A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression

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Overview

The financial and economic crisis that began in 2008 is the most alarming of our lifetime because of the warp-speed at which it is occurring. How could it have happened, especially after all that we’ve learned from the Great Depression? Why wasn’t it anticipated so that remedial steps could be taken to avoid or mitigate it? What can be done to reverse a slide into a full-blown depression? Why have the responses to date of the government and the economics profession been so lackluster? Richard Posner presents a concise and non-technical examination of this mother of all financial disasters and of the, as yet, stumbling efforts to cope with it. No previous acquaintance on the part of the reader with macroeconomics or the theory of finance is presupposed. This is a book for intelligent generalists that will interest specialists as well.

Among the facts and causes Posner identifies are: excess savings flowing in from Asia and the reckless lowering of interest rates by the
Federal Reserve Board; the relation between executive compensation,
short-term profit goals, and risky lending; the housing bubble fuelled by low interest rates, aggressive mortgage marketing, and loose regulations; the low savings rate of American people; and the highly leveraged balance sheets of large financial institutions.

Posner analyzes the two basic remedial approaches to the crisis, which correspond to the two theories of the cause of the Great Depression:
the monetarist—that the Federal Reserve Board allowed the money supply to shrink, thus failing to prevent a disastrous deflation—and the Keynesian—that the depression was the product of a credit binge in the 1920’s, a stock-market crash, and the ensuing downward spiral in economic activity. Posner concludes that the pendulum swung too far and that our financial markets need to be more heavily regulated.

Read Richard Posner's blog, and his latest article in The Atlantic.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
Lively, readable, and plainspoken...Posner has an extraordinarily sharp mind.
— Robert M. Solow
American Prospect
Posner has managed to write a compelling book on the crash...The book has numerous worthwhile insights, including a surprisingly Keynesian analysis of the dynamics of depressions.
— Robert Kuttner
Washington Post Book World
A surprising volume that explains what happened to the banking system and economy in terms the lay reader can easily understand...[Posner's] critique is bracing, all the more so because it comes from a right-leaning thinker normally hostile to the ministrations of government bureaucrats.
— Paul M. Barrett
Wall Street Journal
Before seeking political asylum in free-market Hong Kong, consider reading a new book that critiques what went wrong with capitalism, written in order to save it. Judge Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression is noteworthy. As a longtime University of Chicago professor and father of the free-market-based law-and-economics movement, Judge Posner makes an unlikely critic of capitalism. But as author of some 40 books and as the most frequently cited federal appeals court jurist, he is also one of our most original and clearheaded thinkers.
— L. Gordon Crovitz
New York Times Book Review
It comes as something of a surprise that Posner, a doyen of the market-oriented law-and-economics movement, should deliver a roundhouse punch to the proposition that markets are self-correcting. It might also seem odd that a federal appellate judge (and University of Chicago law lecturer) would be among the first out of the gate with a comprehensive book on the financial crisis--if, that is, the judge were any other judge. But Posner is the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's successor as the country's most omnivorous and independent-minded public intellectual. By now, his dozens of books just about fill their own wing in the Library of Congress...Compact and bracingly lucid...By the last page, not a single lazy generalization has survived Posner's merciless scrutiny, not one populist cliché remains standing. A Failure of Capitalism clears away whole forests of cant but leaves readers at a loss as to where to go from here. In other words, it is only a starting point--but an indispensable one.
