Review: Shutdown, by Adam Tooze
eagle at eyrie.org
Tue Dec 20 21:03:02 PST 2022
by Adam Tooze
Copyright: September 2021
Shutdown is a history of the world macroeconomic response to COVID-19,
covering 2020 and the very beginning of 2021.
But wait, you might be saying. It's only the end of 2022 right now, and
this book was published in September of 2021. That's not history,
that's journalism. And yes, I think that's a valid critique. Shutdown
is doing something rather odd, and I'm not certain it was a good idea,
but I do think it has a (somewhat narrow) audience.
Descriptions first. After an awkward introduction (more on that later),
Tooze launches into an essentially chronological history in four parts:
the initial viral spread and early political and public health
response, the economic hard stop and macroeconomic response, the summer
fallout and political complications, and the more-organized aftershocks
of the fall. The early chapters are closer to a history, with a clear
timeline and the tracery of cause and effect. The closer the narrative
comes to the time Tooze was writing it, the more that clarity drops
away. The last few chapters feel like a collection of simultaneous
events that may or may not be related or have long-term significance.
Everyone reading this lived through those events, and if you're at all
like me, consumed far more news coverage of them than was healthy. The
obvious question, then, is why read a book that rehashes all of that?
For me, there are two answers: Tooze pays attention to more of the
world than makes it into the local headlines and tries to synthesize a
larger picture, and the focus of this book is the macroeconomic
facilities used in the response. I remember the fights over school
closures in the US. I didn't know about the impact of unprecedented
Federal Reserve action on the bond market for emerging market
If you're the sort of person who reads The Economist religiously (which
I am not), you may not learn anything new here. If you're not, and you
have a general interest in international finance, there were probably
some wrinkles you missed. Even if you stay up-to-date on the more
technical news, Shutdown provides an intermediate consolidation and
restructuring. It's not ready to be a history in the traditional sense,
but it's a first pass at putting events in order and tracing the
implications for the global financial system.
Read in that sense, Shutdown felt like a continuation of Tooze's
Crashed, following the same themes of a hegemonic but unstable dollar
system and a Federal Reserve that has increasingly taken on the role of
backstop to the entire world (and how the only tools it has available
tend to increase wealth inequality). If you've not read Crashed, read
it first. I think it's the stronger and more thorough book (not the
least because it had more time and data to construct a coherent
history), and it's the best introduction to the international
macroeconomic risks that Tooze traces in Shutdown. This book was, for
me, an update of the Tooze's thinking in Crashed for the COVID era.
Tooze is very good at clearly describing macroeconomic shocks. I
recently read Lev Menand's The Fed Unbound, which is in part about the
same intervention during the COVID shock that Tooze describes here, and
yet it wasn't until I read Shutdown that I grasped that the Treasury
purchases by the Fed had arguably crossed the political red line of
monetizing government debt, even though the Fed probably had no choice
and few people noticed in the middle of the crisis. This is where
Tooze's background as a historian is helpful. Most people writing on
this topic are either economists, who seem to take inferences like that
for granted and dive into the technical debate, or journalists, who
rarely understand the nuance and often jump to facile conclusions.
Tooze is a historian with an extensive economics background; he can
explain the mechanics while still focusing on the limitations of
politics, which is the sort of analysis that I want to read.
The problem with this book as a history is that it necessarily raises
more questions than it answers. In the conclusion, Tooze writes:
A severe tightening in U.S. monetary policy or even a full-fledged
taper tantrum would put global resilience to a stern test. So too
would a violent escalation of geopolitical tension in one of the
major regions of the world economy.
Both of those events have subsequently happened, which throws any
tentative conclusions Tooze can offer into question.
For another example, when Tooze wrote Shutdown, China's zero COVID
policy was widely celebrated inside China and had enabled a fast
economic recovery while the rest of the world was still in serious
difficulty. Before Omicron, it was conceivable (if extremely risky)
that China could continue to avoid a major COVID surge. In December of
2022, it's obvious they only managed to delay, and while delay meant
vaccination and the price in deaths may well be smaller than was paid
for the route taken by most of the rest of the world, the trade-offs
are now even harder to analyze.
There are, of course, other examples, the most obvious of which is the
rise of global inflation simultaneous with a strengthening dollar. A
history written from a distance of several decades would have included
that aftermath. A snap history with a distance of only a few months
The other problem with this book is that it's not as polished. Viking
did an amazing job turning publication around in roughly six months,
dramatically faster than publishing normally works, but there are parts
that could have used more editing. The introduction, in particular,
reads more like a blog post than an edited book, and while I'm a happy
reader of Tooze's Chartbook, the recap of COVID's impact was a bit
trite and Tooze's abstract musings on polycrisis could have used
tightening and clarity. The meat of the book is better, but there is a
messy stream-of-consciousness feel that is inherent in a book written
to this tight of a timeline.
I think the audience of this book is, narrowly, people who have read
Crashed and want to follow that line of reasoning into the COVID era.
Crashed is one of the better books on macroeconomic history that I've
read, and I did indeed want to follow that train of thought, so I am
part of that audience. This is not the sort of book that I would widely
recommend, however. If you want to read it, you probably know that
already; if you are new to Tooze's analysis, Crashed is the place to
Rating: 7 out of 10
Russ Allbery (eagle at eyrie.org) <https://www.eyrie.org/~eagle/>
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