The Ascent of Money [DVD]  (Two-Disc Set)
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Harvard professor Niall Ferguson explores the world of finance from the 14th century to the present day. Amongst many other subjects, this six-part Channel 4 documentary looks at stock market crashes, runs on banks and sub-prime loans - terms which are never far from the headlines in today's fragile economic world.
In this six-part documentary respected author, journalist and lecturer Professor Niall Ferguson examines the dynamic role of money as he takes you on an epic tour of the financial world. A professor in History and Business Administration at Harvard University, as well as an author of numerous books and a commentator on contemporary politics and economics, Ferguson explains how finance rose to play such a terrifyingly dominant role in all our lives. This beautifully-shot documentary covers a broad spectrum of economic history from the 14th Century right up to the present day. But are you in on the secret? Do you really understand what causes a bank run, an inflationary meltdown or a stock market crash? Can you tell a sub-prime from a prime loan? Only with this historical perspective can one understand the essential truth about finance.
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Each episode ostensibly attacks the history of some feature of the modern financial world - banks, bonds, companies, insurance, property, and globalisation - but occasionally gets side-tracked along the way. (One major missing feature is an episode on tax, but that would go against the pro-capitalist slant of the series.) At the end of the series he talks of his review looking at the ascent of money over four thousand years "from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China", but the series has virtually nothing to say about the pre-medieval period.
In the first programme, Ferguson travels from Bolivia to Venice to Glasgow to Florence, finally ending up in Memphis, Tennessee to give us the low down on the creation and rise of the banks. In the rest of the series he touches down also in Amsterdam, Paris, China and Japan, as well as New York and Detroit. Ferguson seems to have a fondness for the South Americans with much coverage of Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile.
And along the way he gets to meet and talk superficially and all-too-briefly to the likes of Bill Gross (CEO of Pimco, the world's largest bond trader), Sharon Watkins (formerly of Enron), and George Soros. But it was not a nice sight to see Ferguson fawning to members of the Rothschild family. Indeed, one felt that Ferguson often held all these financial bigwigs and whizz-kids in too high a regard to be truly critical and objective. It is for this reason that I did not take what he has to say about Allende and Chile at face value, but at least Ferguson is up front about Thatcher's selling of council houses "turning malcontents into conservatives", "creating a political constituency for capitalism", thus tying the masses to the system through debt.
There are also the odd statements made for dramatic effect. For example, Ferguson tells us, "If you put a thousand guiders into the [Dutch East India] Company at its inception, by 1736 your investment would have been worth seven thousand." But this takes no account of the fact that, due to the time scales involved, (a) you would be dead and (b) you would have to take account of inflation (although admittedly an average annual dividend of 16.5% is good).
One major criticism that this reviewer felt was that there could have been more explanation for some of the basic concepts involved, that there is not enough of the hidden logic explained. Hedging, derivatives, and options were only cursorily explained, which is odd for a programme with an aim to educate the financially-ignorant. So we should have had more of the blackboard and chalk and less of the smart visuals. Having said that, full marks should go to the production team for coming up with some interesting footage to accompany the narrative. There is some intriguing filmwork here involving cameras at odd angles and manipulations of film speeds.
Whilst one might agree or disagree with much of what he has to say, Ferguson has nevertheless done a service in bringing matters to the attention of those elements of the electorate who felt (and continue to feel) bamboozled and betrayed by recent events on global financial markets. But now the `shock' is apparently over, it is valid to ask what all the fuss was about as nothing fundamental seems to have changed in the world's finance systems to prevent another credit-crunch happening further down the line in the next generation; a generation that will know enough about maths, but not enough about history.
Alas, there are no extras on this DVD.
For what its worth is it a great feature, you could easily watch the entire thing from beginning to end in a single sitting and it will hold your attention. The content is not too difficult as to require any grounding and it will appeal to the general viewer and the more financially or economically (even historically to be honest) informed viewer (although you will have a different viewing experience I suspect).
It charts the rise of money from the earliest days of inscriptions on clay tablets promising to pay the barer measures of grain (simply wonderful!), through the invention of loans, credit, interest and associated culture shifts (Shylocks and anti-semitism), to the creation of banking, multinationals, the stock exchange, the creation of hedge funds and some (though not quite as much as I would have liked) explanation of the most recent financial crisis.
The fundamental point is made at the outset that financial history underpins much else and the relationship between politics and finance is a constant theme. Its annoying as a result that there seems to be such obvious bias and some skirting myophia, so you get lots of screen time familiarising viewers with Milton Friedmann and Pinochet but not much time spent considering Keynesianism or public planning.
There's the usual comment that socialists, or rather poor people, owe their prosperity to the very things they critcise and that all welfare regimes will ultimately be insolvent and unsustainable (to be honest I was surprised to content about Japan's welfarist innovations and the coining of phrases about the welfare-warfare state, its something I associate with the paleo-conservative fringe of US political culture). This content alongside reportage of simply phenomenonal earnings by private individuals who speak about their personal capacities to determine the fate of entire economies.
The overwhelmingly positive appraisal of finance history is mitigated only by some slight featuring of Enron, some comment about unexpected or unintented consequences and irrational exuberance or depressive lows, human all to human characteristics of actors in the game which spoil an otherwise perfect apparatus. This disappointed me in the same way that the pop-economic publishing does, seeming ultimately to lack much depth or critical thinking. Good viewing and it passes the time but nothing sensational.
I think more of us should be made aware of this -and then we can have a better chance of at least trying to fix it....''The Minds Which Got Us Into this Mess are Not The Ones to Get Us Out !'
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