Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Books on the Great Recession

The demand for economists, it is often said, is counter-cyclical. When the economy is chugging along nicely, home prices are rising, unemployment is contained, inflation is low and life is all things bright and wonderful, the dismal scientists aren't being invited to many parties, of either wine-sipping or vote-gathering kind. The last two years, in case you hadn't noticed, weren't exactly smooth sailing. Which means your friendly neighborhood happy-to-be-gloomy economist is suddenly the hottest thing on the circuit. He (it is almost always a 'he') is being called for a lecture here, a talk there, and a seminar in that other place. Party hopping through the evening (while making sure his spectacles aren't crooked, and his forecast graphs are), our dear economist friend is probably thinking in his mind ... "you know, I should probably write a book about this."

Turns out, too many have. Since the Great Recession started, there has been a virtual glut of books about it. Every day a new book seems to appear on the shelves, claiming to explain it all, to go behind the scenes, to go where no non-economist has gone before. The star ship Enterprise of global economics, if you will. The fecundity isn't restricted to get-rich-quick opportunists either (though Lord knows, there have been a lot of them). It appears to me that every superstar of business writing has now got a book out on the matter. Is there a business author you have particularly admired in the past? Chances are, he has written a book about this, or is working on one. Your membership to the 'respectable business writers' club' might well be revoked if you did not write a book on the Great Recession. In many ways, this is turning out to be the defining event of the business world of our times. Maybe the end of an old world. Maybe the beginning of the Chinese era. Something, the bookshelves tell us, is in the air.

Sorting through this abundance is no easy task. If you read a book every couple of weeks, and restricted your reading to books about this crisis, you might still be at your task by the time the next crisis came around. ("The Chinese Yuan did what?" says the startled reader, looking up from Great Recession book # 105, circa 2008)

So what have been the most notable books among this cornucopia? Based on my own reading over the last year, and what I have heard from other readers, I thought I should put a list together. These might not be the best books on the Great Recession, but they are likely the most conspicuous and noteworthy ones. So here goes, my list of must-read (or at least, must-consider) books on the economic crisis 2008-2009.

The 'what happened and why?' books
  1. The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown - Charles Morris
  2. The Crash of 2008 - George Soros
  3. Freefall - Joseph Stiglitz
  4. The End of Wall Street - Roger Lowenstein
  5. Too Big to Fail - Andrew Ross Sorkin

The 'echoes of the past' books

  1. The Return of Depression Economics (and the crisis of 2008) - Paul Krugman
  2. The Great Crash 1929 - J.K.Galbraith (opportunistically re-released recently)
  3. Lords of Finance - Liaquat Ahamed (not a book about the crisis in the strict sense, but very resonant, and published right in the midst of the crisis)

The 'inside story' books

  1. In Fed We Trust - David Wessel
  2. House of Cards - William Cohen

The 'unique angle' books

  1. The Big Short - Michael Lewis

The 'I Told You So' books

  1. The Subprime Solution - Robert Shiller ("I don't want to say 'I told you so', but, really, I told you so.")
There you have it. My shortlist of the most noteworthy books about the Great Recession. Here is the thing that has started to bother me - See that list of 'Unique Angle' books? I have a longer list when I go to the barber's. In spite of the sheer number of books being written on the subject, there is an acute lack of unique angles. If one more person writes a book about 'what happened and why' I am going to break something.

So if you are out walking the dog tomorrow, and you run into your tired-from-all-the-interviews economist neighbor, remember to tell him - Not another 'what happened and why' book, please, I beg you.


  1. It may be just me, but I am starting to feel that there are too many "defining event of our lifetimes" events going on. In the last decade, we have had the dot com bubble, Sep 11, the great recession- all of which I thought at that time were defining events of our lifetimes.

    Maybe the world is producing these events faster than they have in the past. Or maybe, it just feels like it as we go through the event.

  2. Fair point indeed. Alvin Toffler called this Future Shock right? This idea that things now are changing fundamentally, way faster than they used to in the past. Every ten years, it looks like our world just changed. The internet was invented, or terrorism went global, or China emerged as the dominant economic power, or whatever. I agree that some of this is just the immediacy bias. But I think there is something to Future Shock too. Toffler by the way, is a great read too!

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  4. it might be just me, but I am commencing to feel that there are too many "defining event of our lifetimes" events going on. In the last decade, we have had the dot com bubble, Sep 11, the fantastic recession- all of which I thought at that time were defining events of our lifetimes.

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