'A World Made for Money' Is A Book That Will Drive You Crazy

The guilty pleasures of facts disconnected from arguments.

November 27, 2017

A World Made for Money: Economy, Geography, and the Way We Live Today by Bret Wallach

Published in September of 2017.

Is it ethical to recommend a book that you are sure will frustrate, and maybe even infuriate, anyone who follows your recommendation?

The idea of A World Made for Money is that the world has been built to make money.  This idea may sound both simple and obvious. But how many of us really think about that idea each time that we go anywhere?  Do we think about how money drives the built environment each time we go to work, get in our cars, or take a trip?  Are we aware of the exceptions to this rule?

What will frustrate most readers is professor Wallach’s refusal to build a theoretical framework, or even a narrative leading to a set of evidence-supported conclusions, into his story of the geography of money.

What professor Wallach does give us is a wonderfully detailed description of the intersection between our built environment and the economy that it sustains. Reading A World Made for Money is like a cross between reading The Economist and a data set.  This ratio of statistics to argument in this book is at the extreme edge of both popular and academic nonfiction.

To give you one example, drawn almost at random from the book:

"Starbucks had grown from eleven stores in 1988 to thirty- one stores in 1991. Then it took off, rocketing to 12,000 stores in thirty seven countries in 2007. In 2012 the Starbucks boss insisted that his company had “never been more enthused and more aggressive.” His company now had 17,000 stores, including 12,000 in the United States. Already with about 550 in China, Starbucks, in a joint venture with Tata, began opening stores in India."

Now I know how many Starbucks there are, and where the coffee chain is growing.  That makes me happy. The entire experience of reading a A World Made for Money is mimics the sentences above about Starbucks - and then some.  Staying on the coffee theme (all taken from the chapter called Shopping), Wallach writes:

"Dunkin’ Donuts, founded in 1950, grew by 1963 to 100 stores. By 2006 it had 5,800 and was opening 550 more annually. The target was 15,000 stores by 2020. Dunkin’ sold almost 3 million coffees every day, but it was squeezed. On one side there was fast food and on the other there was the company Dunkin’ called Sixbucks, which sold 4 million coffees daily.”

Fabulous.  I love knowing how many stores that Dunkin’ Donuts (where I was employed during the summer of 1988) wants to open by 2020.

What Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts has to do with developing an understanding of how the world works is a good question.  There are chapters on Shopping, Making, Moving, Fueling, Mining, Farming, Developing, and Building.  Each chapter provides a deep dive down the rabbit hole of industry and company statistics.

Want to know how many barrels of oil are produced a day?  You might know that the answer is around 95 million.  What I did not know is that 1 million barrels a day is produced in North Dakota, and that this is enough oil fill "sixty- six Olympic- size swimming pools”.  Or maybe you will be gratified to learn that the average apartment in Shanghai sells for $275,000, or that fewer than 40 percent of families in Los Angeles own their own homes.

Once I realized that professor Wallach was not going to spend much time connecting all the data he reports to making a larger argument about the past, present, or future of economic society - I found myself better able to relax and enjoy the numbers.  The fact that I listened to A World Made for Money as a audiobook helped.  It was quite stimulating to learn that the "average American in 2007 drank forty- nine gallons of soda pop, the equivalent of 789 eight- ounce glasses. Coca- Cola had 17 percent of that market, or 25 percent if you included Diet Coke. Pepsi and Diet Pepsi together trailed at 14 percent.”

By the way, I can’t find any other reviews of A World Made for Money.  The quotes that I took above are semi-randomly drawn from an online text version at Project Muse.  Have a look.

Maybe this wonderfully strange book written by this curious and modest cultural geographer will be just the thing that you are looking for.

Can you recommend any accessible overviews of the discipline of economic geography?

Do you have a nonfiction guilty pleasure that you'd like to share?

What are you reading?


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