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Debtors' Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility Hardcover – Deckle Edge, April 30, 2013

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (April 30, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307959805
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307959805
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.4 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #597,582 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Kuttner, entrepreneur, editor, and columnist, declares, “Today, in the aftermath of collapse, we need . . . more public borrowing to jump-start a depressed private economy.” Yet our current public debate has been about less public investment, not more, and the author laments the widely held view that “in a deep slump the main goal of fiscal policy should be austerity.” The author sets out to address the current crisis and the history of debt and debt relief, hoping to bring clarity to the dynamics of austerity and the debates about historical debt relief and to consider alternatives. To move forward, Kuttner offers his basic principles, including, in the U.S., reducing principal and refinancing underwater mortgages, restoring the Glass-Steagall Act, and breaking up the largest banks. In Europe, he recommends moving from austerity to debt relief and new investment by giving the European Central Bank the U.S. Federal Reserve’s powers and then acting on them. This timely, thought-provoking book will add valuable insight to ongoing fiscal-policy debates. --Mary Whaley


"A highly readable, thought provoking analysis of America's—and the world's—situation, a unique blend of history, economics, and politics that shows a clear way out of our morass, if only our politics would 'allow us to get from here to there.' Kuttner explains why we don't have to be doomed to a generation of depression, but that current debt, finance, and austerity policies make that a likely prospect. Even those who disagree with his conclusions will find his wealth of historical insights invaluable."
—Joseph Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of The Price of Inequality

“Robert Kuttner has a gift for clear and forceful explanations of the complex dealings that brought the economy to its knees. Debtors’ Prison takes an innovative approach to economic history, using the lens of credit and debt to explore past boom-and-bust cycles and to illuminate the central issues in current economic debates. Kuttner’s impressive history also catapults the reader into the future, providing critical insight on strengthening the financial system. A must-read for anyone interested in our economic future.”
—Senator Elizabeth Warren

“[T]imely . . . take[s] readers on a historical tour of indebtedness, starting in 1692 with Daniel Defoe and ending with the recent recession and according to Kuttner, the misguided austerity regimes that sprang up in response . . . Kuttner draws thorough comparisons among the Depression, World War II, and present day fiscal engineering . . . An insightful and relevant look at the topic of debt in the United States and abroad.”

—Susan Hurst, Library Journal

“[C]ontributes a much-needed historical perspective that explores, as Kuttner puts it, ‘how the bad economic advice of the austerity lobby became the prevailing view.’ . . . arrive[s] at an opportune time . . . [Kuttner] hold[s] out the possibility of a different future.”
—Meg Jacobs, Democracy

“This timely, thought-provoking book will add valuable insight to ongoing fiscal policy debates.” 

—Mary Whaley, Booklist

“Kuttner (The Squandering of America), cofounder and co-editor of the American Prospect, pulls no punches in his latest full-throated defense of Keynesian economics and repudiation of the modern neoliberal system . . . Kuttner’s deft overview of economic history—most notably his coverage of the Marshall Plan—demonstrates that economic stimulus can be very effective at ending recessions.”

Publishers Weekly

Debtors’ Prison is more than a devastating brief against the trans-Atlantic pursuit of austerity. It is a magisterial retelling of our history through the prism of the struggle over credit and debt. Navigating between countries and eras with the authority of a scholar and the narrative skill of a journalist, Robert Kuttner has written the authoritative guide to economic recovery and financial reform.”
—Jacob S. Hacker, co-Author of Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer—And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class
“Robert Kuttner nails the missing piece in Barack Obama’s presidency—the reason the American economy is still stalled and sickly. Read this book, then send it to the White House. Kuttner has the plan. The president needs to see it.”
—William Greider, author of Come Home, America

“No topics in modern political life have spawned more confusion, misdirected effort, and overall malarkey than ‘deficits’ and ‘debt.’ Robert Kuttner does us the enormous service of explaining which kinds of debt we should worry more about, and which kinds less—and how to manage public and private debt so as to sustain an age of broadly shared prosperity rather than of austere decline.”
—James Fallows, author of China Airborne

“[I]nformed, passionate, at times angry . . . The breadth of Kuttner’s review of the politics of credit and debt through American history is impressive.”

—Mark Levinson, Dissent


Customer Reviews

I also suggest Mark Blyth's book Austerity on the same subject.
J. Davis
It would be like if the U.S.A. suddenly established a supra-national union with Latin America.
Alan F. Sewell
So if we can recover from the great depression/ WWII, the future is not hopeless.
R. Golen

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

19 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on May 13, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Author Kuttner contends that our overall perspectives on debt have now become impediments to economic revival. The alleged benefits of fiscal discipline to business confidence will not materialize because businesses will hesitate to invest in the resulting depressed economy. Moral claims keep getting conflated with practical economic questions, and our debates focus obsessively on the wrong debts - public, instead of private (student debt, underwater mortgages). Further, he points out that rising public deficits did not cause the recent financial collapse, rather the collapse caused the higher deficits. Reality - private debt caused the crash and prolongs its aftermath. Our children's prospects depend on whether the economy can product better job opportunities and less private debt in the immediate future, not on eg. projected finances for Social Security a decade from now.

