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A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters Hardcover – Deckle Edge, September 4, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


Praise for Scott Reynolds Nelson's A Nation of Deadbeats

“A fascinating historical narrative. . . . This revisionist account is eminently readable, in large part because Nelson offers flesh-and-blood examples rather than relying on abstractions.”
Kirkus Reviews
“Lucid. . . . This astute account of economic disruption and disaster through the Great Depression is a useful and engaging perspective on our propensity for repeating our financial mistakes.”
Publishers Weekly
“This might not qualify as 100% pure revisionist history, but it is certainly unconventional history, and hooray for that. . . . History focusing on the losers instead of the winners is especially effective. . . . A Nation of Deadbeats is especially timely, coming as it does during a nationwide and worldwide economic slowdown of at least four years duration and counting. . . . Even if those debtors are sometimes the victims of circumstances beyond their total control, they nonetheless can start ripples in the economy that become tidal waves.”
USA Today
“Exceptionally readable. . . . [Nelson] has painstakingly extracted the sensational details from the mucky ore of the history of financial crises in the U.S., welding them together. . . . Well worth reading—particularly as it is larded with entertaining characters and powerful citations.”
New York Journal of Books

About the Author

SCOTT REYNOLDS NELSON is the author of, among other works, Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend, which won the National Award for Arts Writing, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Merle Curti Award for best book in American social history, and the Library of Virginia Literary Award for nonfiction. His related book for young adults, Ain't Nothing But a Man (coauthored with Marc Aronson), received the Jane Addams Prize for the best book on social justice, as well as numerous other awards. Nelson is the Leslie and Naomi Legum Professor of History at the College of William and Mary.  

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 4, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307272699
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307272690
  • Product Dimensions: 6.6 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #723,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By James R. Holland VINE VOICE on September 10, 2012
Format: Hardcover
This is a really readable history of America's financial disasters and the bankruptcies and panics that followed them. Included between an introduction and postscript are twelve intriguing chapters with titles such as "Duer's Disgrace, A Botanizing Excursion, Monkey Jackets, the Uncorked Mississippi, and the Birth of Caterpillar Banks, The Politics of Panic, the Economics of Rags, A Storm of Wheat, Crosses of Gold, Who Put the Roar in the Roaring Twenties" and "Here Be Dragons: What's Wrong with How Historian and Economists Have Written About Financial Panics."
Most Americans know little about this country's numerous financial panics other than what they may have heard about the Great Depression.

Fact is, most economists don't know much about this nations various financial panics either. As far as most of them know, there really hasn't been a true panic since the early 1900s. Most professional economists had pretty much ignored the subject because they thought America had somehow figured out how to avoid them mainly through the creation of the Federal Reserve that was developed after the Panic of 1907.

"The 1908 response to the 1907 crisis again raised the fundamental question that every panic had posed: What was American currency? Was it backed by gold? Could it be an international currency with the status of the British currency, British sovereigns, and the sterling bills of exchange?"

"The banker's acceptance, or BA, was the Fed's solution to the problem of how to create an American promise that could earn interest and be spent everywhere. Economists seldom mention objects, but this little American object laid the groundwork for the triumph of American money in the world."

"Every crisis is unique, with origins that differ one from the other.
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Format: Hardcover
"And for the redemption of the two hundred and seventy-three of the firstborn of the children of Israel, who are more than the number of the Levites, you shall take five shekels for each one individually; you shall take them in the currency of the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel of twenty gerahs. And you shall give the money, with which the excess number of them is redeemed, to Aaron and his sons." -- Numbers 3:46-48 (NKJV)

As this quote from numbers suggest, all communities have a problem of providing ways for people to acquire what they need. Before money was reliable, all of this was done by barter-based trade and direct taxation. When money came along, it wasn't always dependable. Despite that, credit quickly created ways to stretch purchasing power to transfer ready spending power into the hands of those with lots of illiquid assets.

If all that sounds technical, it is. Professor Scott Reynolds Nelson is able to write about it in much more entertaining and interesting ways than I just did. He also links events and relationships together in ways that will remind you of following a humorous scavenger hunt. In doing so, he tries to avoid simply following the script of one theoretical perspective or another ... to simply tell you what happened in a way that focuses on some dramatic event that caused credit to collapse, as well as the American economy.

In doing so, he gives readers another set of lenses to understand the more universal characteristics of the rotten mortgage crisis of the late Bush years.

At bottom, credit crises are based on people overplaying a rising market with ever-growing piles of debt. If the prices stop rising, it all collapses ... usually to much lower levels than would otherwise have happened.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Acute Observer on January 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover
A Nation of Deadbeats, Scott R. Nelson

Scott Reynolds Nelson is a professional historian. This book is oriented to the general public, not historians. This makes it interesting and readable. [Sidney Ratner wrote a more complete economic history but its not readily available.] This book examines the panics of 1792, 1819, 1837, 1857, 1873, 1893, and 1929. They were basically caused by a failure to repay debts. [No mention why people couldn't repay their debts. Crop failures?] Nelson's father worked in repossessing goods that were bought on time but not paid for; this was his introduction to the credit business. Did Woolco perish because of management failures? Or were they too victims of a sinking economy? [Nixon's devaluation of the dollar led to rising prices and stagnant wages.]

The reason for discounting promissory notes then was to avoid the usury laws (unmentioned in the `Index'). The current economic depression was caused by a lack of regulation and margin requirements (p.251). This was not an accident! Wall Street abolished most of the New Deal securities legislation since the 1980s and rediscovered why there were passed in the 1930s. But it was too late by 2008. But many made fortunes by swindling investors. This book covers a lot of American history that you probably never learned about in school. Yet economics go back to the discovery of America (a shorter route to the Indies) and its colonization to provide raw materials to Spain, Holland, England, France, and Russia. Human activity requires the production of food, clothing, housing, and the tools for this work.

The best way to judge any book is to look up the subject that you are familiar with and read it. Agree? Then you will probably like the book.
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