In this short book Paul Krugman argues for Keynesian fiscal stimulus as the way out of our economic mess. The current troubles, he says, resulted from a banking crisis that was precipitated as New Deal-era controls on financial recklessness were dismantled. The resulting collapse in demand left the economy chronically depressed, with an intractable overhang of private debt. The solution has been known by the economics profession ever since the triumph of that massive program of federal deficit spending known as WWII, and is there for the taking, right now. The only question is whether we will do what is necessary.
Much of the book is devoted to pushing back against conservative economic dogma, and there are many I-told-you-so moments, as we revisit predictions of right-wing pundits that have not aged well. Remember when interest rates skyrocketed as bond investors lost faith in our national solvency? No? How about our Weimar-style hyperinflation? But while the author is plenty scornful of conservatives, he is also critical of the Obama administration for bungling the politics. By accepting a stimulus package that its own economic team knew would be insufficient without even arguing for more; by indulging in happy talk about “green shoots” and a “summer of recovery” when the economy was still depressed; by “pivoting” to the deficit when the deficit was the least of our worries—the administration brought discredit on its own efforts, accepted the framing of the opposition, and made policies that were correct in direction, if not in scale, seem like failures. So says Krugman.
All of this will be recognizable to his fans, along with many familiar turns of phrase: the shadow banks; the liquidity trap; the zero lower bound; the confidence fairy; the bond vigilantes; and the conventional wisdom of Very Serious People (properly attributed). For those who already read Krugman’s Times columns and nod along, the book provides more thorough presentation of his views (with charts!). But it should be especially valuable for those who are not yet persuaded, because he doesn't merely assert his points, he tries to prove them. He lays out his reasoning clearly in a readable, lucid style, with very little technical jargon. He supports his arguments with historical and contemporary examples from the real world, and occasional references to professional literature. He acknowledges his opponents and takes on their actual arguments, without caricature. He believes in evidence and produces it. He doesn’t pound the table. I find him completely convincing, but whatever your views, I think you will give him credit for making his case.
One quibble: I’m not sure that the audiobook is an ideal format for this kind of presentation. Although it’s a terrific read, the book could also be useful as a reference, since so many of its subjects are issues in the daily news. But it’s not easy to locate particular passages or topics when the book is an audio file.
This is a relentlessly gloomy novel where everything goes wrong. Set in 1960 in Great Falls, Montana (apparently a miserable place) and somewhere in Saskatchewan (even worse), it is the story of a twin brother and sister, military brats who never find a home, and their ill-matched, desperate parents who wreck it all. There are several references to Thomas Hardy. If you are partial to that author’s cheerful brand, maybe you’ll like this. I mostly didn’t.
The narrator tells you on page one that this is a story of bank robbery and murder, but of course it’s not crime fiction. There is no attempt grab your attention with a twisting plot, colorful characters or other middlebrow gimmicks. If a bank is going to get robbed, the act, the details, the outcome and the consequences are are telegraphed, and sometimes stated outright, well in advance, many times. If there’s a potentially deadly confrontation brewing, will someone perhaps get murdered? It’s right there on page one.
Apart from the first-person narrator, who is retelling his teenage experiences from a distance of many years, the characters are a sorry lot. There’s Dad, who excelled at incinerating the citizens of Osaka as a WWII bombardier but couldn’t adjust to peacetime. There’s Mom, who was meant for better things than life with this loser. There’s the irritable sister who just walks away.There’s a creepy metis hunting guide. There’s a sociopath. There are no laughs whatsoever.
There are, however, pages and pages of powerful writing. The tone is mostly restrained, highly controlled and undecorated, but now and then it blooms into something that just takes your breath away: “a life lived in a wind-deviled, empty-vistaed town, alienated, remote... . The towering weather, the endless calendar, the featureless days...” [Hope I didn’t mangle the transcription of those phrases]. That’s a lot of talent to deploy in the service of so much desolation.
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