Best of Book Bits 2012 (Part I)

It’s time once more for The Capital Spectator’s annual recap of the year’s books and your editor’s struggle to choose ten titles that, for one reason or another, stand out as worthy releases in 2012. Just ten? Well, it’s a round number, and it’s easier than 20. It’s also a thankless task for an unusually productive year in publishing on matter of macro and money. The sad part is that there’s hardly time to read more than a handful of the fascinating works released this year, of which only a few are noted below. Sigh. But if one was limited to only ten books from a year that’s nearly complete, what would they be? An unfair question, of course, and all the more so since the list below is drawn exclusively from the Book Bits feature that appears regularly in this space every Saturday morning. What follows is a select remix of items previously published here. But enough with the explaining. Here’s my tally of ten, starting with five today and the balance paid off a week hence. Happy reading!

Misunderstanding Financial Crises: Why We Don’t See Them Coming
By Gary Gorton
Summary via publisher, Oxford University Press
Before 2007, economists thought that financial crises would never happen again in the United States, that such upheavals were a thing of the past. Gary B. Gorton, a prominent expert on financial crises, argues that economists fundamentally misunderstand what they are, why they occur, and why there were none in the U.S. from 1934 to 2007. Misunderstanding Financial Crises offers a back-to-basics overview of financial crises, and shows that they are not rare, idiosyncratic events caused by a perfect storm of unconnected factors. Gorton shows how financial crises are, indeed, inherent to our financial system. Economists, Gorton writes, looked from a certain point of view and missed everything that was important: the evolution of capital markets and the banking system, the existence of new financial instruments, and the size of certain money markets like the sale and repurchase market. Comparing the so-called “Quiet Period” of 1934 to 2007, when there were no systemic crises, to the “Panic of 2007-2008,” Gorton ties together key issues like bank debt and liquidity, credit booms and manias, moral hazard, and too-big-too-fail–all to illustrate the true causes of financial collapse. He argues that the successful regulation that prevented crises since 1934 did not adequately keep pace with innovation in the financial sector, due in part to the misunderstandings of economists, who assured regulators that all was well.
Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order
By Philip Coggan
Lecture by author via London School of Economics
The world is drowning in debt. Greece is on the verge of default. In Britain, the coalition government is pushing through an austerity programme in the face of economic weakness. The US government almost shut down in August because of a dispute over the size of government debt. Our latest crisis may seem to have started in 2007, with the collapse of the American housing market. But as Philip Coggan shows in this new book, Paper Promises: Money, Debt and the new World Order which he will talk about in this lecture, the crisis is part of an age-old battle between creditors and borrowers. And that battle has been fought over the nature of money. Creditors always want sound money to ensure that they are paid back in full; borrowers want easy money to reduce the burden of repaying their debts. Money was once linked to gold, a commodity in limited supply; now central banks can create it with the click of a computer mouse.
The Assumptions Economists Make
By Jonathan Schlefer
Summary via publisher, Belknap/Harvard University Press
Economists make confident assertions in op-ed columns and on cable news—so why are their explanations often at odds with equally confident assertions from other economists? And why are all economic predictions so rarely borne out? Harnessing his frustration with these contradictions, Jonathan Schlefer set out to investigate how economists arrive at their opinions. While economists cloak their views in the aura of science, what they actually do is make assumptions about the world, use those assumptions to build imaginary economies (known as models), and from those models generate conclusions. Their models can be useful or dangerous, and it is surprisingly difficult to tell which is which. Schlefer arms us with an understanding of rival assumptions and models reaching back to Adam Smith and forward to cutting-edge theorists today. Although abstract, mathematical thinking characterizes economists’ work, Schlefer reminds us that economists are unavoidably human. They fall prey to fads and enthusiasms and subscribe to ideologies that shape their assumptions, sometimes in problematic ways. Schlefer takes up current controversies such as income inequality and the financial crisis, for which he holds economists in large part accountable.
Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
By Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler
Review via The New York Times
His thesis rests on a four-legged stool. The first idea is that our technologies in computing, energy, medicine and a host of other areas are improving at such an exponential rate that they will soon enable breakthroughs we now barely think possible. Second, these technologies have empowered do-it-yourself innovators to achieve startling advances — in vehicle engineering, medical care and even synthetic biology — with scant resources and little manpower, so we can stop depending on big corporations or national laboratories. Third, technology has created a generation of techno-philanthropists (think Bill Gates) who are pouring their billions into solving seemingly intractable problems like hunger and disease. And finally, we have what Diamandis calls “the rising billion.” These are the world’s poor, who are now (thanks again to technology) able to lessen their burdens in profound ways. “For the first time ever,” Diamandis says, “the rising billion will have the remarkable power to identify, solve and implement their own abundance solutions.”
White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters to You
By Simon Johnson and James Kwak
Blog post by co-author (Johnson) via Economix (NY Times)
Debt has surged, relative to G.D.P., six times in American history, during the War of Independence, the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I, World War II and since 2000. In the first five instances, debt rose as the government scrambled to raise resources to pay for a war effort. After each of those wars, debt was steadily reduced relative to the size of the economy – over decades, not over months or even years. The debt surge since 2000 is different – a point that James Kwak and I explain in detail in our book, published this week. To be sure, we have the two expensive wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan. But much more of the increase in the deficit was because of tax cuts under George W. Bush, Medicare Part D (which expanded coverage for prescription medicines) and – most of all – the financial crisis that brought down the economy and sharply reduced tax revenue starting in September 2008. Our modern debt surge is much more about declining federal government revenue than it is about runaway spending. If you believe strongly that our fiscal issues are primarily about “runaway spending,” please read our book. The smart approach is to begin the long and not-so-nice work of controlling deficits while allowing the economy to grow.