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NYT History Book Reviews: Who Got Noticed this Week?

Historians/History
tags: NYT History Book Reviews



Erik Moshe is a journalist, an Air Force veteran, and a student at Broward College. Visit his site: TheCentersphere.yolasite.com

From the age of antiquity to Enron, the world's finances have been handled responsibly, and irresponsibly. Before cryptocurrency, there were crypts holding pharaoh-hoards worth of gold, resources, and rare substances. In this week's NYT cook-off of history book reviews, three items of monetary significance are examined: Vatican monetary power, the Bretton Woods conference, and the history of the thrift movement in the United States.

Before we get into these, how about a brief game of trivia to spice things up?

Here at HNN, we run a historical bakery, challenging minds to examine the past, present, and future. Don't expect a cakewalk - just expect tasty cake.

1. What trade did the Medici family deal in before they became masters of Florence?

1. Used cars

2. Alchemy

3. Banking

4. Fur


(The answer is C. The Medici family, also known as the House of Medici, first attained wealth and political power in Florence in the 13th century through its success in commerce and banking.)

2. Which of these are credited for being the first moneychangers and pawnbrokers in history?

1. Ancient Greek bankers

2. Alan Greenspan

3. Grain merchants of Babylonia

4. The Monopoly Man


(The answer is A. Ancient Greek bankers were in the first case moneychangers and pawnbrokers, present in the marketplace or festival sites, changing coinage of foreign merchants into the local currency.)

3. What global bank's collapse led to the financial crisis of 2008?

1. Goldman Sachs

2. Lehman Brothers

3. The Wright Brothers

4. Siegfried & Roy


(The answer is B. Lehman's bankruptcy filing is the largest in US history, and is thought to have played a major role in the unfolding of the late-2000s global financial crisis.)

Now to the nitty-gritty:

(From the windy city to Mussolini's.)

This week is high times for money-related projects, the first being God's Bankers: A History of Money and Power at the Vatican by Gerald Posner, who is a former investigative journalist. He cuts into the dodgy, corrupt history of the Vatican, from money-laundering, war profiteering, business schemes, and greed, all centered on the activities of the Vatican Bank since its opportunistic inception. Posner was interviewed by HNN back in 2005. In a recent interview with NPR, he explains:

The thing about the Vatican Bank that makes it different in my view is that it's essentially an offshore bank in the middle of a foreign country — so that once that bank was formed, it meant that somebody sitting over in Italy who had a lot of money, all they had to do was find a priest or cleric inside Vatican city to take their money in suitcases of cash across the street — just wait for the red light to turn green — walk it over on a cart, deposit it in the Vatican Bank, and it no longer could be taxed. It no longer could be followed by Italian authorities. It couldn't be followed for a drug investigation. So what does that result in? It results in the Vatican Bank being one of the top banks in the world for money laundering — a haven often for these business executives involved in scandals in Italy.


He also firmly posits that it's high time for Pope Francis who he says has tried to bring accountability and transparency to the powerful bank to open up the Vatican's files for good.

In the past, Posner has also led campaigns to call upon the government of Argentina to release secret files on escaped Nazi war criminals. The reviewer, Damon Linker is the author of two religion-related books, and a former senior editor of the Daily Beast - Posner himself was a chief investigative journalist for the publication until he resigned in 2010 over a plagiarism scandal. Linker was interviewed by HNN back in 2006.

I do think that they should consider collaborating on "The Da Vinci Code 3: Show Me the Money, Francis." (Not an actual book proposition. That would be cardinal sin.)

The reviewer says:

"Posner weaves an extraordinarily intricate tale of intrigue, corruption and organized criminality — much of it familiar to journalists who cover the Vatican, though not widely known among more casual church watchers."


"Posner's gifts as a reporter and storyteller are most vividly displayed in a series of lurid chapters on the American archbishop Paul Marcinkus, the arch-Machiavellian who ran the Vatican Bank from 1971 to 1989."


Watch the trailer for the book here.


(“The Summit” by Ed Conway. Source: IMF)

This week's second book reviewed isThe Summit: Bretton Woods, 1944: J. M. Keynes and the Reshaping of the Global Economy by Ed Conway. The author is a journalist from London who is the current economics editor for Sky News.

