Niall Ferguson covers a vast number of topics in The Ascent of Money (to a fault in the book’s latter half), but below I have two paragraphs that sum up what I took from his book:
For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like the Medici made fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world’s first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world’s biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust. It was Nathan Rothschild as much as the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It was financial folly, a self-destructive cycle of defaults and devaluations, that turned Argentina from the world’s sixth-richest country in the 1880s into the inflation-ridden basket case of the 1980s.
I myself have learned a great deal in writing this book, but three insights in particular stand out. The first is that poverty is not the result of rapacious financiers exploiting the poor. It has much more to do with the lack of financial institutions, with the absence of banks, not their presence. Only when borrowers have access to efficient credit networks can they escape from the clutches of loan sharks, and only when savers can deposit their money in reliable banks can it be channelled from the idle rich to the industrious poor. This point applies not just to the poor countries of the world. It can also be said of the poorest neighbourhoods in supposedly developed countries – the ‘Africas within’ – like the housing estates of my birthplace, Glasgow, where some people are scraping by on just £6 a day, for everything from toothpaste to transport, but where the interest rates charged by local loan sharks can be over eleven million per cent a year.