Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy

Freefall: America, Free Markets, and the Sinking of the World Economy

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by Joseph E. Stiglitz

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An incisive look at the global economic crisis, our flawed response, and the implications for the world’s future prosperity.

The Great Recession, as it has come to be called, has impacted more people worldwide than any crisis since the Great Depression. Flawed government policy and unscrupulous personal and corporate behavior in the United States created

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An incisive look at the global economic crisis, our flawed response, and the implications for the world’s future prosperity.

The Great Recession, as it has come to be called, has impacted more people worldwide than any crisis since the Great Depression. Flawed government policy and unscrupulous personal and corporate behavior in the United States created the current financial meltdown, which was exported across the globe with devastating consequences. The crisis has sparked an essential debate about America’s economic missteps, the soundness of this country’s economy, and even the appropriate shape of a capitalist system.

Few are more qualified to comment during this turbulent time than Joseph E. Stiglitz. Winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics, Stiglitz is “an insanely great economist, in ways you can’t really appreciate unless you’re deep into the field” (Paul Krugman, New York Times). In Freefall, Stiglitz traces the origins of the Great Recession, eschewing easy answers and demolishing the contention that America needs more billion-dollar bailouts and free passes to those “too big to fail,” while also outlining the alternatives and revealing that even now there are choices ahead that can make a difference. The system is broken, and we can only fix it by examining the underlying theories that have led us into this new “bubble capitalism.”

Ranging across a host of topics that bear on the crisis, Stiglitz argues convincingly for a restoration of the balance between government and markets. America as a nation faces huge challenges—in health care, energy, the environment, education, and manufacturing—and Stiglitz penetratingly addresses each in light of the newly emerging global economic order. An ongoing war of ideas over the most effective type of capitalist system, as well as a rebalancing of global economic power, is shaping that order. The battle may finally give the lie to theories of a “rational” market or to the view that America’s global economic dominance is inevitable and unassailable.

For anyone watching with indignation while a reckless Wall Street destroyed homes, educations, and jobs; while the government took half-steps hoping for a “just-enough” recovery; and while bankers fell all over themselves claiming not to have seen what was coming, then sought government bailouts while resisting regulation that would make future crises less likely, Freefall offers a clear accounting of why so many Americans feel disillusioned today and how we can realize a prosperous economy and a moral society for the future.

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Editorial Reviews

From A. C. Grayling's "THE THINKING READ" column on Barnes & Noble Review

One reason for the recent global economic meltdown, we are told, is that bankers did not understand the complicated financial instruments they had created; they did not know what they were packaging and trading. When they finally grasped that their greed had invented a load of toxic rubbish, they froze: mistrusting each other because they knew they were untrustworthy themselves, they refused each other and everyone else credit, and the world teetered on the brink. We the taxpayers have bailed them out, and they are now back to gobbling in the money-trough again, at our expense, as if they had learned nothing -- indeed as if nothing bad had happened.

So: if the bankers themselves did not know what they were doing, if they did not know what offal they had created and nearly choked the world with, if they continue to be so stupefied by avarice that they cannot distinguish between securitized bad debt and tax aid so long as either keeps them in bonuses, to whom should we look for an explanation of what happened, what it says about the state of capitalism, and what should be done to put it right?

Where else indeed but Joseph E. Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate professor at Columbia Business School with a stellar curriculum vitae: former Chief Economist at the World Bank, former Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors at the White House, and the man asked by the United Nations to chair a panel of experts on the global meltdown's causes?

The answer given by Stiglitz in his new book, Freefall, to "what went wrong" is, in sum, that the meltdown wascaused by a combination of greedy bankers, deregulation of the financial markets, and cheap money. Between them they created a bubble, in which vastly over-valued real estate funded unsustainable levels of consumption in the U.S. When (and the procession of outsize adjectives has to continue) huge financial institutions with huge bad debts found themselves slipping over the edge into de facto bankruptcy in 2008 as a result, the rest of the world went with them.

