Briefly Noted

| May 2013
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Thinking the Twentieth Century, Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder (United States: Penguin Books, 2013), 432 pp., $36 cloth, $18 paper.

This is an extraordinary book by two extraordinary thinkers. Diagnosed with a terminal illness that made the use of his hands impossible, the eminent historian and public intellectual Tony Judt agreed to an unusual project: a series of free-flowing conversations with fellow historian Timothy Snyder, organized topically around areas of mutual interest, such as the intellectual history of twentieth-century Europe and the history of and future prospects for social democracy in Europe and North America. Snyder, whose groundbreaking 2010 book Bloodlands established him as one of the most important historians of European history working in the English language, serves as the interlocutor here, encouraging (and at times nudging) Judt to expand upon many of the themes of his earlier books and essays, such as Reappraisals, Ill Fares the Land, and the monumental Postwar.

The book also serves as an intellectual biography of sorts: each chapter begins with Judt’s account of an important period of his professional and personal life, which then serves as an entrée into that chapter’s topic. This allows us to really grasp how Judt’s thought was conditioned by his upbringing—for instance, his biographical recounting of his childhood in a secular socialist Jewish family in 1950s London feeds into his discussion of early twentieth century Central European (and especially Viennese) Jewish thinkers, and we see how his erstwhile Zionist commitments (Judt spent a significant time in his adolescence on a socialist Kibbutz in northern Israel) informed his critique of current Israeli policies and his eventual embrace of a “one-state solution.”

It is difficult to summarize the breadth of the topics discussed in Thinking the Twentieth Century. Judt transitions seamlessly from one disparate area to the next, proving he is as equally fluent in discussing interwar trends in thinking in international political economy as he is in critiquing Rawlsian social contractarianism; in exploring the history of Marxism in twentieth-century France as he is in describing the peculiar place of Poland in European history and consciousness; and in eviscerating market-obsessed pathologies in the United States as he is in recounting the divergent intellectual histories of German, Italian, and Romanian fascism. A testament to the value of ecumenicalism and interdisciplinary inquiry, Thinking the Twentieth Century is a celebration of the life of the mind, well lived.

 

End This Depression Now!, Paul Krugman (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012), 272 pp., $24.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

It has been five years since the crash of the U.S. housing market plunged the global economy into a deep recession. And while the “Great Recession” has technically ended in the United States—the National Bureau of Economic Research, the official scorekeeper, determined that it did so in mid-2009—both the U.S. and global economies remain in a precarious state. Millions of people find themselves unemployed or underemployed, and for many who have jobs wages remain well below pre-recession levels. The net effect of this protracted period of subnormal economic activity has been nothing short of an “immense human disaster,” writes Paul Krugman, winner of the 2008 Nobel Prize in Economics.

As Krugman explains in End This Depression Now!, however, this is no ordinary human disaster. With “ordinary” disasters— those caused by floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis, for example—we are rarely, if ever, in a position to prevent their occurrence. But with the current disaster, “none of this need be happening,” for “we have both the knowledge and tools to end the suffering.”

Drawing on the insights of economists such as John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minsky, Krugman explores why the latest crash occurred and what we can do about it. The answers, he tells us, need not be sought in new economic models or theories; rather, they were conceived of nearly eighty years ago by Keynes in his 1936 magnum opus, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money.

As Keynes argued, the usual textbook prescription for recessions—that central banks lower interest rates, which in most cases stimulates investment and other spending by lowering the cost of borrowing— can sometimes fail to boost aggregate demand, the lack of which causes recession. Indeed, in 2007 and 2008 the U.S. Federal Reserve aggressively cut interest rates, eventually down to zero. However, “consumer spending remained weak; housing stayed flat on its back; business investment was low, because why expand without strong sales? And unemployment remained disastrously high.”

In short, we are confronted with a problem that Keynes referred to as a “liquidity trap.” That is, how do we boost overall demand in the economy—which then allows firms to rehire workers and make investments to keep up with consumer purchases—when conventional monetary policy has exhausted its effectiveness? The solution, prescribed by Keynes in the 1930s and by Krugman today, is rather straightforward: the government needs to spend money to make up for what the private sector is unable or unwilling to do. For as Keynes colorfully put it: “The boom, not the slump, is the time for austerity.”

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Category: Briefly Noted, Issue 27.2

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