This author has done a wonderful job on many levels. He masterfully weaves together ideas, people, surrounding culture, institutions and events in service of this fine history.
We start with Holmes himself, a figure who (in ways unsuspected by me) bridged quite different eras in thought and national history. Holmes emerges as a bridge between quite disparate thinkers, many of whom might never have occupied the stage of history without him. For example, though a Boston brahmin of perfect pedigree, he risked that standing to stick up for important Jewish legal thinkers (and their ideas) who were being publicly painted with a broad brush of hysterical jingoism by some of Holmes' Harvard elite colleagues. Holmes even at 77 had a remarkable nimbleness, if sometimes slow, with perking his ears to a good new idea, and (despite sometimes giving short shrift in legal opinions, at least for awhile), staying with the ideas, keeping his vigorous discussions open with others, through gnawing unease and rethinking. Ultimately, he emerged at the far side, with formulations many people may take for granted today as "just the way things are."
As a result, I do not fear in posting this review that some bureaucrat might think my opinions seditious and have me arrested, as happened in this (WW1) era aplenty. Holmes (even within his own head, beginning as a Civil War vet wounded in action, his family swords posted prominently in his home, and as shown in his sequence of legal opinions) spans a part of this emergence from a more warlord/absolutist/paternalist state ("right or wrong," as goes the phrase quoted to him here) toward a more complete logical spread of the Enlightenment (via the US Constitution) to allow mere opinion to circulate, even during wartime. This process was very uneven, I see here, and was something like, three steps forward, two steps back, at points like this (the WW1 era and its aftermath). And, we still see echoes of these themes today.
This is the first Ron Chernow book I have read. Wow, what a storyteller. I presume the reader already has an interest in the overall topic. Mr Chernow has a way of plucking out a telling little detail that sets a scene or gives a sense of a personality marvelously. And he tirelessly delivers this sort of thing across a vast canvas. He did the same with Alexander Hamilton, as I have since heard it. I hope an audio of his book "The Warburgs" is forthcoming.
I can't say any of the rosy possibilities imagined here will come true. Who can? However, This book has a fine place, if for no other reason than to make our minds more limber, and help us shake off a bit of the fatigue of fearing the worst. (Look, Britain no longer rules the waves, and its standard of living has been pretty good, in a world where it was forced to assume a less unipolar "top dog" spot in the global community.) In the biggest of all narratives of current history, as I see suggested here, we live in a world where many economies have adopted roughly some version of our way of creating wealth, and I mean by productivity and trade. A China so entwined with the USA and the rest of the globe financially and in trade, is a far better vision than the possible alternatives -- such as a Nazi-type military kleptocracy. It isn't as bad as it could be, this book cogently argues. And I need to imagine in these sorts of directions, to commit some resources to the possibility of good global upsides (not least for the USA) in this type of possible future.
All my main interests converge in this book. The authors' labors came to great fruit in a thorough, eye-opening tour of banking in several countries and centuries. I learned more about the histories of Brazil and Mexico (despite having read other books, and traveled extensively in Mexico) than I ever knew, in a few hours.
The narratives frame banking systems and their impacts on nations as the products of a "game of bank bargains" in each nation, and in each time-frame, between various interest groups. This makes enormous sense, and is a refreshing departure from partisan screeds that lazily serve up the same pre-set heroes and villains. I like the authors' approach of blending disciplined narratives showing particular nations' contexts and nuances, in easy-to-follow stories, with some telling numbers. Various institutional weaknesses are highlighted, or flawed bargains, as sources of trouble: opposing groups can be, at best, powerful checks and balances on each other, and often these balances have become too lopsided, and banking crises are sure to follow. In this light, the collapse of banking systems, currencies, and governments makes clear sense. The result of this approach: deeper knowledge of history and sharper thinking and analysis. And all this is delivered in an accessible, listenable form.
Some with a brittle partisan pre-loaded set of desired answers (on either side) may be perturbed at turns. Some on the left will be uncomfortable when a microscope is turned onto the banker-urban-populist bargains in the runup to USA's 2008 subprime credit bust. But by the time this story is detailed, we are already well briefed on a history of unstable banking bargains in US history, among various players. This made me look with a more appraising and cynical eye at the smooth cartoons of rosy all-around public benefit and skillful crisis management produced by politicians (on either side) as their self-serving draft of history, and as an apologia for their various manipulations of banking systems.
USA's set of bank bargains, and their outcomes and present state, can be compared, apples-to-apples, with Britain, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Germany, and more. (This is, however, primarily a history book, not specifically an update of very current events.) This book stands alongside any I've ever read in these various sub-fields. I agree with the likes of Niall Ferguson that finance gives key understandings of history, when done with smarts and disciplined scholarship. This book tells me more about why nations are where they are, than any other I can think of.
