One Nation Under Gold


James Ledbetter, Liveright, 380 pages, $28.95. Is gold the essential bedrock of fiscal prudence? A political football? Or a mere distraction at the margins of the global financial system? Gold in the American economic system has been all of these and in that order. James Ledbetter weaves a highly readable tale, from the origins of the republic to the dubious sponsors of Glenn Beck on Fox News (a brilliant concluding chapter). Too often, this kind of economic history becomes dry and even soporific. But Ledbetter — the editor of Inc. magazine — has a fine eye for personality and ideas; each of the 12 chapters puts you on the spot at a critical moment on the American journey with gold, with anecdotes nicely blended to create the broader historical context. You can read it in chronological order or you can dip a toe in at any point, almost the ideal summer reading. The most compelling material is on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reluctant yet effective changes. The broader plot line is this: The American republic was initially bankrupt, a point that the hit musical “Hamilton” made more effectively than any middle school history lesson. A monetary system subsequently modeled on that of Britain included gold as an anchor of value for paper money and bank deposits. This system provided sufficient stability in good times — along with plenty of opportunity for financial speculation and shenanigans. Ledbetter follows through the history of when it worked and when it didn’t, hitting on all the major themes, and, through the lens of gold, brings our latest economic predicaments into clearer focus.