*Fragile by Design*

That is the new banking book by Charles W. Calomiris and Stephen H. Haber and the subtitle is The Political Origins of Banking Crises & Scarce Credit.  I went to review it, but came back to the thought that I liked Arnold Kling’s review better than what I was coming up with, here goes:

I am now reading Fragile by Design by Charles Calomiris and Stephen Haber. I posted a few months ago on an essay they wrote based on the book. I also attended yesterday an “econtalk live,” where Russ Roberts interviewed the authors in front of live audience for a forthcoming podcast. You might look forward to listening–the authors are very articulate and they speak colorfully, e.g. describing the United States as being “founded by troublemakers” who achieved independence through violence, as opposed to the more boring Canadians.

I think it is an outstanding book, although in my opinion it is marred by their focus on CRA lending as a cause of the recent financial crisis. This is a flaw because (a) they might be wrong and (b) even if they are right, they will turn off many potential readers who might otherwise find much to appreciate in the book. Everyone, regardless of ideology, should read the book. It offers a lot of food for thought.

I am only part-way through it. The story as far as I can tell is this:

1. There is a lot of overlap between government and banking. Governments, particularly as territories coalesced into nation states, needed to raise funds for speculative enterprises, such as wars and trading empires. Banks need to enforce contracts, e.g., by taking possession of collateral in the case of a defaulted loan. Government needs the banks, and the banks need government.

2. If the rulers are too powerful, they may not be able to credibly commit to leaving banks assets alone, so it may be hard for banks to form. But if the government is not powerful enough, it cannot credibly commit to enforcing debt contracts, so that it may be hard for banks to form.

3. Think of democracies as leaning either toward liberal or populist. By liberal, the authors mean Madisonian in design, to curb power in all forms. By populist, the authors mean responsive to the will of popular coalitions of what Madison called factions.

4. If you are lucky (as in Canada), your banking policies are grounded in a liberal version of democracy, meaning that the popular will is checked, and regulation serves to implement a stable banking system. If you are unlucky (as in the U.S.), your banking policies are grounded in the populist version of democracy. Banking policy reflects a combination of debtor-friendly interventionism and regulations that favor rent-seeking coalitions who shift burdens to taxpayers. The result is an unstable system.

I may not be stating point 4 in the most persuasive way. I am not yet persuaded by it. In fact, I think libertarians will be at least as troubled as progressives are by some of the theses that the authors promulgate.


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