Stiglitz's warnings about the dangers implicit in under-regulated financial markets are on public record, and for any number of years before the crash finally happened in 2008. At the 2007 World Economic Forum in Davos, when continuing world-wide growth seemed to rebut his Cassandra-like prognostications, he predicted that the delay in the crash's arrival only meant that it would be bigger when it came. Within months he had been proved right.

His scepticism towards the piety that markets do better if left unregulated is not only vindicated beyond peradventure by the meltdown, but should have been shared by others. The evidence was clear for all to see: there have been 125 financial crises in various countries around the world since 1970 -- that is, in the era of growing deregulation mania -- whereas, in the quarter-century after 1945, economies were stable and flourished under sensible regulatory regimes adopted in response to the 1929 crash. With the debacle of 2008 as the capstone, these facts illustrate once and for all that the biggest single flaw in recent economic orthodoxy is the mantric belief that regulation interferes with the innate self-adjusting wisdom of markets.

Regulation of financial markets is needed, Stiglitz argues, for the obvious reason that they are so intertwined with the rest of the economy that any misbehaviour in them is guaranteed to drag everything else (the "externalities") into trouble. "The bankers gave no thought to how dangerous some of the financial instruments were to the rest of us," Stiglitz writes. "The current failure has affected everyone: millions of homeowners have lost their homes, and millions more have seen the equity in their homes disappear; whole communities have been devastated; taxpayers have had to pick up the tab for the losses of the banks; and workers have lost their jobs. The costs have been borne [all] around the world, by billions."

And Stiglitz describes the rescue of the banks by the taxpayer as "the Great American Robbery." He is withering in his attack both on the financial institutions and on the rescue packages provided to them by Bush and Obama alike. Together the packages amount to 80% of U.S. GDP, around $12 trillion: the sheer size is flabbergasting. Government acted as a garbage can for the banks' rubbish; it gave the banks zero-interest loans that the banks then re-lent at interest or gambled with; bankers and bank shareholders were rescued, but not individual homeowners and workers; and to add insult to injury, the government "provided that money," Stiglitz writes, "in non-transparent ways -- perhaps because it didn't want the public to be fully aware of the gifts that were being given, perhaps because many of those responsible were ex-bankers and non-transparency was their way of doing business."

In part this last scornful remark refers to the tricks by which bankers hid bad debts in order to keep the rating agencies gold-plating the dodgy instruments they cooked up, and in part to the general ethos of private greed that caused public disaster. Early on, Stiglitz alludes to the distorting bonus-incentive culture of Wall Street as attracting "more than its fair share of the ethically challenged;" here he points out the magnificent irony of government refusing to regulate as it massively bailed out the banking system, on the grounds that doing so "would interfere with the workings of a free market economy." The only thing free about an economy in which banks are bailed out by taxpayers, is the ride given to the bankers.

Stiglitz's disappointment, in particular, with Obama's failure to improve on Bush's efforts turns on the unfulfilled expectation that a Democratic administration would look first to the little guys being thrown out of their homes and jobs. Instead, by continuing with bank bail-outs rather than giving help to borrowers and employees, Obama's government has engaged in "privatizing gains and socialising losses."

The examination Stiglitz subjects the crisis to is frank and unsparing, and he is not shy about naming names where he feels it is appropriate: Tim Geithner and Larry Summers, Obama's top economics men, come in for as much criticism as Alan Greenspan for the role he played during the Bush years. But the book is not all explanation and attribution of culpability. It also strongly argues a case for what should be done next. Foremost among the proposals is a fully global and transparent system of financial regulation that tackles such big problems as the incentive schemes which lead to undue risk-taking, gambling and short-termism, as well as the question of whether the world can continue to afford too-big-to-fail financial institutions.

