The 1931 crisis of Austria's largest bank, Credit Anstalt, which collapsed as a result of capital flight depleting its reserves, is all too familiar a scenario in the late 1990s. Brazil, Malaysia and Japan have all experienced similar crises, and the US and Europe are not immune. Economic policy reforms by Western governments have taken us back to a regime with many of the virtues of pre-depression, free-market capitalism, but with some key vices, notably a vulnerability to instability and sustained economic slumps. As a result of these reforms, depression economics has now emerged as a real concern, and Paul Krugman believes that sooner or later we will have to return to regulation of financial markets, limits on capital flows and a recognition that low inflation is less dangerous than price instability.
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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 analyses 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. Edwards, Amazon.com
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