Economics in Crisis

BERKELEY – The most interesting moment at a recent conference held in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire – site of the 1945 conference that created today’s global economic architecture – came when Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf quizzed former United States Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, President Barack Obama’s ex-assistant for economic policy. "[Doesn’t] what has happened in the past few years,” Wolf asked, “simply suggest that [academic] economists did not understand what was going on?”

Here is the most interesting part of Summers’ long answer: “There is a lot in [Walter] Bagehot that is about the crisis we just went through. There is more in [Hyman] Minsky, and perhaps more still in [Charles] Kindleberger.” That may sound obscure to a non-economist, but it was a devastating indictment.

Bagehot (1826-1877) was a mid-nineteenth-century editor of The Economist who published a book about financial markets, Lombard Street, in 1873. Summers is certainly right: there is an awful lot in Lombard Street that is about the crisis from which we are now recovering.

Minsky (1919-1996) is best approached not through his collected essays, entitled Can “It” Happen Again?, but rather through the use Kindleberger (1910-2003) made of his work in his 1978 book Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises. Asked to name where to turn to understand what was going on in 2008, Summers cited three dead men, a book written 33 years ago, and another written the century before last.