Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Alpine Redoubt

Last week, there was some wild speculation about the possible meanings of a dream that I had that featured an appearance by noted libertarian blogger Vox Day. While the theories offered were interesting and even entertaining, there's likely a very simple explanation. Vox has a new book coming out soon called The Return of the Great Depression. He had sent me an advance preview of the book and asked for my comments on it. While I finished the book a few weeks ago, I haven't had a chance to collect my thoughts on it yet. With its October 29th (that dates seems familiar...) release looming, it's been moving up on my priority list of things that do. Therefore the dream was likely nothing more than subconscious reminder to take care of business and scribble a review. Sometimes a dream is just a dream and requires no further interpretation. Now, that dream where I'm lying in bed and Vox comes flying through the window...

Let me start my passing on a shocking piece of information: Vox Day is not an economist. That may lead some to discount his views on matters economic, but in this case it proves to be beneficial. He approaches the subject as an outsider and is not wedded to any particular school of economic theory from his background. This allows him to be rather dispassionate in his analysis and also forces him to be more vigorous in his research since he doesn't come into it with a great deal of experience.

It also makes "The Return of the Great Depression" a more understandable and entertaining read than your average economic tome. That's not to say its been dumbed down or overly simplified. Vox takes on some rather weighty and complicated economic topics. But, as he previously did in "The Irrational Atheist," he does so in his own unique voice (Vox's vox?). Even while explaining the inner workings of the money supply or the components that make up GDP, he maintains his straight-shooting style infused with the mix of cynicism and sarcastic humor that readers of his blog have come to expect. Its also one of the few economic texts that you're going to find sprinkled with gaming references. I was a little disappointed that he didn't find a way to work the Vikings in somewhere along the way.

"The Return of the Great Depression" covers a lot of ground in its relatively short (less than 250 pages) length. Vox begins by looking back at what happened to Japan's economy in the 1990s, why the attempts made to turn things around were bound to fail, and what lessons we can draw from that experience today. He then tries to explain how we got into the mess we're in today. One of my favorite chapters was "No One Knows Anything" where Vox casts a skeptical eye toward the economic data that we've come to rely on for guidance and decision making. For all the progress that the dismal science has made over the years there's still a frightening amount of uncertainty when it comes to knowing what's really going on with the economy and even more so with what will happen next.

One of the strengths of the arguments that Vox puts forth is his willingness to understand where the other side is coming from. He demonstrated this ably in "The Irrational Atheist" and does so again in "The Return of the Great Depression." For while he's firmly in the camp of the Austrian school of economic theory, he's obviously spent a lot of time studying the Monetarists and Keynesians. In fact, at times he seems to understand the underlying theories of Keynes better than some of his modern day adherents. After he details why he believes the Austrians offer the best (although far from perfect) explanations for how economic cycles work, he gives us a critique of the Austrian Theory from a Keynesian perspective. When you've taken the time to not only tear down your opponent's arguments, but also show that you can argue the case from their point of view, it demonstrates the thoroughness of your approach and understanding.

The book close with Vox presenting six possible scenarios for what might happen next to the global economy. They range the gamut from boom to gloom. The title of the book tells you what Vox thinks will happen next and he makes a strong case for it. I'm not quite as pessimistic as he is. While happy days aren't and won't be here again for some time, I don't believe that we're on the verge of Great Depression 2.0. We'll muddle through a period of prolonged stagnation and maybe even experience a double dip recession. No thanks to any conceivable government action. Vox also lists ten things that should be done to prevent things from getting any worse. The chance of any of those practical steps actually taking place is quite remote.

One possible criticism of the book is that it reflects Vox's style. Some might be put off by the at different times strident, arrogant, and flippant tone. But that's just Vox being Vox. It's definitely not for everyone. But if you want to read an informative, thoughtful, and even sometimes entertaining book on the current economic situation, you can't go wrong with "The Return of the Great Depression." Personally, I think that any book on economics with a chapter titled "The Whore, The False Prophet, and The Beast From The Sea" merits a look.

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