Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Review of 'The History of Money' by Jack Weatherford

To me the cover of this book makes it look rather dry and serious. But really, its a highly enjoyable romp through money's past. I appreciate that this sounds dismissive, but its not meant to. The book does lack the intellectual depth and rigour of say, fellow anthroplogist Greaber's 'Debt - the first 5000 years', or economic historian Davies' 'A History of Money'. Nevertheless, if what Weatherford set out to do was write an engaging and readable history in 250 odd pages, then he has succeeded.

The book is divided into three parts. The first 'Classic Cash' grips you with gory detail about exchange in the ancient and medieval world. The second 'Paper Money' gives a bird's eye view of money from around the time of the reformation and through the industrial revolution. The third is 'Electronic Cash' where Weatherford brings us up to date and even speculates on the future a little.

I can't see this book being quoted in academic works, or appearing in too many bibliographies. However, bringing the history of money to a wider public is hugely important, and this book is a noble effort. If you're going to do an economics 101, or any finance related course, it'll put things in perspective for you.

I enjoyed it. And I recommend it.

This review is posted on Amazon here. If you found this review helpful please visit the Amazon site and vote for it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In praise of And You and I

Inspired by last week's dream where I gave a corking rendition of Awaken [with variations] after temporarily replacing Jon Anderson in Yes, and with my confidence bolstered by the heart-warming twitter reaction to last friday's #pinkfloyd night on BBC4, I'm going to share some magic with you.

Now, if you're thinking, 'oh God, not a post on Yes' then waste no more of your time reading. Instead spend 23 seconds watching, but more importantly listening to, the video directly below. It starts at 4:27, you can end it when you like, but please give it at least 23 seconds.

So, now I know I have a convert to the word of Yes. Great. Lets get into some train-spotting style detail.

Firstly you'll notice that this is not a post on Yes, but rather a post on one particular Yes song, And You and I; top of my fantasy Desert Island Discs list. The version above comes from my favourite Yes line up (Anderson, Howe, Squire, Wakeman, White) performing at the Montreaux Jazz festival in 2003 as part of their 35th anniversary tour. Comments from it's Youtube page say that the concert is regarded as one of their finest ever. I'd have to concur - at least it certainly seems that way from the videos. Unfortunately I wasn't there.

However I did manage to catch the same 35th anniversary line up at Glastonbury where they appeared a couple of weeks before they played Montreaux. My wife and I were at the front, stage right (near Steve Howe) but I haven't managed to see myself in this video. I'm pleased. I kept my sunglasses on to hide my tears. Sad but true. The video doesn't add much our understanding or appreciation of And You and I, but hey, its Yes! at Glastonbury! Things just don't get better than that.

A couple of years before, Yes (this time without Wakeman) performed the track with a orchestra in Amsterdam. I'm not sure that the orchestra comes through particularly well in the mix, nevertheless they do add a sense of gravitas - as symphonic orchestras tend to. I like the golden robots.

The video is subtitled. Anderson's lyrics are often a cause for ridicule for philistines - sorry, I mean those who don't like Yes. His approach is to write words that fit with/come from the music. In other words he doesn't write a poem that is meant to stand without the music. And in fact it can be a little distracting reading the lyrics while you listen to the piece; your mind seems to try get meaning from the written word, rather than the sung lyric.

When I first got hooked into Yes I didn't really get Anderson's approach to lyrics. I preferred the way that Roger Waters seemed to be able to make coherent statements about modern life and society. Waters' lyrics seemed to be more intelligent. But my view has changed as I've got older. Allowing the music to dictate the meaning of the lyrics requires the writer to lose his ego. (Waters' ego, of course, got famously out of control to the point where he believed he was Pink Floyd). What this means, is that although a book of Jon Anderson's lyrics may not be a great read, the point in And You and I, where he sings:

There'll be no mutant enemy, we shall certify;
Political ends, as sad remains, will die.
Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you.

is sublime. What could be more optimistic? What brighter version of the future could there be than one where politics are no longer needed? We'll know that there are no bogeymen. Fear won't be used as a weapon against us. By being aware of this vision of the future, we take a step towards it.

There's little or no cynicism in Anderson's lyrics. I think this makes some people a little uncomfortable. I guess they feel that a certain amount of cynicism is needed to connect music and lyrics to reality. After all rock music has its roots the blues. Doesn't singing about fantasy lands where we can all love each other freely, ignore those roots and gloss over our reality. Such naivety surely only appeals to middle class teenagers who don't know how tough life can be?

Here's my answer to that criticism:
Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man. 
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world.
We need to dream.

As an aside, there's an interesting juxtaposition between Imagine and And You And I. Imagine expresses what is essentially a communist ideal, whereas And You and I expresses a libertarian ideal. I love both songs, and of course there is no actual connection (except Alan White who played drums on Imagine), but both songs seem to share something essential; they have spirituality without regard to religion.

