Book Bits: 17 December 2022

Leveraged: The New Economics of Debt and Financial Fragility
Moritz Schularick (editor)
Summary via publisher (U. of Chicago Press)
The 2008 financial crisis was a seismic event that laid bare how financial institutions’ instabilities can have devastating effects on societies and economies. COVID-19 brought similar financial devastation at the beginning of 2020 and once more massive interventions by central banks were needed to heed off the collapse of the financial system. All of which begs the question: why is our financial system so fragile and vulnerable that it needs government support so often? For a generation of economists who have risen to prominence since 2008, these events have defined not only how they view financial instability, but financial markets more broadly. Leveraged brings together these voices to take stock of what we have learned about the costs and causes of financial fragility and to offer a new canonical framework for understanding it. Their message: the origins of financial instability in modern economies run deeper than the technical debates around banking regulation, countercyclical capital buffers, or living wills for financial institutions.

Reinventing Capitalism in the Digital Age
Stephen Denning
Summary via publisher (Cambridge U. Press)
The book examines the current crisis of capitalism’s legitimacy and concludes that it derives principally from business pursuing an aberration of capitalism known as shareholder capitalism, in which firms sought to maximize shareholder value as reflected in the current share price, at the expense of all other stakeholders and society. Shareholder capitalism began in the 1970s and was renounced by the Business Roundtable in 2019, but continues behind a façade of stakeholder capitalism. Stakeholder capitalism is the most widely cited form of capitalism today, but it is incoherent as a practical guide to action for an entire firm. This Element concludes that a recent evolution of capitalism–customer capitalism–which gives primacy to co-creating value for customers and users, enables firms to master the challenges of the digital age, shower benefits on society, and meet the needs of all the stakeholders.

The Great Polarization: How Ideas, Power, and Policies Drive Inequality
Rudiger von Arnim and Joseph E. Stiglitz (editors)
Summary via publisher (Columbia U. Press)
Inequality of income and wealth has skyrocketed since the 1970s. As the super-rich have grasped the vast majority of the gains from economic growth, labor’s share of income has declined. The middle class has stagnated, and those at the bottom have become even worse off. Persistent structural discrimination on the basis of race and gender exacerbates these economic disparities. The Great Polarization brings together scholars from disparate fields to examine the causes and consequences of this dramatic rise in inequality. Contributors demonstrate that institutions, norms, policy, and political power—not the “natural” operation of the market—determine the distribution of wealth and income.

States and the Masters of Capital: Sovereign Lending, Old and New
Quentin Bruneau
Summary via publisher (Columbia U. Press)
Today, states’ ability to borrow private capital depends on stringent evaluations of their creditworthiness. While many presume that this has long been the case, Quentin Bruneau argues that it is a surprisingly recent phenomenon—the outcome of a pivotal shift in the social composition of financial markets. Investigating the financiers involved in lending capital to sovereigns over the past two centuries, Bruneau identifies profound changes in their identities, goals, and forms of knowledge. He shows how an old world made up of merchant banking families pursuing both profit and status gradually gave way to a new one dominated by large companies, such as joint stock banks and credit rating agencies, exclusively pursuing profit.

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