Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ben Tarnoff

Ben Tarnoff is the author of Moneymakers: The Wicked Lives and Surprising Adventures of Three Notorious Counterfeiters. He has worked at Lapham's Quarterly and graduated from Harvard in 2007.

From his Q & A at

This brings us right around to the subject of your forthcoming book: counterfeiting in early American history. How did this idea first come about?

I first got the idea for my book when researching the Lapham’s Quarterly issue on the history of money. I was reading a lot about counterfeiting, and I came across a book that had just been published called A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States by Stephen Mihm. This was right around the time the financial crisis was getting started, so there were a lot of pretty powerful “past in the present” parallels in the story of counterfeiting and early American finance.

What are some of the convergences you found between the forces at work two hundred years ago and the economic fiasco of today?

The broadest parallel is that confidence sustains today’s economy just as it did two or three hundred years ago. If colonial Americans didn’t have faith that a bill of credit equaled a certain quantity of money — that the promise inscribed on its surface would be honored — then the paper became worthless. This is the same spark of faith that powers our system today. Counterfeiters are interesting because they trafficked in this most essential economic fuel – faith. They also reflected the logic of early America’s speculative, debt-driven economic landscape. As I write in the book, counterfeiters were the black margin to the various shades of gray that made up the financial spectrum. In antebellum America, the government didn’t print money: banks did, hundreds and eventually, thousands of different kinds. Many of these bankers didn’t have enough gold and silver to back these bills, as was required by law. So many bankers essentially became counterfeiters, trying to inspire faith in paper promises they knew they couldn’t keep. But as long as everyone accepts these bills without calling their bluff, more and more value is created, and there’s a huge hallucination of riches that everyone conspires to sustain – before it all comes crashing down.

So does knowing the past really help to avert future mistakes, or does it just make the present more interesting?

Well, clearly...[read on]
--Marshal Zeringue