The central insight of David Birch's "Before Babylon" is that money is essentially a technology, just like any other and that technologies change—and improve—over timeby Jay Elwes / August 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
by David Birch (London Publishing Partnership, £22.50)
When a book comes along with glowing praise on its sleeve from Kenneth Rogoff and an introduction by Andrew Haldane, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, you know you’ve got something hot on your hands. This analysis of money by one of the world’s leading experts on the subject does not disappoint.
Part history book, part futurology, Birch examines the earliest civilisations to answer the question of what money actually is. So we go back to the cuneiform tablets of the ancient Middle East, which logged financial arrangements, and to the monetary systems of parts of central America, where cocoa beans were accepted as tender up into the mid-19th century.
Birch is brilliant at bringing together these disparate historical strands, through the birth of the great European trading centres, up to the present day. The central insight of all this is that money is essentially a technology, just like any other and that technologies change—and improve—over time. In other words, money is not fixed. And it is certainly not just coins and notes.
And what of the future of money—will it be characterised by a drive towards a small number of unified currencies, or towards a multitude? Birch opts for the latter. In future, communities will develop their own stores of value, Birch says, independent of governments and central banks. The growing popularity of crypto-currencies such as Bitcoin suggests that he may have as good a handle on the future as he does on the past.