Economics isn’t often a crowd pleaser, but Tom Vanderbilt manages some vivid writing in his coverage of two books about the recent housing market bubble, Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown by Edmund L. Andrews and Our Lot: How Real Estate Came to Own Us by Alyssa Katz, in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. His formulations are original:
The behavioral economics revolution has taught us that no man, including an economics correspondent, is pure homo economicus, a cool and rational calculator. Experiments have shown that even nutrition experts unwittingly eat more ice cream when given larger spoons.
and his style is fun enough:
… despairing tales of investors under water on dusty lots in speculative-build communities that come off like Potemkin villages in Margaritaville.
This is a decent anchor piece for a Book Review devoted to modern history and socioeconomics, though it is frustrating that these books and Vanderbilt’s review perpetuate the idea that over-eager homeowners caused our current economic disaster. In fact, it was the insidious and toxic system of securitized mortgages and credit default swaps — a high-finance game that individual home-owning borrowers had nothing to do with — that caused our disaster. Without the greed and negligence of the “wizards” who manage our economy from the top, the housing bubble would have led to a small crash rather than a gigantic one. Let’s please keep the blame where it belongs.
It’s not as clear who gets the blame, meanwhile, for the horrifying drug epidemic described by Nick Reding’s Methland, ably reviewed by Walter Kirn. According to this book, crystal meth is doing the same kind of damage to middle American small towns and cities that crack did in American ghettos twenty years ago. This is certainly a serious topic (and it probably deserves the kind of coverage now wasted tracking weirdos like Sarah Palin and Michael Jackson in the news media 24/7).
David Andelman, whose A Shattered Peace was an important original work about the treaty that ended the First World War, reviews a new history, World War One by Norman Stone, and concludes with disappointment that the book has little new to offer. Though I haven’t seen this book, I have browsed enough history bookshelves to understand Andelman’s complaint: with so much history left unexplored and unexplained for popular audiences, history publishers continue to repeat themselves and copy each other with obscene regularity. I would love to see a good book about the Franco-Prussian War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Crimean War — all of them highly relevant still today today, yet widely unknown to modern minds. All types of book publishers betray their audiences when they play it safe, but copycat publishing is particularly inexcusable in the field of history.
At least today’s Book Review reaches into some worthwhile corners. Jackson Lears finds value in a biography of an important muckraking American journalist who strove to understand the 20th Century in real time, D. D. Guttenplan’s American Radical: The Life and Times of I. F. Stone. The Book Review closes with an essay by Daniel Gross on Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, a socio-economic classic from 1899 that reverberates today.