Wisdom from a $1,000 Book

I’ve been reading a fascinating book lent to me by a long-time friend, Brad Richardson, entitled The Future of Money. It was written in 2001 by Bernard Lietaer, who the “About the Author” section describes as, among other things, a former senior central bank executive in Belgium who “was closely involved in the design and implementation of the ECU, the convergence mechanism which led to the European single currency.”

Brad first mentioned The Future of Money to me probably four or five years ago at lunch when we were trading our usual local market business intel, along with other more esoteric subjects catching our fancy. We’re both avid readers and share similar tastes in systems-related subjects, so I made a mental note of the book title for a future read.

Years passed and then, at a recent happy hour, he brought up some ideas from the book in conversation again, so I asked him where I could get it. He suggested that he lend me his copy because, coincidentally, Brad had just been looking it up on Amazon.com recently, perhaps to see if the author had published something new, and that the book’s sales price was $500!

I accepted the loaner offer and picked up the book shortly thereafter, at which point Brad said he had just checked the price and it had gone up to $,1000 for a paperback copy!! See for yourself…

Now, being an undergraduate Economics major, I was fully prepared as I cracked open the black-covered book to begin slogging through macroeconomic, formulaic, arcana from the get-go. After all, I’d delivered my senior orals exam presentation on the global economic upside of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

So, I can personally attest to the authentic intent of a witticism like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s, when he said “If you have understood me, then I must not have made myself clear.”

But, pleasant surprise, The Future of Money has turned out to be one of the most readable, straightforward explanations of money and its past, present, and future that one could ever hope to encounter. What I especially love about the book is that – from the very beginning – it sets the tone about its intention to demystify the subject for a layperson.

Here is a perfect example, excerpted from the Preface:

Fish do not comprehend the nature of the water in which they live. Similarly, people have trouble understanding the nature of money. We allocate a great portion of our physical, emotional, and mental energy to getting, keeping, and spending money – but how many of us really know what money is or where it comes from?

While I’m not finished with it, the key concept of the book is clear: that money is a major force for human, social transformation. Having entered the digital age we now occupy, author Lietaer argues that there is every reason (and opportunity!) to form new micro money systems, using complementary currencies (as opposed to alternative ones) alongside the conventional currencies, validating the potential of a model he refers to as “sustainable abundance.”

The essence of sustainable abundance can best be captured by understanding that it is a compensating response to today’s prevailing system. And what is today’s prevailing system? Lietaer describes it this way, in his best central banker language possible:

Our prevailing system is an unconscious product of the modern Industrial Age world view, and it remains the most powerful and persistent designer and enforcer of the values and dominant emotions of that age. For instance, all our national currencies make it easier to interact economically with our fellow citizens than with “foreigners,” and therefore encourages national consciousness.

Similarly, these currencies were designed to foster competition among their users, rather than cooperation. Money is also the hidden engine of the perpetual growth treadmill that has become the hallmark of industrial societies. Finally, the current system encourages individual accumulation, and ruthlessly punishes those who don’t follow that injunction.

Like I said, it’s a fascinating read. And, no doubt, I expect several of the book’s assertions and proposals to be further explored in Tapscott’s & Williams’ book MacroWikinomics when it comes out later this year.

In the meantime, if you are curious about the subject, you can either buy a personal copy of the book (trust me, you’ll be the only person on your block with a copy!) or browse some of the position papers Prof. Lietaer has made available on his website.