walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Gold Standard at the Turn of the Twentieth Century_, Steven Bryan (kindle)

Subtitled: Rising Powers, Global Money, and the Age of Empire

Executive summary: Buy it. Read it. It's really amazing.

Commentary not specific to the content of the book, but relevant to my experience of reading it:

The is the first book I've read that I received through Netgalley. (<-- That means I did not pay for this book. I got it for free. I don't _think_ not paying for it influenced my opinion of it, but maybe I'm not the best judge of that. Certainly I've praised or criticized books I've paid a wide range of prices for before. But you never know.) I got two copies of it: a kindle copy e-mailed to my kindle, and a version that I downloaded to Adobe Digital Editions and then copied to Bluefire on the iPad. I primarily read it on the kindle, despite formatting problems (and I have no idea whether these formatting problems are corrected in the the version for sale currently on Amazon) in that edition that were not present in the other version. I don't like reading longform on an active screen, so (as mentioned in previous posts), I ultimately used the Bluefire copy as a way to keep a "finger" in the Endnotes while reading the main text on the kindle. This worked _really_ well and I anticipate doing something similar in the future when reading scholarly books such as this one. Especially since very, very few publishers are using HTML anchors and targets to connect notes to their text references.

The Review Proper:

I complain a lot about the separation of economics and politics that happened about a century ago both in academic and in political rhetoric. I believe that separation has caused incalculable damage to our ability to make good policy decisions in the real world. I also complain a lot about books which purport to be about "world" history, but which exclusively use English-language and English-speaking-country sources for no really good reason other than convenience. This also does incalculable damage to our ability to make good policy decisions in the real world. Steven Bryan, in one book, has put political economy back together (I'm not sure whether Hercules or Humpty Dumpty or both should be invoked at this point) and done so by producing an excellent history of what was going on in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and how that was then horribly misunderstood during the interwar period, and how we are further misinterpreting all of the above now. Best of all, his case studies are not England and the US or even Western European countries. No, Bryan picked Argentina (as a, or even the, major South American power of the time) and Japan (ditto for Asia, if you discount India as a colony of Britain and thus without control of its currency or its tariff structure, and China, as having been subjected to unequal treaties which limited its control of its tariff structure).

The "put political economy back together" bit is where he describes the path to the gold standard first sketchily for Britain (Isaac Newton!?), then Germany's adoption after receiving the indemnity from France after their war, then France being forced onto the gold standard when Germany started dumping silver and France being unable to maintain the Latin Monetary Union's bimetallic exchange rate. Throughout, Bryan keeps track of how all this was influenced by mining in the west in the US (silver mining interests, the mid nineteenth century discoveries in the California and Australia, and the late nineteenth century gold discoveries in the Yukon, Transvaal and elsewhere). With this story as background, he then delves deeply into the political debates first in Argentina and then in Japan. (This would be the non-English-centric world history part.) He describes the various political parties, some individually influential bureaucrats, and the agricultural, industrial, trade and financial groups who had significant input into the debate. He even describes the allegiances and perspectives of various newspapers and other media of the time. After a very abbreviated description of how things developed in the course of The Great War (who quit exchanging gold when, who benefited from increased trade, who came out of the war in great economic shape and who conspicuously did not), he spends some time describing the interwar debates that led to the re-adoption of a very different form of gold standard during the 1920s, and how that turned out. He concludes by drawing some parallels between the misunderstandings in the 1920s of the events of the late nineteenth century and what he describes as our contemporary and recent past misunderstandings of both the late nineteenth century and the 1920s and the Great Depression.

Bryan benefits from recent excellent scholarship in English about Argentina during the relevant time period, and I _love_ finding out about that, and hope this percolates beyond the academic community. It is way too easy in the US to have an incredibly myopic and inaccurate perspective on how development has occurred in countries very close to us in the south. His personal expertise in Japan seems to be much more extensive.

Unfortunately, for all that I read widely and am curious about everything, I don't know enough about the details of the times and places he is describing to know whether he is accurately representing his sources, much less whether he's leaving anything substantial out that would undermine his thesis. His thesis is wondrously straightforward: this whole gold standard thing originally happened because of a string of weird errors that cascaded as people scrambled to adapt to important trading partners and world powers successively switching from a de facto bimetallic money system (with paper) to a de jure single metal system (with paper). How to adapt was hotly debated, and the details of the exchange settled upon, and the mechanism of implementing exchange were more important than the words "gold standard" would suggest. And the _reasons_ for adapting were all the usual political suspects: improving access to foreign capital for domestic infrastructure improvements, being able to import weapons, being able to export competitively and, in Argentina's case, managing the need to convince Europeans to immigrate.

It was also interesting to think about the idea that advocates of a return not only to a "gold standard" didn't just want the exchange mechanism: they wanted to return to the prewar rate in part because they _wanted_ deflation. I'd been seeing a lot of references lately to liquidationist ideas; this provided a taste of context.

The author is an atypical academic, based on the author bio from the publisher website: "Steven Bryan is an attorney in Tokyo. He received his Ph.D. in history from Columbia University and his J.D. from Harvard Law School." This goes some way towards explaining his willingness to make such direct, political connections with the present, which is refreshing, but scholarly work produced outside the academy does not necessarily have the benefit of a lively discourse prior to publication; while his argument and ideas resonate for me, I retain some reservations as a result of my ignorance of the details of the times and places covered, and the author not being an active, professional historian in an academic setting.

I look forward to poking around in Columbia's catalog for more in this series, in hopes they've picked other academic work of similar quality. If not, I may just go buy the kindle edition of _Chimneys in the Desert_, because it's looking really tempting. . .

But I _really_ hope somebody has fixed (or will fix) the formatting problems in the kindle edition. They were a little distracting.

Another review of this book can be found at:


It focuses tightly on countries who are trying to maintain a depreciated currency so they can export more stuff. (Think: China) Here's a blog post from the author expanding on that parallel.

Tags: book review, economics, history, politics
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