Money by Felix Martin: Exposing the flaws in the way we think about money

A fresh addition to the growing library of "recession lit": one which delves into anthropology and ancient history to argue we will never understand the financial crisis with our current misguided perspective on money.

Money: the Unauthorised Biography
Felix Martin
Bodley Head, 336pp, £20

By now, one might have thought there was little to add to the literature of the “Great Recession”. But it keeps coming and some leading economic practitioners, notably the departing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, argue that it will be three decades until we get the authoritative account. Many believe the best book on the 1929 meltdown was John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash 1929, published in 1955.

One of the biggest failings of modern-day economic and financial writing is a lack of historical perspective. When the run on Northern Rock caught the Bank of England and other regulators on the hop in August 2007, King established a recherché book club at his Notting Hill home in west London, where economists and economic historians gathered to discuss works on financial panics.

Felix Martin, an academic economist who now seeks to apply his knowledge in the financial world, reaches beyond conventional analysis in explaining the events that brought about the biggest disruption to finance and economic activity for more than a century. His core argument, reaching into anthropology and ancient history for support, is that classical economics – as exemplified by Adam Smith – misjudges the nature of money.

Smith and his cohorts saw money as commodity, based on gold, silver, copper or some other substance, that is used as a medium of exchange in commercial transactions. Martin does not disagree with this but views it as only part of the picture. He reaches into the primitive culture of the Pacific island of Yap and into the almost destroyed history of England’s Exchequer tallies: strips of willow on which non-monetary business transactions were recorded to understand the social technology of money.

What the author finds is enormously helpful in resolving some of the mystery behind the “Great Recession”. He found that physical coins and banknotes issued by central authorities such as the Bank of England tell only a fraction of the money story. The broader narrative is one of accounting: unseen transactions conducted privately among businesses and, in modern times, among banks without any notable intervention by central authorities.   

These transactions are so vast and so much more important socially and commercially that they far outstrip the notes and coins in circulation and the officials bills and bonds issued by central bankers on behalf of governments. It is this enormous social edifice that was the hidden hand behind the “great panic” of 2007-08 that came close to bringing the whole banking and financial system down. Financiers took “social” banking to the ultimate degree, turning the dodgy physical product of sub-prime mortgages into exotic securities.       

When it came to stabilising the financial system, the traditional central banking solution of providing temporary cash (lender of last resort money) in exchange for bills or securities, was inadequate to the task. The banks needed recapitalisation to restore solvency, and only the “sovereigns” – national governments – were adequate to the task. In the US the capital injections came to 4.5 per cent of GDP or the size of the vast US defence budget; in Britain, with its bloated financial sector, the sovereign bailout was 8.8 per cent of GDP and in Ireland it reached 40 per cent. Bank debt, at a stroke, had been socialised and politicised.

The virtue of Martin’s book is that it exposes the deep flaws in the way we have traditionally thought about money. The exposition is clear, unlike most jargon-filled economic texts. But this book could have done with some tighter editing. The flow is interrupted by clunky transitions from the ancient to the modern, interspersed with attempts at a conservational, over-a-drink style. Nevertheless, it provides a fresh understanding of its subject.

Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail and the author of “Britain for Sale”

Adolfo Tovar, collector of old banknotes and coins, brandishing his treasures. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

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The idea that sitting all day behind a desk increases your output is a fantasy

If you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them, seems to be the idea.

Scruffy and tieless, I was the odd one out. Taking a break from research in the London Library, I settled at the bar of an Italian restaurant and resumed reading Tony Collins’s excellent book Sport in Capitalist Society. While the hedge-fund managers looked askance, the young Hungarian waiter recognised one of his own. “That was the subject of my PhD,” he explained, before giving me a sparkling history of sport and Hungarian society.

He now juggles waiting tables with writing articles. It’s not easy. He tells me that when he rereads his old academic work, “Sometimes I need a dictionary!” Like many other people in today’s economy, he balances different jobs, the remuneration and fulfilment varying significantly.

