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on May 28, 2012
It is amazing how much the author can pack into 400 pages, The writing is clear and entertaining, leavened by anecdotes and sketches of some very famous economists. Yet the author covers hotly debated issues in enough depth that the reader can understand what the opposing positions were, and why people held them. This is particularly important to a lay reader, as some positions may seem so weird that an uninformed reader may wonder why anyone could reasonably hold them. After White's explanations, they become plausible, even if not convincing to a twenty-first century reader.

To take just one example, Hayek long advocated privatization of money, i.e. government should get out of the business of printing (or minting) money and let competing private sector issuers do it. Sounds absurd, but White shows the logic in terms that can be understood by a lay reader, and that might be informative to a professional economist.

While White covers a great many issues, the common thread is the scope of government versus the scope of private enterprise and market forces. Thus at one extreme Oskar Lange claimed that, now that we had computers (written around 1950), bureaucrats could calculate a proper price for everything and there is no need for free markets to set prices (or for any other reason). At the other extreme, James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock argue that governments usually act to please special interests, including bureaucrats and certain producers, at the expense of the general taxpayer.

The centerpiece of the book, however, is the argument between Keynes and Hayek, as to whether government should massively intervene when the ec0onomy turns down, or whether market forces should be allowed to play out. This is a crucial debate today among both economists and policy-makers. White's account of Keynes and Hayek sheds welcome light on the issues. Indeed, one can compare this book with Nicholas Wapshott's account of the same clash. While Wapshott writes at greater length, and covers much more of the politics, White does a much better job of getting at the economic principles behind each position (and that are still in play today)..
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on April 25, 2012
A great book. The debate over ideas between Keynes and Hayek during the 1930s couldn't be more relevant to the current discussion on the recent recession and the right economic policy to get the economy going again. Pick up a copy of the New York Times and the arguments couldn't be more similar. But this isn't a dry book, you see the lively debates and the personalities behind them with lots of interesting personal facts sprinkled in. You learn not only the arguments that were made, but which ones the partisans in these battles regretted that they made and what they learned from their mistakes. White is one of the few people who could bring together such a broad range of sources together in such a readable way.

The book is much broader than the Great Depression covering everything from the debate over the proper role of government in the great Socialist Calculation debate to free trade to the debates behind what White entitles "The Growth of Government" (though this chapter was much too short).

I still have my criticisms. For example, I would have included a lot more economists in some of these debates, and I think that it is arbitrary who is given credit for making some arguments. For example, Donald Wittman's discussions about the efficiency of Democracies ignores the fact that Gary Becker had already made the central argument in 1976 in the JLE (of course, there were other less well known economists such as Earl Thompson who made a whole career making these arguments and published some of them in the JPE). And the book has a strong GMU bias in terms of which arguments it considers. And I disagree with some of the arguments.

But despite those minor quibbles, it is a strong book that is well worth the read.
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on May 29, 2012
The chapters highlight key historical events (eg Great Depression in the 30s, German strong growth in the 50/60s, stagflation in the 70s). Each chapter also introduces some economists and their ideas aimed at dealing with the problem at hand. While the book chapters are chronological, the economists and their ideas are only roughly chronological. Sometimes a chapter backtracks to introduce the ideas of older economists. The overall structure of the book works very well.

The economic explanations are not very complicated and you do not need any background in economics to understand the book (except probably when it comes to discussions about interest rates). This is both a strength (large potential audience) and a weakness (only scratches the surface). Actually, I think the book would be ideal for readers interested in social/intellectual history. A good overview is achieved by digesting this book. There are also loads of useful references to the seminal works in the history of economic thought. It is also not bad for people with economic training who what a historical perspective - and that really should include all macroeconomists. Then it will serve as a great first reader (and you can subsequently follow the numerous references to find the original sources).

- This book compares favourable to Blaug's Economic Theory in Retrospect. Blaug's book is much more detailed when it comes to economic theory, but does not have the somewhat broader economic history focus. Blaug's book is originally written decades ago and some of the details are no longer that relevant. So while an economist (or economic historian) might prefer Blaug's book, an historian would prefer the current book. For the causal reading the choice is clearly the current book.
The Evolution of Macroeconomic Theory and Policy also has chapters based on historical events, but its focus is on economic theory. Thus this is a very different book, which I rate at three stars.
Competing Schools of Economic Thought, in contrast, has chapters focused on key historical economists, starting with Adam Smith. The focus is on these giants (similar to Blaug) and not much historical context is given. I have only skimmed this book, but it is neither great nor awful.

