It is an interesting argument made here that so-called “instant books”, written in the aftermath of some crisis or big event, can be easily overturned by subsequent events, debate and analysis. Quite true. And it is also true that the internet, blogging and online debate is intensifying this process of making a book look dated within months of publication. But it seems to me that in the article I link to, the author of the item is making some mistakes about the book, Meltdown, written by Thomas Woods about a year ago.
For a start, I think that it is worthwhile that some authors, as soon as the hue and cry went up about “greedy bankers”, sought to challenge the establishment “narrative”, assiduously supported by parts of the mainstream media, that says that the meltdown in financial markets somehow proves that capitalism is flawed, needs more regulations, controls, etc. Getting a book out as quickly as possible makes sense because a book is a talking point. Even if some of its facts are challenged or overturned, the point is that the author gets invited to give talks, has to take questions, can be asked for more details, etc. A book, in other words, is a good starting point. No book, no launch party, no nothing.
And challenging the established narrative any way possible is important. The usual line is what I hear from David Cameron, Barack Obama, and of course our own government. To hear the contrary view, that what happened was primarily caused by state-established central banks distorting price signals of interest rates, and hence fuelling an asset bubble, is much rarer. For example, the other day I walked into Waterstones, and in the section on economics and current affairs were books such as Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold, or books with such racy titles as How I Caused The Credit Crunch. In these cases, the books will typically treat the issue as one where the crisis is caused by “greedy”, or naive bankers, who are treated as little different from wild animals, or caused by the supposed dangerous complexity of trading technologies.
The author of the article criticising Mr Woods’ book, Roger Donway, argues that Mr Woods’ book is flawed in many ways, as it, for example, does not give much of an idea of what caused the crisis beyond the standard “Austrian” analysis of what happens when central banks flood the world with fiat money. But why should Mr Woods write a 1,000-word tome to spell out the causes of the crisis in every last detail? The purpose of the book, as is pretty clear to someone like me who knows a thing or two about economics, is to spell out to the general reader what the broad, free market take on the crisis is. I happen to think that Mr Woods summary of the “Austrian” view on what money, banking, the business cycle, etc, are, is simply brilliant. There can never be enough books spelling out why, for example, it is necessary to understand the role of money, and what money is and more, what it is not.
Mr Donway just assumes that folk who might pick up Mr Woods’ book off the shelves are already well-versed in their von Mises, Hayek or Rothbard. But that is hardly likely. The sort of person who steps into a bookstore, and wants to read something about the current financial mayhem, and who might be the sort of person who doubts the current wisdom but who is not an economics specialist, is ideally suited to read this sort of book. Yet Mr Donway writes:
“Chapter 5 also presents material familiar to anyone who has perused some works of Austrian economists, particularly the works of Murray Rothbard. And this material is even less informative about the meltdown of 2008. Entitled “Great Myths about the Great Depression,” the chapter actually takes very brief looks at the depressions of the nineteenth century and the depression of 1920–21, as well as devoting 11 pages to the causes of the Great Depression. And how does an examination of the Great Depression help explain the collapse of 2008? “In both cases, an inflationary credit boom brought about by the Fed’s lowering of interest rates led to massive resource misallocation and a distorted capital structure.” (106) That’s not very helpful.”
The events of previous depressions/recessions will always be different in certain ways from what is happening now, but that is nitpicking. The point of why Mr Woods talks about the short-lived recession of 1920-21 (solved quickly without a Keynesian orgy of money-printing) and the decade-long stagnation in Japan in the 1990s, say, is to shed light on what ought to have been the approach of policymakers in the recent past. To say that an examination of the Great Depression gives no insight into what is happening now strikes me as a case of trying to shout debate down. After all, one can be sure that the advocates of Big Government and Keynesian demand management will call history in aid if they think it bolsters their case.
This paragraph is perhaps a bit fairer:
“Now, some critics might blame this tendency to abstractionism on Woods’s “ideological” economics, but I do not. If he believes in the pure Austrian theory of boom-and-bust, fine. Let him present his analysis using that theory and let his explanation be judged by its adequacy, not by its origins. But in order to judge the adequacy of Woods’s case, we need to hear him make it against those economists who understand his theoretical approach but disagree with it or at least disagree with his application of it. It is no help to hear Woods rebut mainstream economists who do not take Austrian economics seriously.”
Quite possibly true. I know for a fact that people operating in the free market school of thought differ about quite a lot of things, such as whether fractional reserve banking should be illegal, whether state central banks are an evil to be abolished or institutions to be placed under better, tighter rules, etc. But Woods cannot be expected to go into vast reams of text to debate every real or potential objection from such quarters; and in any event, he does, I think, point out the differences that exist between say, the Chicago school – in some ways closer to the Keynesian one – and his “Austrian” point of view.
Of course, there is a need – and this is where I think Woods’ book falls short as a piece of work – in showing exactly what practical steps governments could take in putting financial systems on a sounder footing. There is, in the UK for example, a move by economists such as Kevin Dowd and the folks over at the Cobden Centre to flesh out in detail as to what an “honest money” banking and financial system would actually look like. And as I have previously mentioned on this site, Professor Dowd has sketched out how, for example, a failed bank could be restructured and bankrupt banks be let go without crippling an economy.
And Professor Dowd has, or is about, to release a book on these matters. But for all that the Woods book may be a bit lacking in some respects, I do believe he did me a favour in helping to marshall some of my own thoughts about how to think about the credit crunch. I am glad he did that, and most impressed that he did so in such a short space of time, by focusing on the core ideas at stake.