— Jonathan Rauch
New Yorker
[Posner] has the rare kind of mind that is a pure pleasure to watch in action, regardless of the subject and the argument being made.
— John Lanchester
Jerusalem Post
Richard Posner is one of America's most prominent and prolific public intellectuals...With his concise, jargon-free analysis of the current economic crisis, Posner has cast his lot with those who believe that the "depression" (given the steep reduction in consumption, credit and production, the term, he insists, is appropriate) was the result "not of intrusive, heavy-handed regulation of housing and finance, but of deregulation, hostility to taxation and to government in general."
— Glenn C. Altschuler
Financial Times
Richard Posner is a phenomenon...He provides a very competent account of the events which led to the current crisis, with an emphasis on the political and ideological context.
— John Kay
Financial World
[Posner] is the quintessential U.S. economic-conservative intellectual...So an excoriating attack by Posner on modern financial market practices is news. A Failure of Capitalism is precisely that. There are still U.S. conservatives who think the crisis was overdone, that the policy response has been too great, that this was merely a crisis of confidence and liquidity, and that the banking system was not insolvent, merely illiquid. That is not Posner's view. His judgment is that the banking system is insolvent and the crisis that took place in 2008 transformed a recession in the US into a depression...In his preface, Posner emphasizes that he has written the book in medias res, a lawyer's way of saying "in the thick of it," with the implication that he has yet fully to make up his mind. He has, however, offered a thought-provoking interim analysis of what went wrong.
— Warwick Lightfoot
The Times
The best book describing this malaise is Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism. The distinctiveness of his case is that he is a prominent conservative thinker with the intellectual acuity to argue that the crisis is not to do with the traditional enemy of conservatism, big government, but is a consequence of decisions taken by private firms. The ill-effects of those decisions were worsened by deregulation of banking.
— Oliver Kamm
Paul M. Barrett
Posner doesn't offer an agenda for reining in Wall Street…But even without constructive proposals for reform, his critique is bracing, all the more so because it comes from a right-leaning thinker normally hostile to the ministrations of government bureaucrats.
—The Washington Post
Jonathan Rauch
…compact and bracingly lucid…By the last page, not a single lazy generalization has survived Posner's merciless scrutiny, not one populist cliche remains standing. A Failure of Capitalism clears away whole forests of cant but leaves readers at a loss as to where to go from here. In other words, it is only a starting point—but an indispensable one.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Posner (How Judges Think) is uncharacteristically dry in this dense book that states flatly that we are in a recession only because we are too frightened to call it a depression. He makes a near-heroic attempt to delve into the roots of the current crisis, citing some of the harder questions: how did it happen? why was it not anticipated? how is the government responding? A great deal of ground is covered, and the book takes the form of a high-altitude survey, assessing all the major points without getting bogged down in detail. Quickie explanations of subprime mortgages and the credit crunch orient the reader, and Posner addresses the takeaway lessons about capitalism and government, the puzzling lack of foresight from the economist community, the apportioning of blame and the resulting future of conservatism. All good topics, thoroughly and thoughtfully presented, but much of Posner's material is already woefully out of date. This book will make a serviceable study of the current crisis, but it does not serve its intended audience well in the meantime. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