I have read dozens of books in this genre. Yet, here I had many "gee whiz" moments, understanding in new ways (and sometimes clearly for the first time) how many of these dots connected between personalities, groups in society, financial innovations and eras, and various world players affecting, and affected by, Wall Street. The explanations are sensible and clear, and flow sensibly across time and through these overlapping factors. Many books have picked up some segment of this, and I have heard many of these stories in a fragmented way, but these fragmented books tended to wander into details that can lose the thread of important facts and ideas, or to start and stop at arbitrary points. Half a dozen segments here could be books in themselves.
As for the narration, at first I thought it a bit on the relaxed and plodding side, but as time has passed, I have found it very listenable, and able to hold my attention.
This professor is passionate, obviously engaged with his subject, clear and accessible. This survey moves across many big books full of ideas pretty quickly, so naturally it does not get into the more abstract and technical fine points. But to readily get a good basic feel for these ideas and thinkers (and their writing, which is critiqued a bit, and explained in light of the prevalent ideas of their times), one couldn't start at a better place.
It was a pleasure to listen to this. I never found myself zoning out or wondering (as I often do) when the speaker will cut through the fuzzy jargon and get to the point. The points are all set out. This has helped me think more clearly in my own decisions, and express myself more clearly in my own business teaching.
This is a wide-ranging tour of ideas and history that have been capturing Mr Greenspan's attention since he left the Fed, and he thereafter admitted before Congress as the Great Recession unfolded, that some big assumptions and models he was using hadn't worked. I like to listen to his mind working, as, for example, he loosely cobbles together an economic model in front of the reader, or walks through a stretch of history, lucidly pointing out big salient features of how we got here. Like many very smart people I know, he shows a gift sometimes for displaying (what seem to me glaring) gaps in his reasoning, or for ignoring a 900-pound factual gorilla looming in the situation. (This is the reputed libertarian Ayn Rand disciple who yet worked in and around government much of his adult life, openly disliked government's solutions, yet became arguably the most powerful individual inside government, whereupon he showered cheap credit into the banking system for a very extended period (meanwhile refusing to exercise his statutory powers to regulate various mortgage finance practices) as a vast unstable housing bubble heaved up and (soon enough after he left the job) collapsed into the worst mess since the Great Depression.) This wouldn't be the first time models worked well until they didn't. But, aside from some sidestepping perhaps, he intrepidly wrestles with some big questions. For example, he tackles why this recovery was seemingly this tepid and slow. I don't agree with all the answers he finds, but along this journey I find this book has helped me clarify and sharpen and update my own views and opinions. And for that, I give Mr Greespan credit and thanks. In that light, I think this work is a success.
I've seen reviews that complain about the wide range of sub-topics. But all of them are interesting to me, and I like the way the guy describes things.
I'm finding this series habit-forming. I like the quickness of each little vignette: it introduces an idea or new phrasing or view of things that may be novel to me (great!) or not (fine, it's not too long). From time to time one hears a very gifted explainer: it introduces me to authors whose full-length books I also read.
Take a reasonably interesting idea: e.g., the Yap islanders' use of largely stationary stones as money (seen many times in other books), and various interesting implications of that. Repeat it ad nauseum, as if the listener was too dense to get the simple logic of it. (How many versions and iterations of this simple explanation must I hear? Did you think I forgot since the last Nth time you repeated it? Is there an editor in the house?)
Lard on all sorts of low-information padding, strings of words roughly in the nature of 'you might be astonished to hear ...', interrupting the flow of actual information, which add bulk and a wordy pseudo-academic sound, but no meaning. (At least it is read in a clear and pleasant voice!)
Purport to challenge various common ideas and traditional (and quite useful) understandings about money, but don't really raise an effective challenge; just say they are wrong. Insert colorful descriptions of such things as long-dead peoples' intentions in doing certain acts, without good evidence. Pretend that a few easy inferences about money (apparent to any clear thinker who has done much of any reading in the field) are new or clever ideas, while these are often repackaged truncations of existing ideas or obvious inferences.
Dress it up, perhaps in a UK-centric style, try for a gravitas-but-wide-audience-snappiness reminiscent of Clarke's 'Civilisation' or Ferguson's 'Ascent of Money' (anticipating a TV special maybe?), with colorful stories and a lofty British tone. Now you are getting close to sensing some of what goes on here.
So what do I like about this book? It is a nice fit for walking around my river park, reflecting, pondering certain stories and features of money and credit, without being taxed too hard mentally. It gives nice gentle nudges to the imagination from lots of angles about these topics. Since this subject is of great interest to me, it doesn't hurt to do walk-throughs from lots of viewpoints. Here and there a novel phrasing of some idea is a nice fit with my growing knowledge. It is a pleasant presentation and, for someone with an interest in this (and perhaps not quite as far along the scholarship curve), and subject to some of the above issues, time pretty well spent.
I have many business students from various of these countries, and I feel much better informed about the settings they are coming from. Of course, a book this short must be a summary, but I appreciate having a much better sense of the identities of these individual nations/emirates. It is certainly not "one size fits all."
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