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A bold indictment of some of our most accepted mainstream economic theories—why they’re wrong, and how they’ve been harming America and the world

Budget deficits are bad. A strong dollar is good. Controlling inflation is paramount. Pay reflects greater worker skills. A deregulated free market is fair and effective. Theories like these have become mantras among American economists both liberal and conservative over recent decades. Validated originally by patron saints like Milton Friedman, they’ve assumed the status of self-evident truths across much of the mainstream. Jeff Madrick, former columnist for The New York Times and Harper’s, argues compellingly that a reconsideration is long overdue.

Since the financial turmoil of the 1970s made stagnating wages and relatively high unemployment the norm, Madrick argues, many leading economists have retrenched to the classical (and outdated) bulwarks of theory, drawing their ideas more from purist principles than from the real-world behavior of governments and markets—while, ironically, deeply affecting those governments and markets by their counsel. Madrick atomizes seven of the greatest false idols of modern economic theory, illustrating how these ideas have been damaging markets, infrastructure, and individual livelihoods for years, causing hundreds of billions of dollars of wasted investment, financial crisis after financial crisis, poor and unequal public education, primitive public transportation, gross inequality of income and wealth and stagnating wages, and uncontrolled military spending.

Using the Great Recession as his foremost case study, Madrick shows how the decisions America should have made before, during, and after the financial crisis were suppressed by wrongheaded but popular theory, and how the consequences are still disadvantaging working America and undermining the foundations of global commerce. Madrick spares no sinners as he reveals how the “Friedman doctrine” has undermined the meaning of citizenship and community, how the “Great Moderation” became a great jobs emergency, and how economists were so concerned with getting the incentives right for Wall Street that they got financial regulation all wrong. He in turn examines the too-often-marginalized good ideas of modern economics and convincingly argues just how beneficial they could be—if they can gain traction among policy makers.

Trenchant, sweeping, and empirical, Seven Bad Ideas resoundingly disrupts the status quo of modern economic theory.

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Quotes & Awards

  • “‘Zombie ideas,’ it’s been said, are those that should have been killed by evidence but refuse to die. Even more obdurate are the axioms of orthodox economics, upon which pernicious policies are erected. Mythbuster Madrick, in clear and compelling prose, demolishes seven of the biggest of these. May they (hopefully) rest in peace.”

    Mike Wallace, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and New York Times bestselling author of Close Encounters

  • “Jeff Madrick argues that the professional failures since 2008 didn’t come out of the blue but were rooted in decades of intellectual malfeasance…As Madrick makes clear, many economists have, consciously or unconsciously, engaged in a game of bait and switch…Seven Bad Ideas tells an important and broadly accurate story about what went wrong.”

    New York Times

  • “[A] must-read…In this brisk and accessible volume, which should be on Econ 101 syllabi, Madrick outlines the wrong-headed propositions, fictitious models, shoddy research, and partisan agendas that have made a reexamination of the entire field long overdue, especially in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008.”

    Salon

  • “An important and eloquent voice…Madrick’s wonderful chapter on efficient markets should be required reading for everyone in the financial world.”

    New York Review of Books

  • “If there were an eighth bad idea, it would be ignoring this book.”

    Shelf Awareness

  • “Bankers and economists who failed to avert the [2008] crisis aren’t evil, according to Madrick, just misguided, particularly in oversimplifying major economic shifts. This book is an attempt to inject the complexity back in…well worth the effort.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “A readable, useful economic text. Somewhere, John Maynard Keynes is smiling.”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • “Narrator Adam Grupper adeptly narrates this examination of some of the big ideas in economics. Grupper reads in an even tone, using pauses and pacing to emphasize Madrick’s explanations and critiques as he tackles each of the seven ideas in turn. Grupper expertly navigates the economic and business terms as well as the plethora of names that have contributed to these economic theories…Grupper’s reading, while serious and appropriate for the topic, contains enough enthusiasm to keep the energy high and the listener engaged through all seven of the ideas presented, many of which are widely known, yet will be taken in a new light after listening to this interpretation of them.”

    AudioFile

  • A New York Times Editor’s Choice
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About the Author

Jeff Madrick, a former economics columnist for Harper’s and the New York Times, is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and the editor of Challenge magazine. He is visiting professor of humanities at the Cooper Union and director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative at the Century Foundation. His books include Age of Greed, The End of Affluence, and Taking America. He has also written for the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Institutional Investor, Nation, American Prospect, the Boston Globe, and Newsday.