Award-winning scholar reflects on U.S. banking

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Jacob Soll looks over his copy of Abraham Nicolas de La Houssaye's "History of the Government of Venice." (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)

Jacob Soll flips open his MacBook Pro and calls up eBay to see how much The History of the Government of Venice is going for today.

The 17th-century book, which exposed unsavory truths about Venetian government, sent its author, Abraham Nicolas Amelot de La Houssaye, a Frenchman working as secretary to an embassy in Venice, to the Bastille.

Soll, 42, professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, father of two young daughters, and husband of a teacher, considers it one of his favorite books. In 2001, he paid 228 euros (currently $323) for a fourth-edition copy.

On eBay, he finds a splendid copy - a 1677 second edition, perfectly bound: $7,000.

"I wouldn't be able to . . . ," he begins, then checks himself. "I now can afford this book."

On Sept. 20, Soll was awarded a $500,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the so-called genius award, for his "meticulously researched studies of early modern Europe," which the foundation said "are shedding new light on the origins of the modern state."

Once the money starts coming in, in increments over five years beginning in January, he'll use it to work on two history books, one on accounting, the other on libraries.

Soll spoke recently about his sojourn in Europe as a youth, the importance of accounting to modern society, historical parallels to the current financial crisis, and what history suggests will help fix it.

Question: Walk us through your academic career.

Jacob Soll: I got booted out of high school - well, my father says junior high - in Cambridge, Mass., and sent to Iowa, but I had a lot of family contacts in France, so I started partially living and going to school in France.

I did a junior year abroad, but I had already been spending time there. As soon as college was over, I just moved to France and started a Ph.D. and started living there. I sort of moved into this French restaurant for several years, and I lived above the restaurant in the old way. Then I got into Cambridge.

Q: How is it that you are at Rutgers-Camden?

Soll: They were the ones that appreciated my work when I was absolutely nobody and hired me.

Q: Was the MacArthur Fellowship in your dreams?

Soll: I got a lot of prizes, but I'm at an unfancy university. I never thought I had a chance.

Q: You've written a book about Niccolo Machiavelli.

Soll: Machiavelli invents political science. He truly shows for the first time how to unmask power, how to understand the motives of princes. I've always believed deeply in political criticism. (Soll's book is Publishing 'The Prince': History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism 1513-1789.) . . . Simple fact, that's what Machiavelli does. I wanted to understand not only how he did it, but where he came from, and the whole process by which Machiavelli became part of our tradition.

Q: How did you pick accounting as the topic of a history book?

Soll: I was writing this big book about (Louis XIV's minister) Colbert (The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert's Secret State Intelligence System).

What I found out was that people held books in their pockets . . . filled with maxims. I expected that Louis XIV had one of these - a religious one - but he didn't. Colbert had made for him these accounting books.

Essentially, I was, like, "What? Louis XIV, the most famous king of all time . . . carries account books in his pocket? . . . That's weird."

Louis XIV then destroys this entire accounting thing that Colbert builds. I'm like, "Why would a king get a tool as powerful as double-entry bookkeeping for state management and destroy it?"

At that point, the financial crisis hit, and I was like, "My God. It's the same story."

In the late Middle Ages, the Italians, Venetians, Florentines, and Genovese, they invent double-entry bookkeeping. Why did it take us until the 19th century to systematize double-entry account books in government? And why do we still have basic problems auditing banks?

For me, the fall of the Medici bank leads to a chain reaction that I can follow through history to right now.

Q: What should the United States do to fix its financial crisis?

Soll: Fund the SEC, which is an auditing branch. . . . The SEC was formed after the Depression to keep an eye on investment banks and audit them so that things don't get crazy, and so that they don't have disasters that are so big that they undermine the national economy. It just means your books have to be plausible.

They can bring the Glass-Steagall Act back, which makes deposit banks and investment banks separate so that people who have deposited money will not have to worry about someone gambling that money away. . . . And we can teach accounting in schools.

Q: Once you go on sabbatical from Rutgers in January, are you going to move to Europe to work on your books?

Soll: I have to finish this [accounting] book (The Reckoning: Lessons From the Tortured History of Finance and Political Accountability, Genoa 1340-Wall Street 1929) before I leave, so I'm hiding out here in this office for a year and a half.

Once it's done and they're happy with it, then I will move to Paris and I will work on my book on libraries (The Enlightenment Library and the Quest for Universal Knowledge). . . . I spent a lot of my life there. I want my kids to learn French. I need to see my friends. I need to see my family.

 


Contact staff writer Emily Brill at 856-779-3882 or ebrill@philly.com.