Guide WRONG: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them

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Grossman, Richard S., Wrong: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them. New York: Oxford University Press,
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Conducting counter-factual analysis is even harder. This of course does not mean that we should give up analysing past policies widely known as mistaken. Grossman first describes the British Navigation Acts fuelled by the ideology of mercantilism that speeded up the process of revolution in the North American colonies.

There is also a chapter on the Great Famine in Ireland at the end of the 19 th century, and the impact of policies and British Corn Laws on it. Grossman covers the well-documented mistake on the amount of war reparations imposed by the Allies on Germany after the First World War, as well as the return to the Gold Standard at the pre-war too high parity by Britain in the inter-war period.

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Another example of wrong economic policy that is described in the book is the Smooth-Hawley Tariff, which was a protectionist measure applied by the US in Lastly, before turning to the most recent policy mistakes, the author devotes one chapter to the infamous Japanese Lost Decade. What sounds like an enumeration of well-known policy mistakes already described in other books turns out in fact to be a fascinating collection of accounts providing interesting details and new insights into the subject.

This is a well-written book that puts the events into historical and economic context. It certainly has a chance at becoming a best-seller and not solely a publication read by experts.

Credit: woodleywanderworks CC BY 2. As an example, we can take a closer look at the chapter on the Irish Famine, which took place from Grossman not only describes what happened, but puts it into the perspective of other famines, starting from the BCE period. In terms of absolute numbers, the Great Hunger in Ireland was not the worst famine recorded but it did tragically lead to the death of twelve per cent of Irish population, forcing many others to emigrate.

The author details how the potato — which originated in the Americas — arrived to a fertile Ireland, and that the poorest third of the Irish population consumed up to twelve pounds of potatoes per day per capita. Only after this introduction the economic policy is mentioned.

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Stolen Child

Russell was so committed to the limited government intervention that he refused to buy food for the starving masses in order not to disturb the free formation of prices in the market. Similarly, he refused to increase the scale of public works that would give job to Irish workers so as not to disturb the free labour market.

Full disclosure: Richard is an old friend, and we are now doing some joint work.

The novelty is in the attempt to draw some broad generalizations. Inevitably, of course, scholars who are specialists on one of these cases will have some bones to pick. But unlike the efforts of some popular writers to draw lessons from economic history, Grossman has mastered the scholarly literature for the cases he chooses.

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The closest analog that I can think of is Michael J. Oliver and Derek H. In the case of the British decision to strengthen the Navigation Acts, Grossman sees the ideology of mercantilism at work. The subprime mortgage crisis, Grossman finds, was partly the result, again, of adherence to a free market ideology that undermined necessary regulation of the financial sector.

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Grossman does not, I hasten to add, adopt a monocausal explanation of these mistakes. Often special interests must share the blame. This comes out clearly in the Smoot-Hawley tariff when each member or Congress fought for an increase in the tariff that would help producers in his or her district. Sometimes a lack of sympathy for people who were different in terms of culture, religion, or nationality played a role, as in the British failure to aid Ireland during the potato famine and the decision by the Allies to impose harsh penalties on Germany after World War I.

Sometimes simple bad luck played a part.


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Perhaps, Grossman suggests, Keynes simply had an off-night when Churchill gave him a chance to make the case against returning to gold at the prewar parity. Conclusion: I have great admiration for this book. Grossman addresses an important question and his judgments are uniformly well reasoned and balanced.


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He is also an outstanding teacher of economics. And in describing why the Smoot-Hawley Tariff was a bad idea, Grossman goes back to the theory of comparative advantage and explains it in a way that non-economists could actually understand — no easy task. For this reason, the book would also make a good text for an undergraduate course.


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Each week or so a new problem could be considered, and students could choose the event that most interested them for their papers. Students would learn a great deal of economics without realizing that they were being taught.

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Few economic historians can write as well as Grossman. Learn more. Volume 54 , Issue 3. The full text of this article hosted at iucr.

Richard S. Grossman

If you do not receive an email within 10 minutes, your email address may not be registered, and you may need to create a new Wiley Online Library account. If the address matches an existing account you will receive an email with instructions to retrieve your username. Australian Economic History Review. Book review. Read the full text.