Kuttner also sees double standards in our attitudes towards debt relief - corporations are allowed to shed pension plans, bankers get bailed out in their role as debtors while protected as creditors, and bankers usually are also in line ahead of pensioners in a bankruptcy. After 9/11 we increased military spending by over $3 trillion in the space of a decade - that was OK, but not spending a similar amount reviving our infrastructure. Meanwhile, today's retirees can't get decent returns on their savings because central banks have cut interest rates to historic lows to prevent the crisis from deepening. (Banks want cheap money for themselves, draconian terms for everyone else.)

The last great financial collapse was ended not by belt-tightening but rather by public investments post WWII like the GI Bill and the Marshall Plan, coupled with pent-up demand caused by rationing.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Alan F. Sewell on May 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book gets to the truth that DEBT is the TAPROOT of our economic disease. It goes beyond the self-serving platitudes that the political parties have been espousing in their nostrums to recover us from the Great Recession. As author Robert Kuttner points out, the economy is declining for two fundamental reasons that go beyond political plattitudes:

1. Too few Americans are able to find work. The jobs of their parents' generation have either been outsourced overseas or eliminated by corporate cost-cutting enabled by mergers and acquisitions and improvements in technology and automation. If people don't have jobs they don't have money to buy anything or pay taxes. If people don't buy anything the economy fails. If they don't pay taxes the government fails.

2. We have an unpayable debt burden weighting us down. Our public and private debt was structured according to the parameters of full employment, rising wages, and an economy growing at 3% to 4% each year. What we have now is slack employment, falling wages, and an economy barely growing at all.

Although Kuttner makes clear that the "flash point" of the Great Recession was the banking collapse of 2008 brought on by reckless banking practices, he says that the root of the problem is that too few Americans are earning enough money to sustain the economy and pay off the accumulated public and private debt.

Kuttner then brings up the point that when a bank or corporation declares bankruptcy it is a blessed event. The accumulated debts are stricken from from the balance sheet. Customers and suppliers have their contracts voided if the management thinks they contain unfavorable terms and conditions. The company emerges from bankruptcy debt-free and stronger than its competitors.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By R. Golen on August 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a very hopeful book. It rightly points out that we were able to recover quickly from WWII. By we I mean everybody. Germany, for God's sake, recovered nicely in the 50's. Who would have thought? So if we can recover from the great depression/ WWII, the future is not hopeless. Here's a quote from the book that boils it all down:

Sooner or later (later unless we drastically revise prevailing assumptions and policies), recovery will occur. And at that point, the Fed will indeed allow rates to rise. Investors locked into low-rate long-term bonds of the Bernanke era will share the same fate as their counterparts in the 1950s and 1960s: they will have negative real rates of return. But there are worse things than a period of negative real interest rates. One is a prolonged depression. A key question today is whether gradual liquidation of government debt using the several strategies of repressing finance is better than the alternative of prolonged economic suffering. Though the rentier class paid a hidden tax in the decades after World War II, the real economy thrived: and, on balance, the rising tide soon lifted even the yachts.

I find this outlook very refreshing. We cannot forget that just 60 years ago we solved the economic/debt mess left by the depression/WWII. If we could handle that, we surely can emulate what happened in the late 40's, 50's and early 60's (the heydays of equitable prosperity) and take actions to bring wide-spread prosperity to the twenty-first century.
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More About the Author

Robert Kuttner is cofounder and coeditor of The American Prospect magazine, as well as a
Distinguished Senior Fellow of the think tank Demos. He was a longtime columnist for
BusinessWeek, and continues to write columns in the Boston Globe.
His previous and widely praised books include The Squandering of America: How the Failure
of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity; Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of
Markets (about which Robert Heilbroner wrote, "I have never seen the market system better
described, more intelligently appreciated, or more trenchantly criticized than in Everything for
Sale"); The End of Laissez-Faire: National Purpose and the Global Economy After the Cold
War; and The Economic Illusion: False Choices Between Prosperity and Social Justice.
Kuttner"s magazine writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Book Review,
The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New Yorker, Dissent,
Columbia Journalism Review, and Harvard Business Review. He has contributed
major articles to The New England Journal of Medicine as a national policy correspondent.
Formerly an assistant to the legendary I.F. Stone, chief investigator for the Senate Banking Committee, Washington Post staff writer, economics
editor for The New Republic, and university lecturer, Kuttner"s decades-long intellectual and political project has been to revive the
politics and economics of harnessing capitalism to serve a broad public interest.

Obama's Challenge Web Site
Demos - A Network for Ideas and Action
The American Prospect

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