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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Some Recent Reading

I was sick this last week. The good news is that when I'm sick, I get to do a bit of reading because that's pretty much all I could do.

The first book I read was The Forgotten Man by Amity Shlaes. It's a somewhat rambling, but interesting history of The Great Depression told from a very anti-FDR point of view. The story she tells is one of how incessant and inconsistent meddling (starting with Hoover) brought about great uncertainty which made it impossible for the economy to recover. In her narrative, it wasn't until FDR signaled his willingness to work with business again in 1940 in order to win the war that the country was finally able to recover. These arguments are similar to those put forth by some modern economists and the book does serve as a useful counterweight to the prevailing theory that FDR was a saint and a hero and that things would've been even worse without his bold and visionary actions.

However, I don't recommend this book. Not because there's anything wrong with it or it's poorly written. The problem is that Conservatives and Libertarians probably won't find enough new in its pages to make it worth the effort to read while those more to the Left will likely reject its narrative out-of-hand. For those independents who haven't yet formed a strong opinion and want to learn more, then perhaps The Forgotten Man is a useful addition to their reading lists.

Much the same could be said for the second book I read this week: Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin. It won't change anybody's mind about anything either. Unlike Shlaes book, this one is a much easier read - very direct and concise. I'm still quite surprised that it became a New York Times and Amazon bestseller (I bought it out of curiosity because of its popularity). I'm now wondering if everybody else bought it just because it was a bestseller. In other words, I don't recommend this book either.

I'm currently working on A Conflict of Visions by Thomas Sowell. So far this is a really, really good book. Indeed, it has a shot at becoming my number 2 all time favorite (number 1 is The Fatal Conceit). I'll post again sometime after I've finished it.


erp said...

Wow. Quite an endorsement of Sowell to be in such august company. I've read many of his articles, but only one of his books, Black Rednecks and White Liberals.

Naturally, I agree completely with Sowell's conclusions, but like his articles, I always get the feeling that he doesn't want to show off his brilliance.

It's not exactly that's he's writing down to the great unwashed. It's more like Sowell wants everybody to get it, not just well educated members of the choir.

Hey Skipper said...

I'm probably going to get a Kindle next week -- I'll make the Sowell book my first download.

Harry Eagar said...

One problem with the Shlaes thesis is agriculture crashed in 1922, was not interfered with, but, contrary to marketist fantasies, did not recover. markets did not clear, efficient entrants did not come in.

Prices deflated, in some cases to 0, and did not recover until the AAA. Free market ideologues put a stop to that, prices went back down, and people starved.

The problem with Shlaes herself is that she's just a stooge and her writing is dishonest. (The notion that business confidence did not recover is impossible to square with the history of, to take one example, the huge number of auto startups during the Great Depression. What failed to recover were primary producwer prices and, therefore, consumption.)

Susan's Husband said...

Prices deflating to zero is maximally efficient, so I am unclear as to what you mean by "efficient entrants did not come in".

As for starving, you're saying that with free food, people couldn't get any? Or people producing the excess food didn't have any?

Bret said...

Harry Eagar wrote: "One problem with the Shlaes thesis is agriculture crashed in 1922..."

I have no idea why you think Shlaes' thesis is in conflict with agriculture crashing in 1922. Since 50% of the workers worked in agriculture in 1900 and 3% did in 2000, there obviously needed to be a series of downsizings in agriculture. Or do you think we still should be employing 50% of our workers in Ag?

Harry Eagar wrote: "...prices went back down, and people starved..."

People starved because FDR paid farmers to take land out of production and reduce the food supply. Obviously, if the price of food had gone to "0", people would not have starved.

Harry Eagar also wrote: "...huge number of auto startups..."

Some business activity in one area does not mean business confidence, in aggregate, was not in the toilet. Total net private investment was negative for much of the depression - which indicates uncertainty and low confidence.

Howard said...

In addition to the structural changes Bret mentioned, The Fordney-McCumber Tariff with retaliatory responses and Britain's decision to return to the gold standard at the unsustainable pre-war price were both meaningful policy mistakes. Primary producers, especially in agriculture would feel the effects first and foremost.

Harry Eagar said...

If corn at the farm gate has a market value of $0.00, and people in cities are hungry but have no money, they starve.

I realize that none of you guys could be bothered to read some economic history, but it's there. It was in all the papers at the time, too.

Since ag crashed in 1922 and didn't recover, blaming Roosevelt is beyond farfetched, it's psychotic.

In the context of Shlaes, her argument (if such a word could be justified for such a hack job) is that Rooseveltian interference lengthened the Great Depression.

Since the Great Agricultural Depression already had lasted longer by the time Roosevelt took office than the Great General Depression lasted from then until it was over, Shales is self-convicted of, at the least, special pleading.

I've read some of her stuff. It's just dishonest. People like me who know the history spot that right away. People who don't are more or less impressed by her.

Bret said...

Harry Eagar wrote: "If corn at the farm gate has a market value of $0.00, and people in cities are hungry but have no money, they starve."

Maybe, but since that didn't happen (i.e. "few starved""), what's your point?

Harry Eagar wrote: "I realize that none of you guys could be bothered to read some economic history..."

Since this post was partly a book review of economic history, this statement of yours is clearly false.

Harry Eagar wrote: "Since ag crashed in 1922 and didn't recover, blaming Roosevelt is beyond farfetched..."

Neither Shlaes or anybody here has blamed FDR for the Ag crash in 1922. What's your point?

Harry Eagar wrote: "Since the Great Agricultural Depression already had lasted longer..."

The "Great Agricultural Depression" ended in 1896 and took place in Britain so what on earth does that have to do with anything?

Harry Eagar wrote: "I've read some of her stuff. It's just dishonest. "

The stuff you've read, Harry, is clearly way out-of-date. Perhaps you should modernize your collection.

Harry Eagar said...

'hunger and malnutrition affected many.'

You should read your own sources.

Bret said...


You claimed they starved. They did not.