Money, according to a leading City investor of my acquaintance, should be ‘a unit of account … a medium of exchange which avoids the inconvenience of barter … and a store of value’. On that basis, my friend swears by the special virtues of gold, while decrying as dishonest the quantitative easings and other market interventions perpetrated by modern governments and central banks. Although Felix Martin, the author of this ‘unauthorised biography’ of money, works in the same profession as my friend – Martin is a bond fund manager as well as a New Statesman columnist, think-tanker, former World Bank economist and classical scholar – I fear the two would soon fall out if they washed up on a desert island and had to work together to devise a monetary system.
In the absence of accessible gold deposits, for example, my man might propose following the 19th-century example of the Pacific island of Yap, where coinage consisted of ‘large, solid, thick stone wheels ranging in diameter from a foot to twelve feet’. Known as fei, they made a suitably indestructible commodity,