I originally wrote this review in 2004. Seems like a good moment to pass it along again.
Manias, Panics, and Crashes: a history of financial crises, fourth edition by Charles P. Kindleberger (New York: Wiley 2000)
A recent Wall St Journal article described this book as a “must read” classic for anyone involved in financial markets. I have been involved directly in financial markets in two ways recently. First, I spent a year chasing around chasing angel investors and venture capitalists during the DotCom boom to fund Valuedge (the software company I co-founded in 1999 and left in 2004, though I still hold a large ownership interest). Second, I receive quarterly statements for my 401K retirement investments. Primarily driven by my experiences with Valuedge and the phenomenal boom time of the DotCom era, I read through Kindleberger’s durable book (originally published in 1978 and never out of print since).
Although I have come to refer to the year 2000 as the Tulip Phase of Valuedge after the well-known Dutch tulipmania in the 1630s. Little did I know that financial bubbles, booms, and the inevitable crashes and depressions are a very common feature of capitalism. The first couple of chapters describe or mention dozens of bubbles and booms located around an amazing array of geopolitical centers. These have been focused on anything and everything: the well-known tulips in the 1630s; railroads; copper; English country houses; agricultural land; private companies going public (Britain 1888, US 1928 and IPOs 1998-2000); and many others.
The first lesson, then, is that booms and speculative bubbles are a commonplace feature of the capitalist world.
So, why do these bubbles and speculative manias occur? The answers are complex, involving human psychology, malfeasance, regulation (or lack), banks, and government. Read Kindleberger .
An important explicit message from Kindleberger is that economists’ models of “homo economicus” and “the market” are far from a useful mirror of what actually goes on. People are not even vaguely rational in their economic behavior and markets never constructively approach the model of a market found in Econ 101 or for that matter anywhere else that I have ever heard of.
This is not just an academic concern. In recent years our politics has displayed a dominant rhetoric that calls for the application of “market solutions” to almost every area of our lives, particularly those where traditionally we expect government to provide services, regulations, etc. Instead, we now reflexively think that “market solutions” are inherently more efficient and effective than government services. Liberals, trapped in their abandonment of even the moderate criticism of capitalism that the Catholic Church, for instance, engages, have provided no useful critique of “market solutions” as a universal policy approach.
At a practical level, this public policy fixation on “market solutions” combined with a generalized attack on all government spending, is driving a generalized impoverishment of the public infrastructure of our civil society and not coincidentally an enrichment of the wealthy and particularly the super-rich.
I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the day-to-day political and economic life of the world.