Adam Tooze, crisis historian, has bad news for us

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America and the world live through what Adam Tooze, the foremost internet historian of money and disaster, describes as a “polycrisis.” While drinking a beer at a bar near Columbia University, where he is director of the European Institute, Tooze discusses a long list of challenges: war, the terror of nuclear conflict. Climate change, impending famine, floods and fire. Inflation, forcing central banks to crush consumer demand. The pandemic, closing factories and overloading hospitals. Any crisis is hard enough to dissect on its own; the interconnected mess of them is infinitely more. And he believes that “the whole is even more dangerous than the sum of its parts.”

Not so long ago, Tooze was an obscure academic. Now he is one of the world’s most influential financial commentators, with loyal readers in Washington, London, Paris and Brussels, as well as on Wall Street. Tooze’s readers turn to him for his uncanny ability to know what numbers on a spreadsheet matter, or when a trend has reached the point where it begins to shape history. He looks at trade, currency, stock, wage, employment, debt, and commodities data and somehow understands it — not just now, but over time. “Economic events have had such a huge impact on politics this century,” Robert Skidelsky, biographer of John Maynard Keynes, told me. Tooze “illustrates the intertwining of economic policy and political events. It’s that simple.”

He does this in books, opinion pieces and a podcast. But his greatest reach could come through his Substack newsletter, Chartbook, which comes across as a blog-like, ivory tower version of the research notes investment banking analysts send to clients. Tooze describes it as his ‘incomplete and somewhat raw’ thoughts, a ‘mixture of different styles and materials’. Recent reports have analyzed the Allies’ resources during the Battle of Normandy, financing the War on Terror, the contemporary siege warfare in Mariupol and West Virginia as a roadblock to climate policy.

His kind of analysis – nerdy and highbrow and often a bit inscrutable – is not for everyone. He writes for people who like to read material that is ‘a bit harder’: more technical than what you find in the financial times, more intellectual than Goldman Sachs reports. But it is a revelation to many, including young left-handers (memorably described in New York magazine as “Tooze Boys”), residents of #econtwitter, history buffs and money managers, many of whom trade on the data he digs up.

In any case, there are some signs that look encouraging: the coronavirus pandemic appears to be easing and inflationary pressures are easing. But the revelation that Tooze is now bringing out is that we may not get out of the crisis. Indeed, we may find ourselves in a deteriorating situation, with much of the world facing a series of self-reinforcing financial and geopolitical pressures, perhaps leading to an ominous end. Given that possibility, our foremost crisis historian is very busy.

Where our current catastrophe go, it’s been good for Tooze, he tells me somewhat bewildered. The combination of COVID-19, collapsing supply chains and the rush of central banks to respond constituted “the first crisis in which I discovered that my professional existence, my personal existence and my understanding of my relationship to history were all just completely seamlessly, continuously,” he says. He found his niche — and thousands of new readers.

Tooze, 54, achieved academic fame as a historian of the Third Reich. His careful archival work revolutionized our understanding of German finance and how it shaped the Nazi war strategy. He first came into contact with many non-academic readers with the 2018 publication of: crashedin my opinion the best book on the global financial crisis – an analysis of the enormous amount of money that created the Great Recession (mortgages originated in the suburbs of Las Vegas, wrapped in securities in New York and sold around the world), the enormous amount of money that ended it (the monetary authorities of the world pumped dollars, euros and yens into the markets), and the political consequences that followed.

In the mid-2010s, he started writing short messages on Facebook and Twitter. “I started social media absurdly late,” he says. “I am a middle-aged man.” But, he says, he loved it — the immediacy, the intimacy, and the ability to think out loud. In 2020 he launched Chartbook. He added charts. He added links, poems, fragments of books, meditations on market fear. And he added essays, using financial data to clarify what had caused past disasters and what could be causing them now.

Russia’s foreign exchange reserves, for example. A Tooze post explored how building those reserves helped Vladimir Putin turn the country into a “strategic petrostate” bold enough to invade Ukraine and counter the Western powers. About 150,000 people, including some in the German Chancellor’s office, read the essay. “I thought, Wow this is worth it‘, Tooze told me. “For someone with an academic background, where you’re lucky if 1000 people read what you write, the numbers add up so quickly.” On Substack, his output also proved to be financially rewarding: “For anyone with a regular, academic salary, it’s transformative.”

Despite the seriousness of his subject matter and the esoteric quality of his references, Tooze’s writing has a kind of magpie joy. Personally, he comes across as intellectual, confident, but also self-deprecating, articulate, funny. While we talk about polycrisis, he sings about his love for cities (“You can’t feel depressed!”); his sense of alienation, being so few degrees away from so many important people (“a weird club”); and his experience in therapy (“Being present is the hardest thing on earth”).

He also riffs on his newsletter as an intellectual project. As he puts it, he doesn’t just circulate data or build arguments; he is also bathed in an anarchic, unstoppable flow of information. “What does it mean to be in the present, in this constant experience of aging, this constant experience that your ideas and prejudices are consumed by the flow of the future, which is fundamentally unpredictable at any moment and then once you consume it, it becomes it superfluous?” he says exuberantly. “That’s my now — this literally floating on the surface tension of the present moment.”

The son of Tooze, a leading molecular biologist, spent his childhood in West Germany, heading to Cold Spring Harbor, New York, for the summers so that his father could work with James Watson. He studied economics at Cambridge before leaving for Berlin’s Free University in 1989 to find out if he wanted to become an academic. He “wanted to find some space for himself,” he says, and wasn’t quite attuned to the history going on around him. “There were those huge street demonstrations that helped topple the regime, the most dramatic demonstrations of nationalism or patriotism I’ve ever witnessed.” The night the Berlin Wall fell: “It had been a very long, very cold day. I was in the bath, listening to the radio and trying to warm up,” he says. “The radio said something strange was going on. And I turned it off.”

Deciding to become an academic – an economic historian to be precise, he studied at the London School of Economics and then returned to teach at Cambridge. He became known partly for his knowledge of military history and partly for his skill with numbers, and above all for his ability to link financial details to world historical trends. Hitler was compelled not only by murderous anti-Semitism but also by shortages of land, steel and fuel, Tooze argued in 2006. Wages of destructionfor example. “We always wonder what drives this propulsive quality of the Nazi state, why it is so focused on blitzkrieg and rapid conquest,” said Susan Pedersen, a renowned historian of Europe. “Adam explains how they operate in a world of economic constraints: victory is possible for them, if it happens quickly.”

Much of his academic output at Cambridge and later Yale was focused on the first half of the 20th century: World War I, the League of Nations, the economy of Weimar Germany. But his study of the philosophy of history – a rambunctious branch of research into how historical actors understand their influence on the course of events – pushed him “into this dynamic relationship between the past and the present.” He turned to writing about the near past; crashed examined the financial crisis that had begun just 10 years earlier. In Columbia, he became a historian of the present and published Shut down on the COVID crisis and working on a climate change report.

He is no longer in the bathtub with the radio off. Instead, he is deeply involved in contemporary intellectual politics. He talks to government officials. He writes his newsletter. He advises hedge funds. And he teaches. I sat at his last class this spring with a group of students discussing the work of environmental historian Elizabeth Chatterjee in a damp, halogen-lit basement, synthesizing Marxist theory and parsing energy data.

Sometimes parsing such data leads to disturbing places: As Tooze sees it, the forces of central bank tightening, war, inflation and climate change are mutually reinforcing. He offers no reassurance as to where that might lead — just the hope that this polycrisis might be familiar to us.

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