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The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

3 August 2008

I’ve opened up a new tag for this review: economics. I have a few books in the queue that will fit nicely into this tag, and I’m looking forward to posting them.

The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz, it might be said, knows a little something about economics. He was a professor of economics at Stanford University, served as a member and later chairman of the Clinton administration’s Council of Economic Advisers (a group of appointed economists who provide policy analysis and advice for the executive branch), went on to become chief economist at the World Bank from 1997 to 2000, and was the winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. Not only was he in a position to witness first-hand the economic boom of the 1990s, but he also bears some responsibility for both the boom and the subsequent fallout that later affected people all around the world. The East Asian financial crisis of 1997, the mass protests at the Seattle WTO meeting in 1999, the collapse of corporate giants like Enron and the tarnished records of major accounting firms like Arthur Andersen and Merrill Lynch — there are no shortage of incidents to consider in any book that seeks to blend historical analysis with coverage of current events. Stiglitz has been a critical commentator on international economics in the past, most notably in his 2001 book Globalization and Its Discontents which lambastes the IMF and the World Bank for aggravating poverty in many places around the world. In The Roaring Nineties, Stiglitz attempts to paint an economic picture of the title decade, exploring the reasons for the boom and subsequent bust that made the 1990s resemble the financial panics of 1890s in more ways than one.

The book as a whole is really an expanded version of an article that Stiglitz wrote for the October 2002 edition of The Atlantic Monthly. In both the article and the book, he points out that while the 1990s were undoubtedly a time of high optimism and growth in the business community, the foundations were being laid for the problems that were to come. Accounting standards were growing more and more lax, the greed of CEOs and other high-powered corporate figures remained generally unchecked, and deregulation of certain industries like telecommunications and utilities exacerbated existing inequalities to a degree that would not be fully felt until after the end of the Clinton administration. ‘Creative accounting’ and ‘crony capitalism’ are two of Stiglitz’s particular phrases to describe the practices of the decade. And he has no small amount of contempt for George W. Bush’s handling of the U.S. economy, which he claims worsened the fallout of the tech bubble’s bursting and only underscores the problems inherent in pandering to the very wealthy few at the expense of the far less wealthy majority.

The primary difficulty faced in expanding an article to a book is that you have to provide enough substance to add to or elaborate on your original ideas. The Roaring Nineties suffers from a tendency towards clunkiness and periodic heavy-handedness in the expansion that veers towards sanctimonious. Stiglitz almost can’t seem to decide whether he should be beating his breast or washing his hands of responsibility for the outcome of the 1990s — he tries to do both, and it doesn’t work very well. The economic history is certainly sound, and the conclusions are solid and well reasoned, but I wonder if the book might not have been improved by a co-author who hadn’t been quite so in the thick of things, as it were. Something to consider, at any rate.

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