Archive for February 2010

The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson

February 14, 2010

This book is part of an effort that created a television series on the same subject. There are illustrations scattered throughout, rather than in the traditional mid-book well.

The trajectory of the book mixes chronology and theme; generally, it proceeds from past to present, but there is some looping as the chapters pass by–“Dreams of Avarice” (the invention of money and the evolution of banking); “Of Human Bondage” (government debt issue); “Blowing Bubbles” (speculation and frauds); “The Return of Risk” (insurance and social security); “Safe as Houses” (real estate investment); and “From Empire to Chimerica” (globalization of finance).

The poets make few appearances here, but Dante’s sight of the usurers on the burning sand in canto XVII appears in the discussion of the development of finance. Ferguson does not let Pound speak for modern-day critics of bankers, as he might have done:


wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
nor was “La Callunia” painted.
Came not by usura Angelico; came not Ambrogio Praedis,
No church of cut stone signed: Adamo me fecit.

(From Pound’s Canto XLV.)

Rather, Ferguson takes the Olympian view–all is folly and greed, all is slicing and dicing of treasure into finer bits, then by the Medici, now by the quants, leading inevitably to another bubble and the inevitable burst. Still, he is no agrarian conservative or consistent Green who would trade his laptop for a quill pen and his Cambridge condo for a Glasgow hovel. He does well to cover any political biases–one might guess what they are, but they don’t unduly interfere. There is no New Economy, in his view, because there is no New Man–there will always be irrational exuberance over one thing or another.

The early chapters seem the more scholarly portion of the work, but perhaps only because the material could not have been sourced from the New York Times, CNN, and the Wall Street Journal, as are the later chapters, dealing with familiar subjects such as Enron, Hurricane Katrina, and George Soros.

The book was completed in early 2008, and Ferguson knew that he was on the edge of a lost chapter (or two). There will have to be a revised edition to tell the story of our present era and to give it a name.