Surely the Great Depression could never happen again. Or could it? One of the world's top economists gives us a sobering tour of the global economic crises of the last two years. Today, the terrible tragedy of the Great Depression looks gratuitous and unnecessary: Our economists and policy makers simply have gained too many tools, too much experience since then. It could never happen again. Or could it? Over the course of the last two years, six Asian economies have experienced an economic slump that bears an eerie resemblance to the Great Depression. Russia, once a military superpower but today an economic midget, defaulted on its debt in 1998, an event that, halfway around the world, drove Brazilian interest rates through the roof and terrified the US bond market. Some of the brightest financiers in the world, working for Long-Term Capital Corporation, thought they had the market licked only to find themselves in a jam that had all the makings of the over-leveraged positions that caused the 1929 stock market crash. Then, in January of 1999, it was Brazil's turn, with a financial crisis and currency devaluation that is still playing itself out. Paul Krugman, who "writes better than any economist since John Maynard Keynes" according to Fortune magazine, recounts these events and more: he points out that they raise significant questions for which economists may not have answers.
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What do babysitting coops and liquidity traps have in common? Lots, according to Paul Krugman. In The Return of Depression Economics, the MIT professor looks at the alarming string of financial crises that plagued various economies around the globe in the 1990s, especially the Asian contagion, and sees an "eerie resemblance to the Great Depression." Instead of the "new world order" promised by the triumph of capitalism over socialism, "the world economy has turned out to be a much more dangerous place than we imagined."
Krugman uses the example of a Washington, D.C., babysitting coop to explain the dynamics of recession and inflation. He examines the remarkable emergence of Asia and the precursors to the Asian mess--the Tequila Effect of the mid-'90s that began in Mexico and Japan's fall in the early '90s into an economic malaise. He then analyzes the underlying reasons for the collapse of the Thai baht and other Asian currencies as well as the subsequent actions of the IMF and the murky role of hedge funds. In the end, Krugman sees the return of depression economics, which "means that for the first time in two generations, failures on the demand side of the economy--insufficient private spending to make use of the available productive capacity--have become the clear and present limitation on prosperity for a large part of the world." It's the same problem that was at the root of the 1930s depression. And while it took a world war to solve that problem, Krugman sees solutions that are far less dramatic but that do require a willingness to chuck obsolete doctrines and think about old problems in new ways.
Over the years, Krugman has earned a well-deserved reputation for translating the jargon that economists speak into something that anyone with an interest--not necessarily a Ph.D.--can understand. The Return of Depression Economics is another timely testament to Krugman's ability to read and interpret the tea leaves of today's global economy. Highly recommended. --Harry C. EdwardsAbout the Author:
Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His book "The Age of Diminished Expectations" was called "perhaps the best little book on economics in the past ten years." (Boston Globe), and another, "Peddling Prosperity," was hailed as "The best primer around on recent US economic history." (Newsweek).
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