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A long view of money, wars & governments

Alan Wallace
| Saturday, May 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath are part of a cycle of history that began five centuries ago, according to Kwasi Kwarteng's “War and Gold: A 500-Year History of Empires, Adventures, and Debt” (PublicAffairs, available Tuesday).

Kwarteng is a London native of Ghanian heritage, holder of a Cambridge doctorate in history, a former Kennedy Scholar at Harvard, author of “Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World” (2011) and a Conservative member of the British Parliament. He traces that historical cycle's origin to 16th-century Spain.

Sending out sea voyages to conquer new lands and resources, Spain's Habsburg rulers soon were awash in plundered gold (and silver). But that influx of New World wealth couldn't sustain their lavish military spending, which would bankrupt Spain repeatedly and undermine its empire.

As “hard currency,” gold became the global economy's foundation. But governments needing to borrow to finance wars would suspend the gold standard and issue paper money — until debt and inflation prompted them to return to the gold standard, setting up the cycle's next iteration.

Both America and France did so during their revolutionary periods. Great Britain did so during its early 19th-century conflict with Napoleon. The United States benefited at World War I's onset because it then had the only national economy in which paper currency was convertible to gold. And many sought refuge from the 2008 crisis in gold, calling for an end to “fiat” money and a return to the gold standard.

Kwarteng writes that his book “does not advocate a return to the gold standard of the pre-1914 era” and that it is “a work of history” and “an account of the history of money in the modern age” but “not a tract of economic theory.” However it's labeled, “War and Gold” offers fresh, big-picture perspective on issues as tangible as our wallets' contents.

IN THE PILOT'S SEAT

“Inside Marine One: Four U.S. Presidents, One Proud Marine, and the World's Most Amazing Helicopter” by Ray L'Heureux with Lee Kelley (St. Martin's Press) — This book's lead author blends his life story with an insider's account of an elite military unit. A Massachusetts native nicknamed “Frenchy,” he grew up dreaming of being a pilot — a notion cemented for him by a flying lesson at age 12. Short of money for college, he became a Marine Corps officer who was at an airfield one day when President Ronald Reagan landed en route to a fundraiser. L'Heureux became determined to join the Marine squadron that flies the president's helicopter, achieving that goal in 1991. He piloted Marine One for four presidents — George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama — and became that unit's commanding officer in 2006, retiring in 2011 with the rank of colonel.

LEGALIZATION'S ADVANCE

“A New Leaf: The End of Cannabis Prohibition” by Alyson Martin and Nushin Rashidian (The New Press) — The publisher bills this book as the first “to explore the new landscape of cannabis in the United States” shaped by Washington state and Colorado residents voting to legalize, regulate and tax recreational marijuana, and by 20 states and the District of Columbia legalizing medical use. But with the federal government still classifying marijuana the same as heroin, marijuana prohibition has a long way to go. The book draws on interviews with doctors, patients, growers, entrepreneurs, activists, politicians and regulators, as well as the history of how alcohol was outlawed and regained legal status, to analyze what legal marijuana in America means for the drug war, domestic and international. The authors, both journalists, conclude that marijuana prohibition's end is inevitable but will take longer than re-legalizing alcohol did and bring unanticipated complications.

AN ENDURING TALE

“Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing (Basic Books) — This new edition of a classic first published in 1959 marks the 100th anniversary of the August 1914 departure of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's ship, Endurance, from England. He planned to make the first west-to-east crossing of Antarctica on foot, but ice trapped the ship a day's sail short of its planned destination. Endurance would drift along with that ice for 10 months before being crushed by it, forcing Shackleton and his 27-member crew to ride ice floes, then their lifeboats, to cross 850 miles of rough South Atlantic waters to safety. A new introduction by award-winning maritime historian Nathaniel Philbrick, a graduate of Pittsburgh's Taylor Allderdice High School, covers the writing and fortunes of the book — which quickly fell out of print and didn't become a best-seller until the 1990s — and its Illinois journalist author.

Alan Wallace is a Trib Total Media editorial page writer (412-320-7983 or awallace@tribweb.com).

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