One Nation Under Debt : Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe
One Nation Under Debt : Hamilton, Jefferson, and the History of What We Owe by Robert E. Wright
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review is structured more like a book report than a book review. This is because my main concern with the book is the things it left out. I’m not sure how to describe why I miss these things without first describing what is included. Please forgive this.

Given the recent (summer, 2011) political squabbles around the United States’ national debt, it seemed like a great time to read up on the history. While the present and future fate of the debt is the talk of the nation at the moment, it struck me as prudent to take a quick look at the past to see how we got here.

This book certainly strives to satisfy on the history front. It takes a long look at the national economy from before there was actually a “nation” to put behind that “national”. Indeed, the first part of the book concerns itself heavily with the history of national debts in general: from ancient Kings borrowing from the wealthy against their own crown jewels to the innovations in Holland which led to the first modern national debt, the reader receives a crash course on the scope of national borrowing during the earlier years of civilization up through the Enlightenment.

Here, the author concerns himself with the financial structure of Colonial America as the colonies began the hard fight for Independence. (Spoiler: there wasn’t much.) It’s the post-Independence, post-Constitutional America where the reader who is aware of the structure of America’s current debt starts to become more comfortable. Here, the author delivers an in-depth discussion of Hamilton’s grand plan for the nation’s finances , the basic model of which is still in use today. (It’s possible that the discussion is too in-depth as the description of all of the bonds and their interest rates and their payment schedules started to make my head swim a little. But it’s hard to criticize a non-fiction book for containing too much information.)

This leads past some political squabbles to a rather lengthy chapter which examines some individual federal bond-holders in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. Name-by-name, paragraph-by-paragraph, he lists these people. He tells us who they were and what they did for a living. He tries to divine if they were wealthy or poor. He tells us how much they invested in bonds, when they purchased them, and when they sold them. On and on it goes. At least to an extent, I think I understand the purpose of this chapter: he’s trying to reinforce the idea that the bond-holders at the time weren’t special. They were just ordinary citizens.

But it comes across as “My assistant and I have spent years reading these old ledger books and we want you to see how hard we worked.” Whatever purpose the chapter had, it could have served it just as well at half the length (if not a quarter). By the end of it, I was just happy to have reached the end of it.

After this, there’s a short discussion about how the Jackson administration actually finished paying off the debt. And then the history stops.

At least as far as the national debt is concerned, this book seems to be of the opinion that nothing of note really happened between the Jackson administration and the present day. There’s no talk about the US borrowing for WWII. There’s no talk about how the devastation that war caused in Europe turned America into such an economic powerhouse and how that would have made its treasuries the safest investment around. There’s no talk about how the US dollar’s growth into the international reserve currency would have caused our people and politicians to start to see our debt as something set apart from the debts of lesser nations. In a book about the United States national debt, there’s no discussion of the US Federal Reserve. There’s no discussion of the debt ceiling, despite it being (as near as I can tell) unique to the country.

Which is to say, that this book completely falls apart if you want to learn the history of the debt that the United States actually has right now. There’s all sorts of history about the debt we paid off, but essentially none at all about the one that we actually possess.

Instead, there’s a chapter devoted to some sort of preaching. It may be my political bias framing the way I read it, but the last chapter seemed to start with the presumption that the current national debt is an evil instead of a blessing. And, it may be that same bias which makes me think that it comes down rather hard on the side of slashing entitlements like healthcare and social security. But that could just be because the chapter is so weakly written. Whatever larger point the author was wanting to make, he tried to keep it subtle (probably because this is ostensibly an objective academic history). But the fact that he just couldn’t help himself and included the chapter anyway (even though he tried really hard to not actually say anything in it) comes across as a collision of poor writing and lax editing. It demeans the whole work.

In summary, it would be hard to recommend this book. Both because of the things it chose not to cover (like the entire 20th century) and the things it chose to include (detailed histories of Virginians who happened to buy bonds, a sloppy bit of political something-or-other), I can’t recommend it. I’m not even sure I’m glad I read it. But I guess I’m not upset that I read it and I don’t feel like it was a waste of time.

So that’s something.

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