Bretton Who?

Bretton Woods sounds like a forest where brussel-sprouts are grown and horseback riding is offered by local peoples to visiting throngs of tourists and nature enthusiasts. The Bretton Woods Conference of 1944, formally known as the UnitedNations Monetary and Financial Conference, was a gathering of world leaders from 44 countries at the Mount Washington Hotel in New Hampshire. It was organized in an attempt to regulate and stabilize the global economic system after World War II. As a result of these meetings, the U.S. dollar became the reserve world currency, and the World Bank and the IMF were established. Through the use of a narrative style, Conway offers unpublished accounts, diaries and oral histories, as this book describes the conference and its objectives, which some have called the beginning of "neocolonialism."

Conway writes:

The rules and agreements on how exchange rates interact [were addressed], how money flows from one country to another and how central banks set interest rates.”


John Maynard Keynes, the world's premiere economist at the time, and Harry Dexter White, a U.S. Treasury Department official, take center stage during parts of the book, and their rivalry is detailed, including speculation about whether or not White was a Soviet spy.

Mathew Bishop, the reviewer, and globalization editor of the Economist, says:

"The battle between Keynes and White provides much of the color in “The Summit,” Ed Conway’s entertaining and insightful history."


"The general reader will love how Conway, an economics journalist, skillfully brings to life the goings-on in what the British snobbily called the “monstrous monkey house” of Bretton Woods."


The IMF's Book Review section held a spot for this book as well. In an article entitled “The Saga of Bretton Woods,” Mark Allen, the former director of the IMF’s Policy Development and Review Department, says:

[It is] a great story which Ed Conway tells with verve. He draws on the memoirs of the participants and extracts fascinating nuggets from archives across the world. If the focus is on the human drama of the conference, the reader also gets a prehistory of the issues at stake and what they meant to the participants and an account of how their agreement fared subsequently.


Conway spotlights the pressures on the negotiators from domestic politicians with an arsenal of axes to grind and an imperfect grasp of the issues involved, as well as from a financial sector jealous to preserve its many ways of making money.


The above books are a combined 1,615 pages.

If you've still energy to continue (or perhaps you are as exhausted as the Euro?) our third and final book of this week's NYT round-up is Thrift: The History of an American Cultural Movementby Andrew Yarrow, a former NYT reporter, who teaches U.S. history at American University, and who also has a Ph.D. from George Mason University.

In the dictionary, "thrift" is defined as "the quality of using money and other resources carefully and not wastefully." Yarrow tells the story of the national movement, and how it became popular and relevant in society during the 1910s and 1920s. The movement attracted people of diverse backgrounds such as activism and banking who sought to empower the working class economically, and who held the belief that sustainability principles were in the direct economic interests of both individuals and the nation.

Juliet Schor was chosen as the reviewer, an economist, professor of sociology, and author herself.

She reflects:

A frustrating aspect of the book is that there is little effort to get beyond the voluminous prescriptive material produced by thrift advocates. Drawing more on letters, diaries or newspaper accounts would have given insight into these advocates’ motivations as well as any alliances and conflicts within their ranks. The reader is also left wondering about the impact on ordinary Americans.


After the stock market crash of 1929, the thrift movement collapsed almost as quickly as the economy. While Yarrow describes this demise in broad strokes, more analysis might have helped address how discourses of thrift related to consumerism.


Just a couple of statistics from his personal website's page for his new book:

Thrift Today? Not exactly.

America's Personal Savings and Debt Crises.

● The typical American household has seen its net worth fall by one-third since 2003, to $56,000

● 44 percent of Americans either are in debt, have no savings, or only enough to tide them over for three months or less

●​ Median household debt has tripled during the last 20 years and Americans' debt has exceeded their income since 2000

●​ Barely half of U.S. workers have employer-provided retirement plans

● 22% of married retirees and 47% of single retirees rely on Social Security for 90% of their income

● The U.S. household savings rate is about 4.1%, compared to 9.9% in Germany, and 28% in China.


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