Although the G-20 as a collective body, and governments individually, have so far done too little to address these questions, says Stiglitz, doing so will eventually prove inevitable. "September 15, 2008, the date that Lehman Brothers collapsed, may be to market fundamentalism (the notion that unfettered markets, all by themselves, can ensure economic prosperity and growth) what the fall of the Berlin Wall was to communism. The problems with the ideology were known before that date, but afterward no one could really defend it." Market fundamentalism never served the poor well; now it has threatened hundreds of millions more with poverty, and cost the world economy dear. In Stiglitz's emphatic view a small adjustment to the system is not the answer. So far all that has happened, he says, is that to keep things from getting worse "we called in the plumbers who installed the plumbing" (and they have "overcharged us for the repair"). This does not seem to augur well for sufficiently radical reform; but it will have to come. And it must include breaking up those too-big-to-fail banks, curbing excesses of leverage, curbing outsized bonuses rewarding outsized risk, and putting an end to "over-the-counter derivatives."

There has been a rash of books since the crisis began, but this one has the most distinguished author, the clearest prose, and the most authoritative and uncompromising take on matters. Stiglitz's prescriptions for the future are convincing, and everything he says is leavened by an admirable concern for the ordinary men and women who are the true victims of the bankers' greed and unaccountability, and the lack of protection afforded them by regulation. The fact that Stiglitz has for years been warning that the free-for-all financial system was heading for trouble adds weight and value to all he says. If one had to choose a single must-read about the great economic crisis of our times, this would be it.

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Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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From the Publisher
"A useful and timely book.... It is a powerful indictment of Wall Street, the United States financial sector and the Federal Reserve Board." —-The New York Times

Meet the Author

Joseph E. Stiglitz is a Nobel Prize-winning economist and the best-selling author of The Price of Inequality, Freefall, and Globalization and Its Discontents. He is a columnist for the New York Times and Project Syndicate and has written for Vanity Fair, Politico, The Atlantic, and Harper's. He teaches at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

