Book Review: Inflated

This book was not what I expected.  I expected a book on the current crisis, and got a book on monetary/credit policy over the whole of the existence of the US.  What is more, unlike most books that cover a long sweep of history, this book is even, and does not overemphasize the recent past, which is a humble thing for an author to do, because we don’t know the full ramifications of recent actions yet.

Now, I respect the writings of Chris Whalen at Institutional Risk Analytics and elsewhere — a bright guy.  But this outperformed my high expectations.  Some books I glide through because I know the topic well.  This was a book where I thought I knew the topic well, but found that I did not know as much as I thought, and so I read more slowly than I usually do.

But this book changed my view on financial crises.  Whether one is under a gold standard or a fiat currency standard, the main order for assuring stability is the regulation of banks and credit.

In the same way that people need help in verifying whether a drug is effective or food is pure, they need to know that promises to pay will be honored.  It does not matter what backs the currency if banks are allowed to overlever, or mismatch assets long — there will be a financial panic, and it is not due to gold, silver, or fiat money necessarily, but that that banks made promises that could not be kept under all scenarios.

Yes, I think it is better to be under a gold standard, because it restricts the power of the government.  But that is not the main issue with financial crises; we need to restrict that ability of banks to borrow short and lend long; we also need to restrict their overall leverage.  Do that, and crises disappear — also, banks are far less profitable, and that is a good thing.  We will get fewer banks, and bright people will go to more useful places in the economy.

Other things that stood out to me were the First and Second National Banks of the US, and how their creation led to booms, and dissolution led to busts.  Lincoln is unique in every way, even in monetary policy terms, as he created unbacked paper money to fight the civil war, which funded a lot of it.  After the war, the return to the gold standard, much as it should have been done, was depressive, but it was an effect of paying off the war.

I came away from this book with a more balanced view of US politics — many of those I like came off worse, and those I did not like were shown to have been better than I thought — with the exception of Lincoln, who in hindsight seems to be a radical in most senses.  I am very glad that slavery is gone, but not the way that it got done.

Quibbles

Ignore Roubini’s introduction.  Better Whalen should have gotten a real intellect like James Grant or Caroline Baum.

Also, in the middle of the book, in WWII, the US spends far more than its GDP on the war.  I get it, but I think it would be more reasonable to classify defense spending inside GDP so that we can see what proportion of national output is going to the war effort.

Who would benefit from this book:

Anyone with a moderate intellect or better could learn from this balanced account of America’s monetary and credit policies.  It is very well written; those with little knowledge will learn much, but those with greater knowledge will still learn something.

If you want to, you can buy it here: Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream.

Full disclosure: This book was sent to me, because I asked for it.

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