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Originally published Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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'A Nation of Deadbeats': Fascinating but unfocused look at money crises

"A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters," Scott Reynolds Nelson's look at financial crises from different decades, starts down several interesting paths of explanation but becomes unfocused and leaves much out.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'A Nation of Deadbeats: An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters'

by Scott Reynolds Nelson

Knopf, 352 pages, $27.95

Four years ago, as Wall Street plunged, Virginia historian Scott Reynolds Nelson posted on Facebook a comparison of the events of 2008 to the Panic of 1873. His posting startled readers and led to "A Nation of Deadbeats," a book he subtitles "An Uncommon History of America's Financial Disasters."

The crises were alike in some ways. All had to do with uncertain financial promises, "whether personal notes in 1792, bills of exchange in 1819, bank drafts in 1837, railway mortgages in 1857, or second- and third-mortgage railway bonds in 1873," Nelson writes. Most panics of the 1800s came after too-loose lending by the English. The 1929 crash came after Americans undertook to lend to Europe and Latin America.

The author could have written this book in several ways. An economist might have outlined the several theories of what causes depressions and tested each against the record. Nelson rejects that approach. "Every crisis is unique," he writes. "There are not and never have been 'cycles' dictated by an inexorable ebb and flow of investment."

Perhaps not inexorable or dictated. But the ebbs and flows are real enough. An economic historian would have focused on these ebbs and flows, the institutions in each crisis and the decisions their leaders made. Nelson starts on this track several times, then some other thing piques his interest, and he's off.

Nelson is a progressive with a warm interest in the Democratic Party, the political coalition underneath it, and the economic and social program it promotes. He writes about it in 1800 under Thomas Jefferson, in 1830 under Andrew Jackson, in the 1890s under William Jennings Bryan, and in the 1930s in the New Deal. He introduces the reader to Elizur Wright, the 19th century abolitionist and theoretician of life-insurance regulation. Nelson's greatest fascination is with Anton Cermak, whom he follows from his birth in Kladno, Austria-Hungary, in 1873 — that crash year — through his immigration to America and his rise as union organizer and mayor of Chicago to his assassination in 1933 while sitting next to Franklin Roosevelt.

Nelson ends the book with a salute to the Occupy Wall Street protests.

His book is not dry or data-driven. It is often fascinating, but it only sometimes focuses on a "history of America's financial disasters." And that history is a vast subject that stretches over 150 years. With 350 pages to cover it, he has to be economical with his ink, and he is not. As a consequence, he leaves other things out. He has no interest in the silver versus gold arguments in the Panic of 1893. He spends but a few paragraphs on the First New Deal, which he dubs a failure, and puts it in the wrong years. He skips over the depression of 1920-1921 entirely.

In the acknowledgments, Nelson gives thanks to colleagues who read his manuscript and "pushed me to be clearer about financial history and reminded me when I was veering wildly into fields I did not fully understand." If he took their advice, it was not often enough.

Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times

editorial writer.

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