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Freefall 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 40 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This header sentence captures the book's message for me. I read slowly because I found it hard to deal with sadness and anger at what my boomer action has helped to perpetrate. I do not include my parent's generation in this mess. Joseph Stiglitz presents a thoughtful refreshing message for those willing to reflect and, possibly, change course. The book may be dismissed as LIBERAL pandering by flippant conservatives, (there are good conservative thinkers out there by the way). They might point to weak minded socialist-oriented thinking. Idea: think about educating yourself about socialism and then speak. Their basic plan is to simply move on - pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and, with help from above, do just what we have been doing because it's the BEST way to prevail and because free markets with minimal regulation correct themselves! Why listen to anyone else? Done! Ah, remember there were those who suggested the world was round! Alternative: Ask yourselves why B companies, established with the intent of combining growth and profit with a compassionate hand to environmental and world citizen support are prospering and maybe change course. If you don't know about these companies - read about them! As a late 60's 3rd world traveling hippie teenager turned MBA work grinder and top "spin" producing executive, I have been both involved in the corporate, (BANKING!), world and I have also traveled throughout third world countries, both as the child of an immigrated WWII European father and as an adult. I have perspective and I'm a right leaning Centrist politically. Read this book with the headline phrase in mind and think about the last 40 years - especially if you have lived through all of it. I've lived and worked both sides of the equation. I've done everything a good capitalist might do but no longer question why I'm disengaged with my surroundings and work. I'm relieved to see a few others in this chaos have a voice to speak publicly about this latest "Emperor's New Clothes" wardrobe. I'm changing clothes because they no longer fit. Many of us have no time and take no time to do anything but drop exhausted from debt slavery and TV-PC world - not really listening to what the rest of the world has to say. We comfort ourselves with individual coping strategies. It's going to be OKAY. We just always assume that we have the ultimate answers - akin to the elder, controlling, aged, but not wiser, Grandfather at the head of the table gesturing and stabbing the air with dictums while everyone else rolls their eyes and moves on - no longer respecting this individual's presence or experience mainly because Grandpa doesn't listen to anyone and simply demands what he has always believed and won't change. What might we think if he would, instead, listen and ask questions - or, change places with someone else at the table and become the wise elder mentor? I'm looking for a mentor ... and this author has caught my eye and my respect. Well, it's time for some of us to get a grip. I believe that, as a nation, we too, believe that we are TOO BIG TO FAIL. We still talk too much and dictate too much - time to start observing and and taking stock. Think about it.
Fortunatus More than 1 year ago
Joseph Stiglitz's description of our current economic system (i.e., Wall Street machinations) as 'ersatz capitalism' is spot on. Wall Street-style capitalism is far removed from the capitalism of Adam Smith's 'invisible hand.' The near demise of America's manufacturing industry and deterioration of the United States infrastructure (e.g., bridges, roads, electrical grid, etc.) are illustrations of how 'ersatz capitalism' is causing the United States to become a second rate power a la Great Britain. We ignore Stiglitz's apropos call for a new economic system at the risk of our own economic peril.
willyvan More than 1 year ago
In this brilliant book, the noted American economist Joseph Stiglitz explores why the crisis happened. Across the world, the crisis destroyed 50 million jobs and thrust 200 million people down into extreme poverty. From December 2007 to October 2009 the US economy lost 8 million jobs and unemployment rose to 10.2 per cent. Only 58.5 per cent of the working age population was in work. 2.3 million Americans lost their homes in 2008 alone. Bank executives' contracts were sacred; workers' wage contracts were negotiable - down. Stiglitz has a chapter called The Great American Robbery. The top 50 hedge and private equity fund managers got an average $588 million each in 2007. Nine US banks, which made record losses of $100 billion, got $175 billion public money, and promptly paid out a record $33 billion in bonuses. As the Chair of one of the House of Representatives' Committees said, "the banks run the place . they give three times more money than the next biggest group." Stiglitz notes that the UK's partial privatisation of pensions shifted 40 per cent of their value out of the pensions and into financiers' fees. The US government, like the British, has lent money to the banks at very low interest rates. Stiglitz asks, "Why not use the government's ability to borrow at a low interest rate to provide less expensive credit to homeowners under stress?" Banks that are 'too big to fail' gain from this access to cheaper capital because lenders know that taxpayers will pick up the losses. So these banks grow at the expense of their smaller rivals. Public money went to the big banks, which didn't lend to small and medium businesses, but kept the money for themselves, in bonuses and dividends. Early in 2009, Hank Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury, ex-Goldman Sachs, gave AIG $180 billion, which then gave Goldman Sachs $13 billion. By contrast, US aid to Africa in 2008 was $6.5 billion. In the USA, financial firms back the student loans programme, a Public-Private Partnership in which the taxpayer bears the risk and private firms get the gains. The US government issues the loans, so there is no risk of non-payment, but the lenders still charge interest rates as if there were such a risk. Thus the US government gave the private sector $80 billion of taxpayers' money over the last ten years, because using private firms cost that much more than if the government had lent the money itself. Stiglitz shows that markets are not efficient and self-correcting; they do not allocate resources efficiently, especially not to innovation; and they redistribute wealth (from the poor to the rich), they do not create it. He points out that "Tax cuts encourage consumption, when the government should be promoting investment." The US government has embraced finance capital, so there is "a predictable outcome - future crises; undue risk-taking at the public expense, no matter what the promise of a new regulatory regime; and greater inefficiency."
ExiledNewYorker More than 1 year ago
This is a must read. The Nobel Economist dissects the economic collapse in a concise, accessible way and then critiques the government response. He prescribes better fixes and long term strategies to create a more stable, less capricious economic system. He also addresses the failures of his own profession and, indeed, its complicity in the false sense of security that enabled the financial fraud to continue so long.
San_Jose_Guy More than 1 year ago
Stiglitz exoplains most of what went wrong and names names.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I've read 4 "crisis of 2008" books now and with each lesson, a little more clarity about how these markets will fail us has been predominant. Nothing will get better and the world will not work together to create a eutopian civilization...we're on our own. Don't trust any financial institution or governmental agency...we're all screwed. From the hometown credit union, the family pediatrician, the middle school science teacher to the state legislatures, the federal senators, and foreign diplomats....everyone is out for themselves and we're all screwed.
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