My non-fiction review today centers around a book about Paul Volcker, someone you've likely never heard of before.
But trust me when I say, he's an important part of US fiscal history, and you'll want to read this book.
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published September 4th 2012 by Bloomsbury Press
Format read: Finished copy (owned)
Synopsis via Goodreads:
During his tenure as chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, when he battled the Great Inflation of the 1970s, Volcker did nothing less than restore the reputation of an American financial system on the verge of collapse.
After the 2008 financial meltdown, the nation turned again to Volcker to restore trust in a shaky financial system: President Obama would name his centerpiece Wall Street regulation the Volcker Rule. Volcker's career demonstrated that a determined central banker can prevail over economic turmoil--so long as he can resist relentless political pressure.
His resolve and independent thinking--sorely tested by Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan--laid the foundation for a generation of economic stability. Indeed, William L. Silber argues, it was only Volcker's toughness on monetary policy that "forced Reagan to be Reagan" and to rein in America's deficit.
While I was slightly dubious at first, I quickly realized that Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence, is a riveting, blow-by-blow blueprint showing our nation's fiscal past, present and future.
Things that worked:
What's so immediate enjoyable about Volcker, is Silber's attempts to humanize Paul Volcker. Silber's depiction of Volcker's life story, humble family background and family values, go a long way toward explaining the background and foundational upbringing for a man who would lead the Federal Reserve and make significant fiscal decisions for our nation that were previously unheard of.
However, despite his triumphs, Silber is also careful to show the negative impact of Volcker's devotion to his public servant career. His wife's declining health and the fiscal struggles of a family operating off of a single paycheck, have all taken their toll. Silber shows how these struggles all added to the development of the public persona, and impacted his decisions toward our nation's fiscal health.
* An unvarnished look at public service:
Silber definitely doesn't glamorize Volcker's decision to accept his role as the president of the Federal Reserve. He makes it clear that by accepting his role as the President of the Federal Reserve of New York, Paul Volcker faced an all too common choice in America: a pay cut for public service. With his resignation from Chase, Volcker saw his pay cut by more than half.
Such a choice might seem obvious to many, who have never had to choose between family and country, but Volcker’s decision had consequences. His special-needs child required quite expensive treatment and his wife’s health was frequently poor. Mrs. Volcker would pass away just a few years after her husband left the Fed for the last time.
I think that at a time when we hear a lot of commentary about how those who work for the federal government have so-called cushy and well-protected jobs, this unvarnished, uncensored view of federal service is not only important, but also emphasizes just how much Volcker gave up personally and professionally, to protect our nation's fiscal future.
Things that didn't work:
My one minor issue with the book was with the epilogue, where Silber remarks negatively about the high government spending and deficit of the last few years.
While Volcker himself was a strong opponent of such policies - fearing that they would lead to inflation, and threaten the long-term fiscal stability of the United States - the criticism still struck me as out of place.
Unfortunately, Federal spending and deficits were rising long before the most recent financial crisis. In addition, the challenges facing the Federal Reserve and policymakers today is not one of increasing inflation; indeed, it remains well below the target level of three percent. In my viewpoint, Silber's comparison of the 1970s and ‘80s with the ‘Noughties’ and ‘10s is more than a little like comparing apples and oranges.
The author went above and beyond the call of duty, explaining the worlds of high finance and central banking to this layman reviewer. However, he rarely revisits the explanations, making it somewhat difficult to follow as policy descriptions and economic indicators are re-referenced dozens or hundreds of pages later.
To put simply: making the language more accessible would make it a little easier for people like me to appreciate his writing in the future.
Volcker is an inspiration, even if his stogies sound kind of awful...