With enlightening forays into the ancient Roman empire and post-war Japan, Bob Swarup examines the endless human pursuit of wealth
On the fateful day when man learnt the difference between one and two he cleverly applied the knowledge to conduct livestock business efficiently by counting coins instead of cows and buffaloes.
At the same time, man learnt that the process of counting was endless. By the simple expedient of adding the number one again and again to the last number on his slate he could reach incredibly large numbers. Since each coin represented value the human mind gave birth to the concept of wealth. As a corollary came endless human pursuit of ever increasing wealth. Author Bob Swarup has aptly called this phenomenon Money Mania for so indeed it is. Sceptical lay readers might be inclined to dismiss this discourse as "mere drawing room humbug". But this would be grossly wrong.
A major value of this book is Swarup’s detailed analysis and meticulous reconstruction of the rise and decline of the Roman Empire. Not only did this Empire rule most of the then known world’s Anno Domini phase for four hundred years but its Emperor was the world’s most powerful man. As Swarup lucidly explains, the Emperor’s power was derived from his personal wealth. Emperor Augustus, who reigned for 45 years (31BC to 14AD) and kept detailed memoirs most of which have survived, owned a personal treasury worth about US$75 billion at today’s purchasing power of silver (Augustus’s sestertii silver coinage minted from his own silver mines in Spain were of 99.95 per cent purity). He was wealthy enough to maintain a 170,000-strong army where each soldier was paid a lavish 1,000 sestertii per annum as wages.
The Roman Empire played out Money Mania at its peak with disastrous results. At its end, the empire’s economy collapsed when its inflation rate reached the mind boggling figure of 1.5 million per cent per annum! The mighty Roman Empire fell forever in AD 54 when the Last Emperor Claudius Augustus II was poisoned to death by his stepson, the infamous Nero. The Treasury once worth billions was totally empty. Only two or three imperial coins have survived; these are available with international dealers in coins. This ignominy marks the humiliating final end of Rome’s Money Mania phenomenon.
Swarup also spends over 100 pages describing the monetary collapse that bedeviled Japan after World War II: ‘Japan became a nation of depressed consumers, hobbled conglomerates, insolvent banks and discredited policymakers. Today, many decades later, deflation has scarred the Japanese psyche. Continual failed interventions had left the country with an official debt of more than twice the GDP. Post WWII, one in six Japanese lived in poverty, albeit defined as earning less than half the median income, a figure ranked by the OECD as the sixth worst in this regard amongst its members. One third of the population was composed of part timers. According to Swarup’s rather harsh stricture, inequality has risen sharply, creating a nation of few haves and many have nots.’
But why on earth must we kowtow to Swarup’s pontifications? With a Masters from the University of Cambridge and PhD from Imperial College, London, the author’s credentials are adequate. This reviewer unhesitatingly classifies this book as a must-read.
Sujoy Gupta is a Kolkata-based corporate biographer and business writer