The writing style is rather informal, but somewhat uneven. In general, the text should have been edited more meticulously. Still, it is almost an entertaining reading. Unfortunately, the author/printer has messed up the section headings in the book; no distinction made between broad section headings and more narrow headings. So at times the headings turn out to be misleading. Irritating, but you get used to it.
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on May 14, 2012
There is a great deal to like about this book. Prof. White obviously put a great deal of effort into distilling each topic into a summary that captures the essence of the topic in 20 to 30 pages without oversimplifying. The result is one of those rare books that can serve both novices and trained economists. Novices will benefit from prose that draws the reader forward without jargon. Many terms that may be unfamiliar to beginners are defined. Experts will at least pick up a few nuggets, and can draw inspiration from the superb writing.

Highly recommended. A paperback edition is available for about $45 if I remember right.
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on November 23, 2013
If you want to understand the debates that are raging in Washington today over economic policy you really do need to read this book. It does a good job of outlining the historical development of the various contending schools of thought in economics, and illustrating just how they differ in their analysis of how the economy works and their prescription for what the government ought to do in order to keep the economy running smoothly.

The only shortcomings that I found with this book were: (a) the absence of a concluding chapter that succinctly summarizes the wealth of highly complex information provided throughout the book, and (b) the author's clear bias against Keynesianism (and, to a lesser extent, against monetarism as well) in favor of the so-called "Austrian school" of Mises and Hayek. A book on a controversial subject such as this deserves a more evenhanded treatment. Perhaps it would have been better for the book to have been co-written by two or more economists representing different schools of thought; at the very least, the author should have invited a Keynesian and a monetarist to respond to his arguments, including their comments in boxes scattered throughout the text or else in an appendix at the end.

But apart from the author's obvious bias and the lack of a summary chapter to tie all of his arguments together, this book is well worth reading for anyone interested in economic theory or in the politics of economic policy. I'd recommend it.
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on March 15, 2015
This book reads very easily. It describes a lot of debates about economic ideas, mostly about the role of the state and the markets. It contains a lot of interesting information, and some forgotten ideas you don't find in modern textbooks, are in it. The tries - but does not success - to give both sides of the debate and lets the authors speak instead of giving his own ideas. His historic account is a blessing in these times of theoretical economics.
After some chapters, you immediately find the preferences of the author. In nearly every chapter the ideas of the Austrian school pop up, and Hayek is his favorite. Many chapters are balanced, some not at all. When he treats public goods and public choose theory, he gives his own opinion - against public goods theory. There is also a lot of material on monetary policy, which is not bad in these times where economic theory has forgotten the influence of money on the real economy.
This is a must read for everybody who wants to understand why mainstream economic thinking is where it is. But I can only give 3 stars because of the American-British view and, more importantly, because of the bias in favor of the Austrian school - which should not be the case for an historical account.
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on October 5, 2015
I got this book as a part of an economics course I am taking, and I have really enjoyed reading it. White helps the reader navigate the changes in economic ideas in a very clear and straight forward way. It is a great book for those interested in the history of economic thought.
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on June 1, 2013
This could be, in a way, a central text for college, That is, if most college economics teachers were willing to let an intellectual debate occur between statist-oriented economists and free-market economists. It is so full of ideas about how the world economy should or could work that it offers a very stimulating introduction to the field of economics. It could make Econ 102 an exciting course, rather than a snoozer.
In any case, an excellent primer on the important issues of money creation, trade, interest rates, central banks, etc.
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on June 22, 2013
This is an engaging and detailed history of economic thought, in particular the debate between the Keynesians and the Austrians. The author is on the Austrian side but he represents both sides of the debate very clearly. There is also considerable depth of historical detail, tracing the development of ideas from the 18th and 19th centuries.
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on June 5, 2012
The Clash of Economic Ideas is a great read. It's an accessible telling of some of the major battles in economic theory. And it holds interest due to it's relation to historical events going on at the time of each of these battles. Rather than staying in the high theory of economics, Dr. White shows how ideas turn into real policies and vice versa. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who is curious as to why economics and economic policy look the way they do today.
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