A Book Review: The Ascent of Money

The Ascent of Money written by Niall Ferguson, The Penguin Press, 2008, 442 pages. Reviewed by Rich Marino.

In his latest work, Niall Ferguson provides a condensed financial history of the world. Beginning with the rise of Christianity, Ferguson uses the force of money as the pivotal backdrop for the development of humanity as we know it. He underscores the ongoing evolution of credit and debt as the driving force behind progress and he puts it on par with the most sophisticated technologies for the advancement of mankind “from ancient Babylon to the silver mines in Bolivia. Banks provided the material basis for the splendors of the Italian Renaissance while the bond market was the decisive factor in conflicts from the Seven Years War to the American Civil War”.

This book is all over the place. In the same chapter, Ferguson will jump from the Clinton Administration to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and the medieval city-states of Tuscany, Florence, Pisa and Siena. Among the hodgepodge of very big issues, Ferguson goes out of his way to highlight the background and life of John Law of Edinburgh and the role he played in the French Revolution, and then in world history terms he touches upon: the love of money, the grasp that money holds on the individual and the plurality as a whole, the various and assorted stock market bubbles, the historical inherent risks in bonds especially war bonds, the fallacy behind the phrase “safe as houses” (an effort to shed some light on past housing bubbles), and he ends with the end of empires and the beginning of the trading relationship between America and China. In his Afterword, he discusses the decline of money with such broad sweeping, statements as “Today’s financial world is the result of four millennia of economic evolution. Money – the crystallized relationship between debtor and creditor – begat banks, clearing houses for ever large aggregations of borrowing and lending”.

I must admit that The Ascent of Money was essentially a big disappointment for me. I’ve seen and heard Dr. Ferguson many times both in person and on television, and for the most part, I have always been very impressed with his eloquence and his grasp of the subject, but in this case he covers a great deal of economic history in a few short pages without ever really getting to the heart of the matter. He glosses over some very important subjects of debate with little or almost no academic in-depth analysis of the details. I expected much more from an acclaimed academician. In the future, I suggest the he should devise some way to separate his work; so, that the reader understands when a book is written for the general public and when it’s intended for the academic community. Unfortunately, this book reads like something written by a journalist!

One Response to A Book Review: The Ascent of Money

  1. Ben says:

    What a turn off. It is a shame the book is not better because money had indeed a critical role in the rise of the modern world. Monetarization of society may be the single most important push factor for the Industrial Revolution while modern instrument of payment were the backbone of the European trade after the 11th century.

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