Category Archives: Books

How Dumb?

By James Kwak

In his latest column, “Dumbing Deficits Down,” Paul Krugman has harsh words for Republican nonsense about the budget deficit:

Today’s Republicans just aren’t into rationality. They claim to care deeply about deficits — but they’ve spent the past two years putting cynical, demagogic attacks on any attempt to actually deal with long-run deficits at the heart of their campaign strategy.

But he’s only slightly less harsh toward President Obama:

The president and his aides know that the G.O.P. approach to the budget is wrongheaded and destructive. But they’ve stopped making the case for an alternative approach; instead, they’ve positioned themselves as know-nothings lite, accepting the notion that spending must be slashed immediately — just not as much as Republicans want. . . .

the White House is aiding and abetting the dumbing down of our deficit debate.

In this context, this concluding passage from the book I just read seems appropriate:

U.S. political leaders now seem determined to follow Nero’s reputed example when setting budget policy. They dicker with trivial deficit reduction packages, and then on a regular basis stoke the fire by passing much larger tax cuts, while the long-term budget picture keeps getting worse. They know what is happening, as do the voters.

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How Times Change

By James Kwak

For those waiting, the paperback edition of 13 Bankers went on sale on Tuesday to little fanfare. That’s not surprising; all of the crisis books have been dribbling out in paperback, about 8-10 months after the hardcover editions, to little fanfare. It’s a commentary on how quickly times have changed, and also on the fickle nature of the publishing market. While there is still a lot of residual anger and bitterness over the financial crisis — specifically, over the fact that the big banks played a central role in triggering the crisis, then got massive amounts of bailout money, and now have returned to “health” more quickly than the economy as a whole or the typical household — most people seem resigned to a continuation of the pre-crisis status quo, and what energy remains has perversely gone into railing against the national debt.

The whole story also highlights the importance of timing in publishing. Looking back, we couldn’t have gotten any luckier, with the book going on sale during the Senate debate over financial reform and just two weeks before the SEC sued Goldman, which also happened the day that our Bill Moyers appearance aired, which drove our Amazon ranking up to #6. Today we’d be lucky to crack #600.

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The More Things Change …

By James Kwak

As a holiday gift to myself, I’ve actually been reading a real book, on paper — The Worldly Philosophers, by Robert Heilbroner. The book itself was not a gift to myself; I have my sister’s old copy, which is the 1980 edition. The book is a traditional intellectual history of some of the main figures in economics. As the original was written in 1953, it focuses less on the mathematical line of economics, from Walras and Marshall through Arrow-Debreu to the present, and more on what used to be called political economy: Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Marx, Keynes, etc. It’s not a way to learn economics, but a way to learn something about the historical conditions that helped give rise to some important economic ideas.

But some passages seem oddly relevant today. Discussing the conventional economic wisdom of the early nineteenth century (pp. 121-22):

“They lived in a world that was not only harsh and cruel but that rationalized its cruelty under the guise of economic law. . . . It was the world that was cruel, not the people in it. For the world was run by economic laws, and economic laws were nothing with which one could or should trifle; they were simply there, and to rail about whatever injustices might be tossed up as an unfortunate consequence of their working was as foolish as to lament the ebb and flow of the tides.”

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13 Bankers in Paperback

By James Kwak

Yes, that’s a new book photo in the sidebar to the right. The paperback edition will be available on January 11, 2011. It has a new epilogue taking the story from January 2010 (when we finished the hardcover) to September 2010, covering the financial reform debate in the Senate and the final Dodd-Frank Act.

Enjoy.

The Importance of the 1970s

By James Kwak

It isn’t often that I read two books in a row that both cite Alexis de Tocqueville, probably my favorite Social Studies 10 author (although he was far from my favorite at the time). In Third World America, Arianna Huffington cited Tocqueville’s observation that democracy should promote the interests of “the greatest possible number”; as I pointed out, this is clearly no longer true in America (if it ever was). In Winner-Take-All Politics,* Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain why.

In 13 Bankers, Simon and I argue that the key forces behind the transformation of the financial sector and the resulting financial crisis were political, not simply economic. To this argument, at least two good questions spring to mind: Why finance? And why then? Hacker and Pierson have good answers to both of these questions. Their answer to the latter question is better than (though not inconsistent with) the answer we gave in our book.

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Why the Education Gap?

By James Kwak

Probably the most important and intractable economic problem we face is not restarting the economy after the financial crisis, but the decades-old problem of stagnant wages for the lower and middle classes and the consequent massive increase in income inequality. This is something that Raghuram Rajan brings up in the first chapter of Fault Lines, and, like many people, he points the finger at education. Citing (like everyone else) Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, he writes (pp. 22-23),

“As agriculture gave way to manufacturing in the mid-1800s, the elementary school movement in the United States created the most highly educated population in the world. . . . The high school movement took off in the early part of the twentieth century and provided the flexible, trained workers who would staff America’s factories and offices. . . .

“Recent technological advances now require many workers to have a college degree to carry out their tasks. But the supply of college-educated workers has not kept pace with demand–indeed, the fraction of high school graduates in every age cohort has stopped rising, having fallen slightly since the 1970s.”

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Democracy in America

It appears that Simon beat me to commenting on Third World America, Arianna Huffington’s bleak portrait of many of the things that are wrong with America (crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, extreme inequality, low social mobility, political system captured by special interests, etc.), so I’ll confine myself to a couple of thoughts I had while reading it.*

First, there are these great quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (p. 45 of Huffington’s book):

“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. . . .

“Democratic laws generally tend to promote the welfare of the greatest possible number; for they emanate from the majority of the citizens, who are subject to error, but who cannot have an interest opposed to their own advantage.”

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