By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Victor Bevine
The “History of Money” is an interesting historical journey, written by Jack Weatherford. However, at times, resource selection seems loosely based on the title’s inferred theme. One of Weatherford’s references is to Michel Montaigne.
Montaigne’s reference to money in his book, “Essays”, is superfluous. Montaigne said little about the historical role of money, except as an inheritance and burden.
Another quibble–Weatherford also wrote “Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World”. Weatherford says little about how Khan changed the nature of war; which is a big part of Genghis Khan’s“…Making of the Modern World”.
Of course, criticism comes easy to those of us who are not scholars and have not written a book. In these two books, interesting information is offered to nitpicking critics that only read for pleasure; not scholarship.
Weatherford reaches back to Homer in writing about money. Weatherford explains–money had no meaning in Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey because valor and honor were the values of that time. Without valor and honor, life had no value.
Money becomes value after 50 BC with the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, Herod, and Cleopatra. Augustus Caesar grows to manhood (27 BC-14 AD) and consolidates the Roman Empire but Augustus needed money to succeed; valor and honor alone were not enough.
Weatherford notes that the formation-of-empire requires a medium of payment to secure conquering and conquered armies. Administration of empire demands compensation for managers of vast territories on multiple continents. Honor and valor were not enough to secure an empire. Italy coined gold aureus in the 1st century (BCE), after Athens minted the silver drachma; both represented a medium of exchange for goods and services. Weatherford notes that gold and silver became coin of many civilizations; not only Roman but Byzantine’ and Arabic’ civilizations. Weatherford explains that coins had face value but evolved into weight value based on the amount of gold or silver content. (An interesting note in regard to weight was the evolving habit of shaking a pouch of gold to reduce coin value with slough-off from coin collisions.)
Weatherford infers that growing payroll and cost of administration contribute to the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th century. Manipulation of the value of money, taxation, and growing government cost doom Roman hegemonic control. Of course, to state the obvious, devaluation, taxation, and administrative cost-control worked for 500 years, before the Empire collapsed.
Weatherford goes on to show how mathematics changed with the use of money. Though invented in India between the 1st and 4th centuries, a Persian named al-Khwarizmi transitioned Roman numerals to a decimal system in the 9th century; i.e. a decimal system became the accepted method for counting money, an easier way of understanding money-value’ equivalence and difference. Weatherford goes on to explain how the decimal system extends into the international world of science. He also notes that, with the exception of money, science, and library codification, America continues to resist decimal quantification for weights and measures.
An interesting observation made by Weatherford is that a gold standard for money became the first internationally accepted social convention. Money value backed by gold made London the financial capital of the world. Though many efforts have been made to create international agreement, like the League of Nations, NATO, and the United Nations, only the gold standard garnered world-wide success. Of course, a gold standard is no longer used by Great Britain or the U.S. but it is an interesting observation.
Weatherford completes his history of money with an explanation of how money is being transformed into electronic currency with the advance of credit cards and computer generated transactions. Money moves around the world almost instantaneously.
Weatherford explains that we have entered a new age of money. Early civilizations disclaimed the importance of money; the ruling class coveted money for power; the merchant class acquired money for trade; the industrial class sought money for production; and now the capitalist class has risen. Like the Romans, capitalists acquire money for power.
However, the medium of money has become unanchored by the physical world. Money lives in cyber space, untethered by physical relationship. Capitalists have become the new Caesars backed by money that never touches human hands. Though Weatherford does not address bitcoin, he infers a new form of money is being created out of nothing.
One might argue money has always been created out of nothing, except convenience. Money is certainly more conveniently handled today than in ancient times. The concern is that the speed of change, figuratively and physically, is less controllable in cyber space.