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The Most Famous Man You Have Never Heard Of
“Having already in a Pamphlet which was published in the beginning of the month of February bearing for title, A General View of the Resources of France etc etc I declared in a Public Manner that it was my opinion that the best & most effectual method of attacking the French Nation would be to destroy their credit by falsifying their Assignats, which pamphlet has met with a pretty general approbation, I have resolved for that and for other reasons to falsify the Assignats myself...”
The author of the words above, describing a frightfully effective sabotaging of the French economy through a counterfeit-currency scheme, is one William Playfair. One of those people who had an uncanny ability to be near history, Playfair would be notable for his enduring contributions to economics alone—he literally invented statistical graphics—but he also had a front row seat to pivotal events in his native Britain, in Revolutionary-era France (he was present at the storming of the Bastille), and in the early United States. He also led a secret life as a spy and engineered great feats of espionage, such as the grand subversion described above. Think of him as the most interesting man alive, eighteenth-century division.
Bruce Berkowitz's Playfair: The True Story of the British Secret Agent Who Changed How We See the World is the first biography of this remarkable person. The Wall Street Journal calls the book "a work of ingenious detection and reconstruction." Referring to Playfair's ability to be in all places at all times, the WSJ review continues, "Mr. Berkowitz compares Playfair to Forrest Gump, but this frenetic optimist, both crafty and unlucky, who although constantly ambushed and battered by events, irrepressibly sprang back from his bad breaks, is more likely a cartoon character. He was the Wile E. Coyote of his age."
Here is Berkowitz from his introduction:
"From the cash in your wallet, to your 401(k) statement online, you could not get through the day without the inventions of William Playfair. Indeed, the way you see the world and talk about trade, economics, money, and national power all depend on ideas directly traceable to Playfair. He developed basic concepts in each that are still used today. He was an ingenious inventor and serial entrepreneur.
He was also a secret agent for the British government.
"Indeed, Playfair performed all the major functions of modern intelligence that are familiar today, and pioneered several. He produced all-source analysis, conducted espionage—both technical and human—and carried out covert operations. France was funding its government by printing paper money. Inflation was rampant. Playfair’s analysis said that it would take just little more to push it over the edge, and he devised the plan to provide that extra nudge.
"To make it happen, Playfair needed a theorist’s understanding of what makes nations grow, and, by extension, the factors that can make them collapse. He needed a practical knowledge of business and finance. He needed a network of senior officials, industry barons, foreign contacts—and an assortment of knaves, corruptible pigeons, and dupes. And he needed to be able to keep a secret.
"Which is the main reason Playfair is so misunderstood.
"If anyone could keep a secret, it was William Playfair. He took the knowledge of the covert operation to his grave, even after his government abandoned him to complete, utter poverty. He never published his story. He did not mention the operation even in his private, unpublished memoirs.
It is only by piecing together fragmentary letters and forensic evidence that we can link Playfair to the operation. But the evidence is ironclad and the case is bulletproof. What’s more, when you discover the depth of Playfair’s secret relations to British officials, you begin to see the rest of his life—and, perhaps, the history of the French Revolution, modern economics, and the development of strategic analysis—in a different light.
"Besides, it’s a great story. You wouldn’t believe it if it were not true."