Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Review (#21 of 2013): Lords of Finance by Liaquat Ahamed

This book has won several awards, including the 2010 Pulitzer for history; it is well-deserving. This is the third book on the Great Depression era that I have read this year and I would recommend reading this book and Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man (my review) back-to-back. You can't understand how we got to the Great Depression without this book.

In my Money & Banking courses, I would always play the "Anatomy of a Crisis" episode of Milton Friedman's Free to Choose series. In it, Friedman laments that Benjamin Strong died in 1928, believing that Strong would have pushed the Federal Reserve to take the steps necessary to inject liquidity into the American system. It was Friedman and Schwartz's work that showed the U.S. needlessly hoarded gold, keeping monetary policy tight and forcing a chokehold on the U.S. economy. This book tells that part of the story well, including the insights of why France did the same thing. I see nothing to contradict Friedman's assertion that the Great Depression was a monetary phenomenon.

But one cannot understand that period without understanding the role that German reparations had on the entire system. That becomes the snowball that starts the avalanche. Ahamed gives a biography of the central bankers who propped up the gold standard after World War I, their context, psychology, and their interpersonal relationships. He details the decisions in monetary policy made throughout the twenties and early thirties. The life and writings of J.M. Keynes during this period is also chronicled and other prominent economists, such as Irving Fisher, are mentioned as well. Presidents and Prime Ministers are viewed through the lens of monetary policy and international finance. The book is not boring at all, the narrative is quite riveting.

I give this book 5 of 5 stars, it is a must-read for anyone interested in economics of the 1920s and 1930s. I learned a great deal.

Book Review (#20 of 2013) Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War 1939-1945 by David M. Kennedy

Freedom from Fear won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in history. It is a 900+ page tome that is essentially two books, The Depression and The War. I decided to read it as a comparison to Amity Schlaes' The Forgotten Man (my review).

As far as The Depression goes, Schlaes' treatment is much deeper and more detailed, including the 1920s context and the personal histories and travels to the USSR of FDR's "braintrust." Kennedy skips or glosses over certain crucial details of the New Deal that Schlae's emphasizes, like the critical Schechter case. However, Kennedy does a good job explaining how the New Deal had to be mostly undone to fight World War II. He also does a better job integrating the important of international events on FDR's decision-making in the later 30's.

Overall, I don't find many contradictions to Schlaes' treatment of FDR and the New Deal, which is remarkable given how much the Left has poo-poohed Schlaes' account. FDR comes across as inexperienced, contradictory, weak in negotiations, and not very literate ("None of his advisers ever knew him to read a book) in both accounts-- quite different from the adoration he receives today. The New Deal was more about more fair redistribution than economic stimulation, which is why the restrictions it put on free enterprise had to be let go to allow businesses to produce the war machine.

FDR's decision to take the U.S. off the gold standard was the greatest economic boost. His sudden determination to raise taxes and reduce the deficit helped cause the 1938 recession for which he almost faced a tough re-election.

Kennedy does a good job giving a play-by-play overview of World War II, including many details revealed by recent research; that's quite laudable. FDR's ill health and failings at Yalta are detailed. Kennedy does a decent job giving some home-front industrial policy and statistics throughout the book, including WWII, but I think fails to capture the sociology of the American people during the War years. He does look at certain aspects, such as internment camps, and the role of women (and their eagerness to get back to homemaking according to multiple surveys-- something that is forgotten about the 1940s by many modern talking heads).

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. It's not great as a detailed account of both periods, but is a very good overview of both.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Book Review (#19 of 2013) My Life and Times in Turkey by Cyrus Hamlin

This is a follow-up to the post I wrote about Hamlin being a pioneer of what is now called "business as missions." Hamlin (Wikipedia entry) is a forgotten American gem and his book is both a fantastic look at both pre-1850's New England and life and politics in Istanbul in the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1800s.

Hamlin's life begins rather un-remarkably, he was born into a fairly successful Maine farming family. Hamlin's father died while Cyrus was little and left the estate to his wife who then had to figure out how to run it. The family learns to farm through trial-and-error and the help of neighbors. Hamlin recounts holidays-- he laments how modern 4th of July celebrations have "lost the spirit of '76," for example. His mother was devout and church was a Sunday ritual. Hamlin and his family also shared a love of reading, and Hamlin (helpfully) records which books were available.

At sixteen, he moves to a city to begin an apprenticeship as a silversmith, something he is successful at. Eventually, he reaches a conversion point, embracing his Christian faith and pondering whether he is called to full-time ministry. Eventually, he decides to enter full-time study and is supported by his church in the effort. He completes a prep academy, a college, and then a seminary, with honors. He has an engineering mind, determining at one point to build the first steam engine in Maine. He finds he can lecture on certain subjects for the public for a fee to support himself, as well as fill pulpits while awaiting his appointment as a missionary with the American Board.

Hamlin provides a nice snapshot of the American Church and missions in that time. His family is appointed to Istanbul to work with the minority Armenian population there. He arrives and witnesses great persecution among Armenian Protestants, primarily from the Armenian Orthodox who Hamlin maintains are taking orders from the Orthodox heads in St. Petersburg, Russia. Hamlin eventually founds a seminary, but finds his Armenian students are too poor to study well. So, he ignores the criticism of his Board and builds a workshop to train them in marketable trades. This allows several to find employment enough to feed their families and pay for their ministry activities. Hamlin claims that ultimately the workshop provided enough funds to build thirteen Armenian churches, as a revival sweeps the area.

Hamlin also builds an oven for baking bread, catering to Western tastes. When the Crimean War starts, the British maintained a large hospital in the area and Hamlin becomes the sole contractor of bread (and later laundry services). He meets Florence Nightinggale, who cleans up the hospital.

Eventually, Hamlin is instrumental in founding Robert College, named after an American whose donations made it possible. After years of lobbying and struggling with Turkish-Armenian politics, Hamlin is eventually issued an Imperial edict to construct a building for the school and for it to fly an American flag and be under American protection, the first institution of its kind in the Ottoman Empire. That's a remarkable story, made more remarkable by the fact that Robert College still exists and is considered one of the best high schools in Turkey.

I loved this book for many reasons, and I learned a lot from it. I learn a lot from every book I read from the 1800s, and Hamlin, thankfully, wrote another about his time in Turkey and points me to many others written by his acquaintances. Five stars out of five.