stumbles. At one point, he writes that “economic history (is) widely considered the poor cousin of theory by most academic economists.” That’s revealing.

The author, it seems, shares this view that theory occupies an elevated plane above facts. In an apparent bid for loftiness, Martin winds up shaping and squeezing his account into a big theory designed to tie everything together, explain it all. Unfortunately, Martin’s vaunted theory – money is “a social technology” – is little more than a vague, jargony notion. Seemingly, he’s trying to capture the idea that money is not a physical entity but rather a representation. If you hand someone a dollar, in other words, it has no innate value – and never did, even in the old days of the gold standard. Rather, a dollar represents a complex nexus of trust and expectation, tied to factors such as stability of the government, the health of the banking system and the citizenry’s confidence about the future.

This is hardly a new idea. In a 1752 essay “Of Money,” the Scottish philosopher David Hume – a figure conspicuously missing from Martin’s account – wrote: “Money is not, properly speaking, one of the subjects of commerce, but only the instrument which men have agreed upon to facilitate the exchange of one commodity for another. It is none of the wheels of trade: it is the oil which renders the motion of the wheels more smooth and  easy.”

Throughout history, figures ranging from Aristotle to Milton Friedman have suggested that money is a symbolic representation. No doubt, given that one’s bank balance is now merely a number on a computer screen, the idea occurs frequently these days even to many laypeople not trained in economics or  philosophy. There’s also the emergence of so-called virtual currencies such as bitcoin. This is all over the news, yet strangely doesn’t even rate a mention in Martin’s book. Now, more than ever, a thoughtful meditation on the nature of money would be most welcome. But Martin simply trots out an old notion (money is a symbol), failing to refine or amplify it in a way that would give it fresh life.

It seems like a complete overreach, then, when Martin states near the end of the book that his “alternative understanding of money” might be useful for battling future financial crises. How exactly? Martin offers up nothing beyond the thinnest reeds such as: “Central banks shouldn’t be independent. Or at least, not like they are now.” Apparently, that’s one of the ways his money-as-social-technology theory could find real-world utility.

But if economic history – that poor cousin – teaches any lesson, it’s that theory is an unreliable tool. Remember all those giddy theoretical discussions during last decade’s housing boom about how free markets are rational and self-regulating? That justified the excesses, the very human excesses, that led to the crash in 2008.

Money is the stuff of raw emotions, lust, fear, hope and avarice – always has been, always will be. With the book’s subtitle, “The Unauthorized Biography,” Martin suggests he’ll be delivering something suitably provocative, maybe even a tad prurient. By retreating into theory – and very blurry theory, at that – he fails to do justice to his rich subject. Until that biography is written, readers will be better served by turning to the works of other, more able, theorists – or Pink Floyd:

Money it’s a gas

Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash

New car, caviar, four-star daydream,

Think I’ll buy me a football team.

Justin Martin is the author of several books including a best-selling biography of Fed chairman Alan Greenspan. His latest book is “Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians,” out in September from Da Capo Press.