As you have probably noticed, it seems that almost everyone is employed but hardly anyone has a job. Of the 42 million people of working age in Britain, 23 million are in a full-time job; roughly 14 million are full-time parents or carers; most of the rest work part-time, or are self-employed, or work for a business that is so small that it is, in effect, a form of self-employment. The “job” – the salary, the subsidised canteen, the pension – is on the wrong side of history. That is both liberating and scary.

There are two separate points here. The first, deriving from the privilege of choice, is that some people (I am one of them) are happier with the variety and freedom of self-employment. The second is that many people do not have a choice: solid, dependable jobs are a dead concept. We had better get used to fending for ourselves, because we are going to have to.

The phrase “portfolio career” was popularised by the management thinker Charles Handy. “I told my children that they would be well advised to look for customers, not bosses,” as Handy put it. “The important difference is that the price tag now goes on people’s produce, not their time.”

This transition from time-serving to genuine contribution can be good news for workers and employers alike. The art of being an employee is to string things out while pretending to be busy. The art of being self-employed is the opposite: getting things done well and efficiently, while being open to taking on new work. Employees gain an incentive to look effortful, the self-employed to look effortless.

The idea that sitting constantly behind a desk increases output, which underpins the old concept of a job, is a fantasy derived from control: if you don’t trust people, at least make sure that you imprison them. As an unfortunate consequence, the projection of phoney “busyness” consumes more energy than actual work and brings a kind of compound stress: always bustling around, never moving forward. “Never walk past the editor’s office without carrying a piece of paper,” young journalists are advised.

When I turned pro as a cricketer, an old hand told me that if I ever felt lost at practice, I should untie my shoelaces and then do them up again. “We don’t measure success by results but by activity,” as Sir Humphrey quips in Yes Minister. Ironically, I had never realised that my career as a sportsman – apparently playful and unserious – would prove to be the outlier for opposite reasons. Where most careers have drifted towards freelance portfolios, professional sport has tightened the leash. When you have to eat, sleep and train according to strict rules, your job is at one extreme end of the control-of-freedom spectrum. Yet even in elite sport there is more room for semi-professionalism than the system usually allows, especially in games – such as cricket – where physical fitness is necessary but not sufficient.

Yet the reality of the portfolio career inevitably brings new problems that are bound up with wider forces. A life that is spent moving from one institution to another – from school, to university, to a lifelong job – is becoming exotic, rather than the norm. For most of us, there will be no retirement party, no carriage clock. It is not just finding income that is being devolved downwards; so, too, is the search for meaning, purpose and identity. We live in what Handy calls a “de-institutionalised society”.

There are civilising aspects to the trend. First, the new employment landscape reduces the likelihood of people wasting their lives in the wrong job just because it is safe. Handy cites data suggesting that 80 per cent of employees feel dissatisfied in corporate jobs while 80 per cent are happy leading freelance lives. Nor does the old lie – that of backloading happiness, with corporate sacrifice giving way to happy retirement – stack up. We are better off balancing duties and pleasures all the way through.

Second, the decline of the job-for-life may gradually undermine the assumption that everyone’s wealth and prospects (let alone their value) can be determined by a couple of questions about an employer’s address. Social assumptions based on (apparent) occupation are increasingly ridiculous. Guess who the scholar is in the Italian restaurant: the waiter. It’s a good lesson. Your Uber driver could be a landscape architect, funding his professional passion with part-time top-ups.

The language of employment (“Where do you work?”) has been slow to catch up with this reality. When asked, “What do you do?” a freelancer can give a full and interesting answer, only to prompt the follow-up question, “So, what do you do, then?” If conversation becomes less like a mortgage questionnaire, that can only be a good thing.

Hugo Rifkind, writing recently in the Times, admired the Scandinavian-inspired decoupling of taste from wealth. “It is a ­better world . . . where you are not judged on the lineage of your sideboard.” I am more radical. It is a better world when you are not judged on your job.

Better or not – and like it or not – we will have to get used to it. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war