With the stock market tumbling and the unemployment rate rising, the current financial crisis is dominating the headlines. Prolific author Posner (circuit judge, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit; senior lecturer, Univ. of Chicago Law Sch.; How Judges Think) examines the causes and consequences of the financial crisis as well as governmental measures aimed at dealing with it. In the first five chapters, he explores how and why the economy "has gotten itself into such a fix and what the government is trying to do to get the economy out of it and how likely it is to succeed." The final six chapters describe the lessons that can be learned from the crisis and ways to avoid the next depression. The text is current to the early days of the Obama administration. Highly recommended for both general readers and students as a top title among the growing number of books about the current crisis.
—Lucy Heckman

New York Review of Books - Robert M. Solow
Lively, readable, and plainspoken...Posner has an extraordinarily sharp mind.
American Prospect - Robert Kuttner
Posner has managed to write a compelling book on the crash...The book has numerous worthwhile insights, including a surprisingly Keynesian analysis of the dynamics of depressions.
Washington Post Book World - Paul M. Barrett
A surprising volume that explains what happened to the banking system and economy in terms the lay reader can easily understand...[Posner's] critique is bracing, all the more so because it comes from a right-leaning thinker normally hostile to the ministrations of government bureaucrats.
Wall Street Journal - L. Gordon Crovitz
Before seeking political asylum in free-market Hong Kong, consider reading a new book that critiques what went wrong with capitalism, written in order to save it. Judge Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism: The Crisis of '08 and the Descent into Depression is noteworthy. As a longtime University of Chicago professor and father of the free-market-based law-and-economics movement, Judge Posner makes an unlikely critic of capitalism. But as author of some 40 books and as the most frequently cited federal appeals court jurist, he is also one of our most original and clearheaded thinkers.
New York Times Book Review - Jonathan Rauch
It comes as something of a surprise that Posner, a doyen of the market-oriented law-and-economics movement, should deliver a roundhouse punch to the proposition that markets are self-correcting. It might also seem odd that a federal appellate judge (and University of Chicago law lecturer) would be among the first out of the gate with a comprehensive book on the financial crisis--if, that is, the judge were any other judge. But Posner is the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's successor as the country's most omnivorous and independent-minded public intellectual. By now, his dozens of books just about fill their own wing in the Library of Congress...Compact and bracingly lucid...By the last page, not a single lazy generalization has survived Posner's merciless scrutiny, not one populist cliché remains standing. A Failure of Capitalism clears away whole forests of cant but leaves readers at a loss as to where to go from here. In other words, it is only a starting point--but an indispensable one.
New Yorker - John Lanchester
[Posner] has the rare kind of mind that is a pure pleasure to watch in action, regardless of the subject and the argument being made.
Jerusalem Post - Glenn C. Altschuler
Richard Posner is one of America's most prominent and prolific public intellectuals...With his concise, jargon-free analysis of the current economic crisis, Posner has cast his lot with those who believe that the "depression" (given the steep reduction in consumption, credit and production, the term, he insists, is appropriate) was the result "not of intrusive, heavy-handed regulation of housing and finance, but of deregulation, hostility to taxation and to government in general."
Financial Times - John Kay
Richard Posner is a phenomenon...He provides a very competent account of the events which led to the current crisis, with an emphasis on the political and ideological context.
Financial World - Warwick Lightfoot
[Posner] is the quintessential U.S. economic-conservative intellectual...So an excoriating attack by Posner on modern financial market practices is news. A Failure of Capitalism is precisely that. There are still U.S. conservatives who think the crisis was overdone, that the policy response has been too great, that this was merely a crisis of confidence and liquidity, and that the banking system was not insolvent, merely illiquid. That is not Posner's view. His judgment is that the banking system is insolvent and the crisis that took place in 2008 transformed a recession in the US into a depression...In his preface, Posner emphasizes that he has written the book in medias res, a lawyer's way of saying "in the thick of it," with the implication that he has yet fully to make up his mind. He has, however, offered a thought-provoking interim analysis of what went wrong.
The Times - Oliver Kamm
The best book describing this malaise is Richard Posner's A Failure of Capitalism. The distinctiveness of his case is that he is a prominent conservative thinker with the intellectual acuity to argue that the crisis is not to do with the traditional enemy of conservatism, big government, but is a consequence of decisions taken by private firms. The ill-effects of those decisions were worsened by deregulation of banking.
Huffington Post - Robert Teitelman
[A] compelling read...Notable for [its] high seriousness and sophistication.
Boston Review - Jonathan Kirshner
[Posner's] bracing and intellectually admirable A Failure of Capitalism demands attention.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674035140
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 4.60 (w) x 7.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard A. Posner is Circuit Judge, the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School.
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Table of Contents


  1. The Depression and Its Proximate Causes

  2. The Crisis in Banking

  3. The Underlying Causes

  4. Why a Depression Was Not Anticipated

  5. The Government Responds

  6. A Silver Lining?

  7. What We Are Learning about Capitalism and Government

  8. The Economics Profession Asleep at the Switch

  9. Apportioning Blame

  10. The Way Forward

  11. The Future of Conservatism


  • Conclusion

  • Further Readings

  • Index

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A Failure of Capitalism--good read

    Richard Posner offers a rigorous analysis of the recent financial crisis using his thorough knowledge of today's prevalent modes of economic analysis. If you're looking for a book on why capitalism is a failed system, competent intellectuals such as Posner are not your likely resource. Posner provides a look at why capitalism may have failed us this time, and what we can do to prevent that in the future.

    Posner is not a wonderful writer, and does make some points about academia that are rather poor and hegemonic, but on the whole the book is very good.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted August 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    First, let's kill all the bankers!

    Posner is an author with a point of view. And he is not just any author. This eminent jurist currently serves on the US Court of Appeals. His legal thinking evolved in capital friendly environs of the Law School of the University of Chicago. So it is surprising to see him so adamantly and so effectively lay the blame for the recent economic debacle on the scions of capital themselves.

    Oh sure! The regulators didn't regulate, and the Congress didn't legislate. And the legislators themselves were busy schmoozing the Wall Street fat-cats. But the blame belongs to the bankers, the brokers, the investment houses. They knew the risks they were running, and like the lemmings, they led us over the cliff.

    I only wish Posner had expended a bit more effort in suggesting regulatory solutions (self or governmental). It is easy to find the culprit, but far more difficult to rehabilitate him.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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