Systems Thinking about the Crash of ’29

I picked up John Kenneth Galbraith’s account of The Great Crash at a used bookstore. I’m not far into it, but there’s a nice assertion of the importance of a systemic view over event-based descriptions right at the start:

… implicit in this hue and cry was the notion that somewhere on Wall Street … there was a deus ex machina who somehow engineered the boom and bust. This notion that great misadventures are the work of great and devious adventurers, and that the latter can and must be found if we are to be safe, is a popular one in our time. … While this may be a harmless avocation, it does not suggest and especially good view of historical processes. No one was responsible for the great Wall Street crash. No one engineered the speculation that preceded it. Both were the product of the free choice of hundreds of thousands of individuals. The latter were not led to the slaughter. They were impelled to it by the seminal lunacy which has always seized people who are seized in turn with the notion that they can become very rich. …

Galbraith’s purpose in writing the book is itself systemic, to weaken the erosion of memory that permits episodic boom bust cycles:

Someday, no one can tell when, there will be another speculative climax and crash. There is no chance that, as the market moves to the brink, those involved will see the nature of their illusion and so protect themselves and the system. … There is some protection so long as there are people who know, when they hear it said that history is being made in this market or that a new era has been opened, that the same history has been made and the same eras have been opened many, many times before. This acts to arrest the spread of illusion. …

With time, the number who are restrained by memory must decline. The historian, in a volume such as this, can hope that he provides a substitute for memory that slightly stays that decline.

 

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