Financial journalist Grant (The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself, 2014, etc.) pays homage to the founding genius of the genre, the pioneering Economist editor and capital Victorian chap.
Walter Bagehot (1826-1877)—as the author helpfully points out, it’s pronounced “Badge-it”—was impossibly accomplished, devouring libraries of Latin literature as a child, writing literary essays as a teenager, insatiably learning, and, at his peak as a journalist, writing at least 5,000 meticulously arranged words per week. He was also largely self-taught in economics, a discipline that was then only beginning to shape itself. Grant recounts the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer William Gladstone’s remark, “The machinery of our financial administration is complicated, and Mr. Bagehot is the only outsider who had thoroughly mastered it. Indeed, he understood the machine almost as completely as we who had to work it.” The author’s account is not without its complications, from the opening discussion of the British monetary system in the two-metal years to repeated encounters with financial panics and depression brought on by wishful thinking, willful error, and the inevitable bubbles and busts of the business cycle. Born into both banking and journalism, Bagehot, as editor and principal columnist for the Economist, was in a position to admonish, correct, and suggest; by Grant’s account, the treasury note is one result. He was also in a position, as Grant notes, to prognosticate and imagine: “To write about finance in a useful way,” writes the author, “is to take an unconventional view of the future (there’s not much demand for what everybody already knows).” Bagehot’s imagination led to a publication that, in his own image, was politically somewhat liberal and fiscally conservative, learned without being ponderous, and able to adapt and to admit error, all qualities that lend credence to Grant’s estimation of Bagehot as one whose “words live.”
Essential for readers with an interest in the history of economics and, more important, how to write about and read the dismal science.