Her collected geniuses, Ms. Nasar claims, were “instrumental in turning economics into an instrument of mastery.” I find nothing in these pages remotely to substantiate that contention. Economics may be an “engine of analysis,” as Alfred Marshall said, or an “apparatus of the mind,” as Keynes put it. But economists no more set the world to producing and consuming than baseball statisticians hit home runs. Then, too, you’ll never see Bill James, the dean of the baseball sabermetricians, trip up a base runner the way the government thwarts an entrepreneur. The intervention-minded economists are the ones who give the government its big ideas.
Grant also wishes she had included a few more important, though less celebrated, figures:
There isn’t room for every economist in this book or any other, but I myself missed the voice of Jacques Rueff, the 20th-century theorist who was able to demonstrate the superiority of the classical gold standard over the faux gold standard devised by Keynes (incorporated in the Bretton Woods system of 1944-71) or the paper-money regime advocated by Fisher and Friedman.
I missed, as well, Murray Rothbard, who blamed the Great Depression on the Hoover administration. It didn’t intervene too little, Rothbard unconventionally sought to show in his 1963 book, “America’s Great Depression,” but rather too much. The economics profession just smiled at this contention, but the unsolved case of the depression of 1920-21 counts heavily for Rothbard’s thesis. It was a deep and painful slump (a young Army veteran, Harry S. Truman, lost his Kansas City haberdashery to bankruptcy), with the wholesale price index dropping by 37% and the measured rate of unemployment tripling to 12%.
But it ended. Why it ended will mystify anyone who has taken to heart the arguments of Keynesians for more fiscal and monetary stimulus to revive today’s economy. To meet the crisis that spanned the administrations of Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding, the Treasury ran a budget surplus and the Fed raised interest rates. Yet the slump did end, and the 1920s roared.
See also Tom Woods on the forgotten depression of 1920.