R. Christopher Whalen is not a historian. He’s not an economist, either, at least not in the peer-reviewed sense. This shouldn’t preclude his writing a credible economic history, except that he’s the scariest sort of non-scholar: the wide-ranging, not to say dilettantish, practitioner who thinks himself a polymath. That is, an anti-scholar.
Histories that depend on the “practical”–commonsensically populist, tangentially hyper-technical, or both–tend to fly defiantly against ivory-tower consensus, then promptly off the rails. One thinks of the retired Royal Navy submarine commander Gavin Menzies, offering his facility with nautical charts and general able seamanship as authority enough to claim a Chinese fleet reached America 70 years before Columbus. Or Immanuel Velikovsky, the psychiatrist who interpreted ancient Near East myth, principally the Book of Exodus, as a record of Earth’s catastrophic near-collisions with neighboring planets. Or, for that matter, Fred Leuchter, the notorious gas-chamber builder-turned-Holocaust denier.
Mr. Whalen is hardly a crank on this level. But the former Bear Stearns banker and managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics–a consultancy and bank-rating agency not unlike a psychoanalyst, executioner and celestial navigator–is just as invested in the heretic prestige of overwrought contrarianism. Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream, his omnibus treatment of American monetary policy from 1776 to the present, is a swaggering, incisive work, full of derision for the effete and ineffectual conventional wisdom he tends to call “the history books.” What official volumes he’s referring to is unclear, but they can’t be above secondary-school-level: to wit, “FDR is lionized in many history books while Hoover and the Republicans are demonized. The truth is …” Closer to the point: “Since most economists have never taken risk or traded securities in a hostile market environment … [i]t may be unfair to criticize [them] for failing to understand the true precursors of the Great Depression.”
Elsewhere, Mr. Whalen block-quotes the well-worn Teddy Roosevelt speech extolling “not the critic [but] the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. …” He continues, apropos of very little, for 12 lines.
The copious block quotes happen to be where one first suspects something like the lax–or rather, proudly insouciant–evidentiary standards of the true cranks. Hundreds of endnotes and a four-page bibliography notwithstanding, much of the history of Inflated draws on the words and facts of a disconcertingly limited, and often plain disconcerting, miscellany of sources. Its account of the politics of the early republic, for one, rests heavily and rather tenuously on David McCullough’s John Adams. More problematic is the unabashed reliance, for the New Deal years, on Herbert Hoover’s “tidy and beautifully organized memoirs.” Elsewhere, the errors abound. Alexander Hamilton was not “of New England mercantilist stock.” (As the general reader will vaguely recall–and then look up to confirm–Hamilton was born on Nevis in the West Indies and made on another island, Manhattan.) To take another example, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was not, contra Inflated, a “Rockefeller Republican,” even if he was in the Nixon administration.
Mr. Whalen uses one nontextual source in his nearly 400 pages, but it’s more tertiary than primary: “Richard Whalen observed in discussions about this book that FDR’s decision to leave the gold standard ‘was about keeping people out of the streets.’” Richard Whalen, born 1935, is R. (for “Richard”) Christopher Whalen’s father.