Last night I read my newly-arrived copy of Joseph Stiglitz’s The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World’s Most Prosperous Decade. As you might expect from Stiglitz, it is well-written and smart.
His key theme is that, although the nineties were a wonderful time economically, they also brought some dangerous trends. Most of all, the capital market ruled resource allocation, and economic policy, like never before. We misallocated resources on a tremendous scale, such as with the telecommunications boom and bust. Stiglitz also argues against the deregulation of the nineties, as too little was done to reign in corporate abuses, such as Enron. He also believes that the Clinton administration was too obsessed with balancing the budget.
My hesitations about this book are simple: We are never given much of a recipe for how things could have been better. Stiglitz opposes the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and the Clinton telecommunications reforms. To be sure, these policies were problematic in some regards, but they did not drive the excesses of the 90s. To what extent can government policy limit a dot.com or fiber optic boom? To what extent can government policy, as opposed to intra-firm institutional reforms, limit corporate conflicts of interest? We do not get much of an inkling on these critical issues.
Occasionally Stiglitz gets specific, but his examples do not help his case: “Would the bubble have been averted if only we had only supported better accounting of executive stock options? We will never know the answer.” But the answer is almost certainly “no,” most commentators regard the option accounting issue as a red herring, here is one treatment of many.
It is OK to write a pure critique, rather than a recipe for change, but the book promises “a coherent and convincing alternative.” That is precisely what we do not get. The final chapter “Toward a New Democratic Idealism” also does not move beyond the vague. It is not enough to say we had too much deregulation and forgot our concern with social justice.
Stiglitz also expresses concern that the Clinton administration pushed “market fundamentalism” on the poorer countries of the world, while rejecting it at home. I cannot agree here. Even if you take the Stiglitzian worldview as correct and given, the quality of government in the developed countries is much higher than in the developing world. Admittedly the quality of the market is often higher as well, but why promote a regulatory regime that will bring corruption and privilege? Most poorer countries simply cannot count on good and honest regulation, and they don’t have Joe Stiglitz as the main economic advisor to their Presidents.