A best-of-times, worst-of-times overview of the previous decade by whip-smart economist and presidential advisor Stiglitz (Economics/Columbia Univ.; Globalization and Its Discontents, 2002).
Adam Smith’s playing field–leveling invisible hand, observes Stiglitz, sometimes can’t be seen because it is in fact not there. So it seemed through much of the 1990s, which saw American capitalism claw its way up staggering new heights of inequity and avarice. Take the stock market’s ever more pronounced dislike, throughout the decade, of giving the small investor an even break with equal access to intelligence, about which Stiglitz remarks, “Unfettered markets, rampant with conflicts of interest, can lead to inefficiency. We can never eliminate the problems; we can, however, mitigate them. In the nineties, we made them worse.” Some of the ways in which the economy was made worse, Stiglitz writes, were political in nature; the Clinton administration, which he served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, failed to get a handle on such things as funny corporate accounting practices and the endless corporate appropriation of the public domain. Fault Clinton Stiglitz does, and at many points as he turns from NAFTA to the WTO to the Enron scandal and on. Yet, he warns, it is a mistake to attribute to that administration the collapse of the great bubble and the dive into recession that closed the decade: though Clinton may earn middling marks, Stiglitz slyly notes, as a teacher he grades on a curve, and Clinton positively shines by comparison with what came before and after. That collapse brought with it the evaporation of trillions and a subsequent performance well below the economy’s potential—but no real curbing of such matters as executive compensation, merger mania, and unemployment. Contra many of his colleagues, Stiglitz calls for more rather than less regulation, noting that the bursting bubble did bring at least some useful reforms in accounting practices and the public disclosure of information.
Likely to cause indigestion among some Wall Streeters, but a thoughtful, accessible survey of a history that’s still unfolding.