Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America

Posted by nliakos on January 18, 2016

by Jason Goodwin (Henry Holt & Co., 2003; ISBN 0-8050-6407-9)

Greenback is about the history of the United States as seen through the lens of its money (or about the history of American money seen in the context of U.S. history). Most of it surprised me; much of it confused me. Money is something that seems so universal, so logical, so unchanging (except for inflation) that I never realized that the dollar was somehow different from the other currencies of the world, and that Americans’ attitudes toward money were (are) somehow fundamentally different from those of other peoples, but this is what Goodwin proposes. He emphasizes that money is just an idea, anyway. Whether it is gold, silver, dollars, or euros, “money is numbers, plus regulations, plus belief.” (p. 261) This is a difficult concept to come to terms with, although I know it to be true.

Goodwin also describes the chaos of American monetary policy in the 18th and 19th centuries. I was shocked at the untrustworthiness of the dollar, at the rampant greed of the bankers (although I guess that hasn’t changed much), and at the impact of technology on printing, counterfeiting, mining, banking, and every aspect of life in America.

I was also confused by history hitherto unknown to me, mixed with economic theory I don’t understand well. I could not remember from one page to the next what I had read, who had done what, who was a bimetallist, who a silverite, what Republicans and Democrats stood for at various times in our history, etc. I think I should probably read the book again, and take notes. (But I probably won’t.)

For anyone interested in economics or American history, this book is a fascinating read.

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