I did find this piece of literary criticism from (what I think) is a second year English major. He seems to love the song as much as me - or at least he did back in 1975. In the past I've also read Bill Martin's fabulous The Music of Yes - Structure and Vision in Progressive Rock. Bill gives a detailed analysis of many of the great Yes songs, including And You and I. If my memory serves me correctly he sees elements of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience in the track, and of Karl Polanyi's Great Transformation; "Coins and Crosses never know their fruitless worth". But I gifted my copy of Bill's book to friend and fellow Yes fan, so I can't check.

My own favourite version of And You and I comes from 1991's reunion tour. I was fortunate to go to one of the Wembley Arena shows. I know they played And You and I but I have absolutely no memory of it. It must have completely phased me out. The Union tour combined all the different Yes line-ups, so Trevor Rabin plays the section that you can see Steve Howe playing in the Montreaux video. Its interesting to note that Howe seems to have adopted Rabin's grander more guitar-god approach to this section in the later performances. And I think it works.

Anyway for your enjoyment here is my all time favourite version of my all time favourite piece of music from the reunion tour that I can't remember (I think its from an American gig). Thank goodness for youtube. Unfortunately the video is split into two parts but below the videos I've put the soundcloud of the same live version of the track as it appeared on the YesTerdays 4CD compilation.

09 And You and I Cord of Life Eclipse The Preacher the Teacher Apoca ... by jonone100

Jon Anderson talks at the start of the track about how this song has grown with age. I've seen Rick Wakeman say the same thing about it. For a long time Awaken was my favourite Yes track, but that changed after seeing Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe (a Yes offshot - if you can call it ) perform And You an I in 1989 (again, at Wembley Arena).

This video is from that 1989 tour. Even before Rabin turbo-charges the song it has begun to take on a new more magisterial form compared to its original album version; largely due to Wakeman's keys I think.

I could spend a brief moment talking about the musical structure of And You and I. Or, I could just direct you to this wiki page which tells you all you need to know.

The next couple of videos take us back to the first few years of the song's life. A live version from 1973 (with poor sound) which for a long time was the only live version available to Yes fans.

Next you have the original album version from 'Close to the Edge'. There was yet another version released on the 2003 remastered Close to the Edge - I think its an even earlier studio version. Unfortunately I seem to have mislaid my copy of it. I remember it as even more folky and less epic the actual album track. Perhaps someone could confirm this in the comments.

So there you have it. My favourite piece of music. Developed from what is, in Yes's perspective, almost a folk/pop song (albeit a ten minute one in four sections) into a epic piece. But one that still manages to maintain the intimacy of the original. The track Close to the Edge was the biggest on the album. Stomping in at nearly 19 minutes, again in 4 sections, with Wakeman's church organ spectacular in the middle, it gave critics of the band, enough ammunition for years to come. But the little track hiding away in the shadow of the Edge has grown into a piece of such immense power, but with such a soft touch, that it eclipses even that most monumental Yes tune, Awaken.

Of course you may disagree. I know that a lot of serious Yes fans love Siberian Khatru. Hopefully though, whichever Yes song it is that does for you, what And You and I does for me, you'll agree that we need a Yes night on BBC4.

I do get a perverse pleasure from hearing Yes ridiculed. And that's a proper perversion, friends. But really what I want, is just to share a bit of Yes joy. Their music moves me. And I think, as much as music can be, its important. Its says stuff to us that we need to hear.

Chief among Yes detractors was John Peel whose influence over the music scene was immeasurable. Indeed, it was at the Glastonbury gig in 2003 when he said live on air that Yes had been a band he'd 'loved to hate over the years'. I'm glad he recognised his own ambivalence. And he had actually been a help to Yes (as he was to so many bands) in the early years. But I do think his jibes helped alienate people - albeit unintentionally. It'd be nice if the BBC restored the karmic balance and gave Yes an evening. There are other long serving great British bands that deserve similar - Gong for example (who I had the pleasure and honour of taking to Glastonbury in 2009). But as far as Yes are concerned, John Peel incurred a debt on the BBC's behalf. That debt needs repaying.

Once done, Peel can be beatified.  

I listened hard but could not see
Life tempo change out and inside me.
The preacher trained in all to lose his name,
The teacher travels asking to be shown the same.
In the end we'll agree, we'll accept, we'll immortalise
That the truth of the man maturing in his eyes
All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you.
Anyone know the right person to email at the beeb?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Money Wisdom #20


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
  'Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
  You could get them still by writing a few cheques.'

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
  They certainly don't keep it upstairs.
By now they've a second house and car and wife:
  Clearly money has something to do with life

- In fact, they've a lot in common, if you enquire:
  You can't put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
  Won't in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
  From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
  In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Philip Larkin

Reblogged from The Wondering Minstrels via a tweet from @zemblamatic

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

This is currency, that's value, what's Money?

People seem to use the words money and currency interchangeably.

Have a look at this from David Graeber's recent book:
"Money almost always arises first from objects that are primarily used as adornment of the person. Beads, shells, feathers, dog or whale teeth, gold, silver are all well known cases in point."
David Graeber Debt - the first 5000 years (2011) p.145

I think he really means cash or currency, rather than Money. Particularly because the thrust of his book is that Money is born from debt.

