Niall Ferguson – The Ascent of Money


Currently showing on Sky TV’s Documentary Channel on Sunday nights is the TV series – The Ascent of Money, fronted by Niall Ferguson, a British born, Harvard professor of history and an Oxford fellow. Ferguson wrote a book of the same name. One comment I read, where I have forgotten, described him as the Simon Schama of the finance world.

Here is a link to a brief preview, but unfortunately we do appear to be able to view the series itself on-line at this time.

The Telegraph reviewing the series was positive, :-

Ferguson’s biography of finance, told with verve and insight, throws more light on our predicament than perhaps even he realises. The Ascent of Money charts the rise of money from clay tokens passed around the villages of Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago to flickering numbers on a foreign exchange screen; yet it also reminds us that money represents a relationship of trust.

Ferguson argues persuasively that the development of money has gone hand in hand with the development of modern societies, by quickening transactions, loans and investment. He gives a selection of case studies, showing how money underpinned the colonisation of South America, Roosevelt’s New Deal and the rise of China. Money doesn’t make the world go round, but “it does make staggering quantities of people, goods and services go around the world”.

Later the Telegraph suggests that Ferguson like many successful academics attracts envy and disdain from some of his fellows. plus some regard him as ‘right wing’ though The Telegraph suggests that it is not that easy to pigeonhole him, but see the NY Times article. The Telegraph piece concludes:-

In a recent interview, Ferguson described himself as a “doctrinaire liberal”. Perhaps his next book will make a stronger case in support of that claim. In the meantime, The Ascent of Money is something of a return to intellectual form. He was an unconvincing imperialist – but is a fine analyst of the financial vertebrae that make up the backbone of human history. If we want money to serve us in the future, it is as well to attend to the ways it has served us in the past.

The comment about imperialism refers to prior works by Ferguson.

The NY Times was dismissive, focusing on Ferguson’s frequent wardrobe changes.

In “The Ascent of Money,” boldly subtitled “A Financial History of the World,” the host Niall Ferguson makes many costume changes, choosing, for instance, a loose-fitting butter-cream blazer to amble around the Jewish quarter of Venice and explain the evolution of money lending. In cooler climates he prefers roll-neck pullovers or a trench. In Santiago (to discuss Chilean reform) or New Orleans (to cover the economic repercussions of Hurricane Katrina), he wears cotton shirts of such a low thread count that they are vaguely see-through, and he leaves them unbuttoned enough to suggest that if he hadn’t become the Laurence A. Tisch professor of history at Harvard, he might have turned into Rick Springfield.

Of course this may be a reaction to the fact that Ferguson tends to a viewpoint at variance with many of those at the NY Times. After all he seems to think that capitalism has virtues.

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One response to “Niall Ferguson – The Ascent of Money

  1. Given the title, surely he’d be the Jacob Bronowski of the finance world?

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