- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Wiley; Illustrated edition (October 15, 2004)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0470091002
- ISBN-13: 978-0470091005
- Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 1 x 11.7 inches
- Shipping Weight: 3.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 53 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,715,921 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Power of Gold: The History of an Obsession Hardcover – October 15, 2004
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From the Inside Flap
This absorbing epic begins with the magical, religious and artistic significance of gold, progressing to the invention of coinage, the transformation of gold into money and eventually to the gold standard. The more important gold became as an economic tool, the more loudly it spoke of power - even more loudly than when it served as an entry to Heaven or a symbol of omnipotence. Finally, the book confronts the future of gold in a world where it appears to have been relegated to the periphery of financial sector.
From the Bible, through the Gold Rush era to modern day Fort Knox and beyond, unforgettable characters stride through these pages. Contemplate gold from the diverse perspectives of monarchs and money makers, potentates and politicians, men of legendary wealth and others of more plebeian beginnings: from Asia Minor's King Croesus, Rome's noted speculator Crassus, and Byzantine emperors, through Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus Francisco Pizarro, Richard I, Charlemagne and Isaac Newton to the Forty-Niners, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, John Maynard Keynes and Richard Nixon.
Whether it is Egyptian pharaohs, the luxury-mad survivors of the Black Death, the Chinese inventor of paper money, the pirates on the Spanish Main, or the hardnosed believers in the international gold standard, gold has been the supreme possession. It has been an icon for greed and an emblem of rectitude, as well as a vehicle for vanity and a badge of power that has shaped the destiny of humanity through the ages. As Bernstein muses, `The joke is that nothing is as useless and useful all at the same time.’
From the Back Cover
In this lavishly illustrated work Peter L. Bernstein tells the story of one of mankind’s most intoxicating obsessions: gold. It has been both an inspiration and a destroyer, determined the fate of kings and emperors, inspired the most beautiful works of art, provoked extreme cruelty and driven men to endure intense hardship. From the ancient fascination of Moses and Midas through the gold rush, to modern financiers, gold has led many of its most eager and proud possessors to a tragic end. The gold they thought they possessed came to possess them. Such is the power gold.
Far more than a tale of romantic myths, daring explorations and the history of money and power struggles, The Power of Gold suggests that the true significance of this infamous element may lie in the timeless passions it continues to evoke and what this reveals about ourselves.
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Let me list the problems with the book and a few of the many unanswered questions:
1. If gold is an obsession, as stated in the subtitle of the book, can gold be any more an obsession that the Platonic virtues of truth, beauty and goodness? Is it possible that gold is in fact a manifestation of virtue and only becomes evil when it excludes other virtuous behaviors?
2. If gold has failed many times as currency, have the replacements for gold failed an equal number of times? Is gold more or less susceptible to political and financial manipulation than paper money?
3. What is the relationship between paper currency, gold, credit and debt? How can the citizens of a democratic society accumulate wealth that resists the manipulation of governments and markets? Is personal wealth a private good that should be protected or a public good subservient to public needs?
4. Is the expansion and contraction of the supply of money, either paper or gold, a macroeconomic zero sum game of winners and losers like a game of poker?
5. In a global economy how can sovereign states resolve their debts without war? How can bankrupt nations repay their debts? What reference should be used to arbitrate different national values of productivity, debt and currency?
6. Is gold a strategic substance like oil, copper, steel and rare earths? Why do sovereign nations own so much of it? Why do nations keep most of the world supply of gold locked up in underground vaults? If gold is not money, what is its strategic importance to sovereign nations?
I see two possible outcomes to reading this book. One, you will be satisfied with your new found understanding of the power of gold. Or two, you will be fascinated by Bernstein's erudition but feel cheated that Bernstein does not proffer the reasons for the provocative power of gold.
I learned a lot of interesting things from this book, for example:
1) An ounce of gold is a troy ounce, not the type of ounce that is generally used for weighing things.
2) A scarcity of gold for coins always seems to lead to debasement, or the devaluing of paper money that it is supposed to back.
3) I learned about the history of the Bank of England and how it served as a model for the First Bank of the Unites States.
4) The use of a bimetallic system (gold and silver as coinage, with a fixed exchange rate) is shown over and over again not to be viable.
5) I learned about the origin of the term "greenback" and the fact that they were still being printed until 1971.
6) I learned how gold influenced the world's economy and why many felt that they could not do without the Gold Standard, only to find out that they had to do without it.
7) The gold standard was deemed to be nothing short of ordained by the heavens, only to be abandoned when it constrained economic growth, only to be adopted again if inflation got out of hand.
8) I learned about the rise and fall of the price of gold in the 1980's
I liked this book and think that it has a lot to offer, but there a few negatives that prevented me from giving the book a five-star rating. There is not very much information on the banking in the early Unites States. The first and second Banks of the Unite States are just mentioned briefly, with the discussion of currency issues in the US only really beginning with the Civil War, but with very little information on the Federal Reserve System. My second concern is the presence of numerous minor errors. For instance, as a metallurgist I know that the statement that "gold does not mix with other metals" is completely false. I found other minor errors, so many that I was forced to verify things with a second source. I did not feel that these errors invalidated the arguments presented in the book, but I read this book as a source for information for a lecture that I was presenting, so accuracy was more critical than if I had just been reading this book casually. I sense that the book lacked comprehensive editorial control and a good fact checker. My final concern is that the book was written in 2000, before the explosion in the price of gold. This is a very important event, which except for the quotation mentioned above, could not be discussed in a book written in 2000. Nonetheless, the book does give an important historical reference from which to consider this price explosion, the future course of the price of gold and the effect of this price explosion may have on the world's economy.
Bernstein also wrote Against The Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, another great read and hard to put down (a must for any gambler/investor).