May 03, 2010
13 Bankers, by Johnson and Kwak
Posted by David Zaring

I liked this book, and think you might as well.  Here's a debate between Tyler Cowen and James Kwak.

  • This book differs from many from the financial crisis in that it actually offers a prescription and has a theory about what happened.  That theory, basically, is that Wall Street has captured government regulators, most clearly not through the examiners at the FDIC or even the Fed, really, but through the Treasury Department, with its Rubinses, Summerses, and Geithners.  The prescription is to use antitrust to break up the big banks.
  • It's also an excellent history of the conflict between financial interests and political leaders in America, which Johnson and Kwak see as perpetual.  Their story reminded me a bit of Charles Beard's account of the forces shaping American history, which he also took to be a bit dialectical.  I've always enjoyed Beard, and I found the history to be interesting and useful.
  • The populist, trust-busting remedy is one that few mainstream economists (or me, for that matter) would disagree with, actually.  If, as Alan Greenspan said, banks are too big to fail, they're too big.  Lehman was too big to fail, and if it wasn't, all the bailed out banks larger than it were.  They're too big.  Still, the logic is one thing, the actual practice of every prosperous or developing economy in the world is another.  Compared to Japan, Germany, Switzerland, China, you name it, American banks are small, particularly as a proportion of GDP.  It's hotly debated, but economic development as it is actually practiced by East Asian tigers is corporatist, business-and-government-hand-in-hand, strategy.  And it is a strategy that has worked.  So I suppose one thing defenders of large banks might ask Johnson and Kwak is: why shouldn't finance and Washington be closely interlinked?  Isn't the occasional bailout worth the growth?

I'm biased, though - I found Johnson and Kwak's Baseline Scenario to be an invaluable guide during the depths of the crisis, and have contributed to their Washington Post blog.

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