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Crash! How the Economic Boom and Bust of the 1920s Worked

Author(s):Payne, Phillip G.
Reviewer(s):Parker, Randall

Published by EH.Net (September 2017)

Phillip G. Payne, Crash! How the Economic Boom and Bust of the 1920s Worked. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015. viii +142 pp. $20 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4214-1856-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Randall Parker, Department of Economics, East Carolina University.

 

Crash! is a part of the “How Things Worked” series being published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The list of books included in this series is not particularly long (at least not yet) and includes books on Ellis Island, sod busting, and Union Army recruitment of U.S. colored troops, among other topics. I like the idea behind this series, and the editors have really done themselves proud by having Phillip Payne author this book on the boom and bust of the 1920s. It is the first entry in the series pertaining to economic history.

Payne is a professor of history at St. Bonaventure University. If the idea behind the “How Things Worked” series is to produce non-technical books that provide useful road maps that hit the high points of historical epochs and give undergraduates the fundamental knowledge they need to understand the basics of what went on and why, then Crash! accomplishes what it sets out to do. Payne provides an in-depth look at the 1920s and the emergence of speculation and how the culture and economy of the time promoted that unhealthy trait (that still afflicts us today and ever shall). All the usual suspects and their stories are told: James Riordan and Ivar Kreuger (and others who did themselves in), Richard Whitney and his attempt to save U.S. Steel share prices, J.P. Morgan and others. The roles they played in bringing about the unfortunate events of 1929 and the beginning of the Depression with the stock market crash are described with historical elegance and come alive in the words of Payne. The level of detail of the events and the actors that made them happen represent a new and fresh look at a familiar, and certainly guilty, culprit in helping to bring about the Great Depression.

The last thirty pages of the book are also a road map for the essential elements of the recovery from the Depression, the emergence and governance of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, plus an Epilogue comparing the 1920s to the malaise we endured in 2008. Correctly saying “How This Time Is (Not) Different,” we are reminded that this pattern will almost certainly repeat sometime down the road.

There are some particularly enlightening parts of the book. The West Virginia Coal Wars in the early 1920s and the use of air power against American civilians is not something economists hear much about. But the shock I felt when I read about it cannot be overstated. Moreover, I had forgotten that Herbert Hoover blamed World War I for the Great Depression. Payne reminds us that it was not Peter Temin who originally made this connection, although Temin did it for the right reasons and blamed the establishment of the interwar gold standard in a changed world in which the gold standard no longer functioned well and was an agent of deflation and depression.

There are several spots where the economics of the era are just briefly mentioned and not discussed much. There is no mention of the major debate of whether there was a bubble in stocks or not in the 1920s. This is far from clear from the literature — and my judgment is that it never will be decided. Alas, there is only one sentence mentioning that both Irving Fisher and John Maynard Keynes thought stock prices would continue to grow and both lost their fortunes. Moreover, there is no discussion of how deflation and the gold standard were linked. The recession of 1920-21 is blamed on deflation with no mention of this necessity for the re-establishment of a gold-backed currency at antebellum prices. But I do not wish to overstate the case. Payne does what he sets out to do and he is to be credited for such a readable book (indeed I read it twice!).

There is one matter, however, that cannot be unmentioned. I joined this club many years ago when James Hamilton showed me the error of my ways in a working paper I had sent him. It is a club to which Phillip Payne now belongs — and he should delight in being a part of this club as the membership list is long . . . and now we have one more. In four different places, he refers to “the Bank of the United States.” Well, it is really “the Bank of United States,” there is no “the” between “of” and “United.” Welcome to the club Professor Payne. And thanks for this very useful historical description of the bumpy road during the interwar period.

 
Randall Parker is editor of The Seminal Works of the Great Depression (Edward Elgar, 2011) and co-editor (with Robert Whaples) of The Handbook of Modern Economic History and The Handbook of Major Events in Economic History (both from Routledge, 2013).

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Subject(s):Financial Markets, Financial Institutions, and Monetary History
Macroeconomics and Fluctuations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII