Fourth Estate, £20, 366pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Stuff Matters: Genius, Risk and the Secret of Capitalism, By Harry Bingham

There have been so many books about the world economy since the recession struck that the book market has become a bit like the economy itself. It's hard to pick out the clear signals from the background noise, but insofar as one can distinguish what has been happening, the tone is pretty sombre. Harry Bingham's approach is refreshing in what it is not. It isn't quite a study of the meltdown itself, nor of the decline of the West vis-à-vis China and India, nor a banker-bashing tome, and certainly not one of those tedious "I told you so" exercises of which there have been far too many.

Instead, he looks at the failings and successes of our market system, setting what has happened over the past few years in its historical perspective. If there is a bit of bite, it derives from the author's experience as an investment banker, which has left its mark. The book is built round a series of interviews of people that he (mostly) admires: bankers, business people, and particularly entrepreneurs. The result is not so much an analysis of the world economy, more a walk around its more interesting pathways with an engaging friend as a guide.

So Bingham tells us about his time as a banker, and a reasonably successful one, at JP Morgan, and why he was glad he chose that employer rather the principal alternative, Goldman Sachs. He tells us about his time advising the fledging Polish government, just after the fall of Communism. Trekking around factories in Eastern Europe was a good way of convincing him of the value of the market system as opposed to the hopelessness of central planning, but also the limits to the market within individual corporations.

He explains why companies where the principals have their own money in the business are generally run with greater care than those where managements are playing with shareholders' money. He takes us to factories in India and China, to the ad agencies of Madison Avenue and shows how Nescafé is made to smell like the real stuff.

All this is entertaining enough. This is terrain many of us have been around but it is good to be taken to these places again in a thought-provoking way. There were two aspects of this journey, however, that stand out. One was the author's respect for entrepreneurs: people who create something special out of nothing. The other is his examination of that most elusive quest of human beings: the search for happiness.

This has become the hot subject in economies, with professionals splitting into a variety of groups. There is the Abba version: "Money, money, money...", while he notes that the Beatles constructed three laws: "I don't that care too much for money"; "Money can't buy you love"; and "Love is all you need".

Confused? Don't be, because on page 244 the author reproduces a graph that I should have known about, based on work by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. It shows the relationship between wealth and happiness in different countries around the world.

By and large, the richer a country is in terms of GDP per head, the happier its people are. In addition, the richer people are within a country, the happier they tend to be, though the gaps are greater in some countries than others. The Danes are the happiest people on earth, it seems, while people on Togo are, I fear, the most miserable. (The United Arab Emirates is the richest country, Afghanistan the poorest.)

Quite how people should use this information is another matter but that is not the fault of the author. He is seeking to explain the issues rather than fix things – an absurdly ambitious aim anyway. But he does make one general plea which should catch some resonance: that policy-makers should try to understand what makes economies tick.

Why do entrepreneurs try and create businesses? Why do some firms succeed while others fail? It is about people being prepared to take risks and it is about trying to do things honourably and well. It should be simple really to keep an economy sweet – but it is so fiendishly difficult in practice, isn't it?

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate