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For What It's Worth (book review)

Most people are used to owing money to others, but few think about what money may owe us: an equitable society, a functioning political system, a peaceful economy that can stay off the exhausting roller coaster of financial booms and crashes.

We don't usually think of money as a tool to accomplish all that, but Felix Martin, an economist and former World Bank official and author of the compulsively readable new book "Money: The Unauthorized Biography," says that money can give us all those things; it can deliver "both stability and freedom." The catch is that we must radically rethink money itself. It's not a fixed, physical thing, he argues, but a virtual "social technology" that should be used to enable a more democratic and equitable world, bring order to the banking system and foster "peace, prosperity, freedom and fairness." Sign me up.

Martin's best stories remind us of the quirky ways money existed in the past. He opens the book late in the 19th century in Yap, a Pacific island that favored as its currency enormous stone wheels the size of boulders. One especially rich family's only proof of their wealth was a boulder at the bottom of the sea. (Talk about underwater homeowners.) For centuries in England, accounts were marked on wooden tally sticks; in 1834, when Treasury officials burned the tallies in a tantrum of modernization, not only did they wipe out English financial history, they also created a conflagration that literally burned down ­Parliament.

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