The Crisis Historian Has Bad News About the CrisisHistorians in the News
tags: economic history, history of capitalism, Adam Tooze
America and the world are living through what Adam Tooze, the internet’s foremost historian of money and disaster, describes as a “polycrisis.” As he sips a beer at a bar near Columbia University, where he is the director of the European Institute, Tooze talks through a long list of challenges: War, raising the specter of nuclear conflict. Climate change, threatening famine, flood, and fire. Inflation, forcing central banks to crush consumer demand. The pandemic, closing factories and overloading hospitals. Each crisis is hard enough to parse by itself; the interconnected mess of them is infinitely more so. And he feels “the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of the parts.”
Not too long ago, Tooze was an obscure academic. Now he’s among the world’s most influential financial commentators, with loyal readerships in Washington, London, Paris, and Brussels, as well as on Wall Street. Tooze’s readers turn to him for his uncanny ability to know which numbers on a spreadsheet matter, or when a trend has hit the point at which it has started to shape history. He looks at trade, currency, equities, wage, employment, debt, and commodities data and somehow makes sense of it—not just in the moment but in the sweep of time. “Economic events have had such a huge influence on politics this century,” Robert Skidelsky, the John Maynard Keynes biographer, told me. Tooze “illustrates the interpenetration of economic policy and political events. It’s as simple as that.”
He does so in books, opinion pieces, and a podcast. But his greatest reach might come through his Substack newsletter, Chartbook, which comes across as a bloggy, ivory-tower version of the research notes that investment-bank analysts send to clients. Tooze describes it as his “incomplete and somewhat raw” thoughts, a “mélange of different styles and materials.” Recent dispatches have analyzed the Allies’ resources at the Battle of Normandy, the financing of the War on Terror, contemporary siege warfare in Mariupol, and West Virginia as a roadblock to climate policy.
His kind of analysis—nerdy and highbrow and often a little inscrutable—is not for everyone. He writes for people who like reading material that “hits a bit heavier”: more technical than what you might read in the Financial Times, more intellectual than reports put out by Goldman Sachs. But it’s revelatory for many, including young lefties (described memorably in New York magazine as “Tooze Boys”), denizens of #econtwitter, history buffs, and money managers, many of whom trade on the data he digs up.
At least some signs look encouraging: The coronavirus pandemic appears to be abating, and inflationary pressures are easing. Yet the revelation that Tooze is now putting forth is that we might not be emerging from crisis. Indeed, we might be in a worsening one, in which much of the world faces a series of self-reinforcing financial and geopolitical pressures, building, perhaps, to some ominous end. Given that possibility, our most distinguished crisis historian finds himself very busy.
Wherever our current catastrophe is headed, it has been good to Tooze, he tells me with some bewilderment. The combination of COVID-19, buckling supply chains, and central banks’ scramble to respond constituted “the first crisis where I found my professional existence, my personal existence, and my understanding of my relationship to history were all just completely seamless, continuous,” he says. He found his niche—and thousands of new readers.
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