Or this, from Neil Ferguson's
"The Incas could not appreciate that, for Pizarro and his men, silver was more than shiny, decorative metal. It could be made into money: a unit of account, a store of value - portable power.
Neil Ferguson The Ascent of Money (2008) p.21

Again, what he actually means is that silver can be made into currency, rather than money.

You may think that I'm being pedantic. And I'm sure Messrs Graeber and Ferguson are aware that technically speaking currency and money have different meanings. What's more important is that we're all instinctively aware that Money and currency are different. Quite how they're different can be a matter of intense debate.

Those on the left of the political spectrum tend to see Money as 'nothing'. Just a number. Value comes from what we do and how we do it. Currency is useful in so much as it helps us to transfer value efficiently. If you need value to spread itself more widely, then you create more currency.

Those on the right tend to see Money as 'something'. More than just a number. Its value comes from the market. Currency has value if the market says so. If you want Money to keep its value, then you shouldn't create too much currency.

Money, currency and value do seem related though, on whichever side of the fence you sit.

Professor Davies made this point early on in his history of Money.
"...there is an unceasing conflict between the interests of debtors, who seek to enlarge the quantity of money and who seek busily to find acceptable substitutes, and the interests of creditors, who seek to maintain or increase the value of money by limiting its supply, by refusing substitutes or accepting them with great reluctance, and generally trying in all sorts of ways to safeguard the quality of money."
Glyn Davies  A History of Money (1994) p. 29

In terms of the standard definitions currency is a medium of exchange, and value is the worth of something as determined by the market. Both of which are beautifully circular. To complicate things further money is all of these things and more. Your average economist will tell you that money is a medium of exchange, a store of value, and a unit of account.

But smarter, more honest people will tell you that we don't really know what Money is.

The earliest point I can remember asking 'What is Money?' was in infant school when I was watching a TV programme on the coming decimalisation. The change in English coins and notes that occurred with decimalisation made it clear to me - even at that tender age - that currency and money were not the same thing. The notes and coins were changing, but Money would still be the same.

When I think about Money and currency I have a very clear image in my head. Currency connects us to Money. Imagine Money as a transcendental amorphous field of transformative energy. The coin in your pocket connects you to that energy. And clearly, it connects in a precise mathematical way.

When I went to study Economic History at the LSE, that childish question of 'What is Money?' was still in my head. Just as I finished my studies there, an academic book was published with a great title. The quote below comes from the introduction.

    "From a commonsense point of view, economic activity in the capitalist economy is all about money: making money, earning money, spending money, saving money, and so forth.
    Orthodox economic theory ...has had a persistent tendency to deny the importance of money and monetary factors in determining economic outcomes, despite the evidence of our senses."
John Smithin What is Money? (2000) p.1

A Review of 'Debt - the first 5000 years' by David Graeber

Graeber provides us with a fascinating exploration of debt and its relationship to money, economic systems, and society itself. He wears his heart on his sleeve, from the start of the book where he tells the reader about his contempt for the IMF, to the end of the book where he puts in a good word for the non-industrious poor.

He also tells us some fascinating tales about how other societies have organised exchange. For me this is where he's at his strongest. The book is worth the price alone just to hear about the Gunwinggu tribe who seem to have sorted out a very appealing alternative to capitalist economic relations. In the same vein, the Lele tribe's 'village wife' adds some more spice to the story, as Graeber goes where economists fear to tread; to the idea that we are ambivalent sexual creatures not just self-interested rational automotons. Slavery, sex, death, war and marriage across human history form the backdrop to his examination of debt. What's not to like?

Well, there are a couple of things that knocked one star from this review. For me Graeber fails to distinguish between money and currency. Although this is a common problem in almost everything I've ever read about money. Towards the close of the book he describes money as 'not "really" anything'. This feels like a bit of a cop out. Would he same the same about love?

A more serious criticism is his failure to even mention the Lord of Libertarianism, Hayek. For Hayek, money was a institution born of price that was determined through the magic of markets. Graeber has interesting stuff to say about free markets and the state; he tackles Adam Smith, and finds sympathy with Keynes. But Hayek remains the elephant in the room.

Anthropology has so much to teach us about money, debt, and exchange. It should be a requirement that anyone who refers to themselves as a banker or economist should study it. Graeber's book would be a good place to start.

This review is posted on Amazon here. If you found this review helpful please visit the Amazon site and vote for it.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Money Wisdom #19

My favourite ape story is from Betty Walsh, senior chimpanzee keeper at Twycross Zoo in Warwickshire, England. It concerns her bonobos (pygmy chimps):
One bonobo had a long bamboo cane, which she was poking members of the public with, so we wanted it off her. I had a bag of four cakes which we were going to have for our tea, and I thought I would give her a cake if she gave me the stick. But she saw I had four cakes and she broke the bamboo stick into four pieces, one for each cake. It was more than clever. She worked it out in a split second.
Here it is impossible to separate telepathy, subtle clues and sheer intelligence. The ape somehow picked up her keeper's intention to reward her with a cake for giving up the stick, and having seen the four cakes immediately thought of a way of getting all of them.

Rupert Sheldrake 
Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home - The Unexplained Powers of Animals 
(1999) p.105