Friday, December 7, 2007

The Age of Turbulence, by Alan Greenspan

Greenspan's new book is the opposite of his opaque speeches to Congress; here, he's remarkably human and clear. There are several funny tidbits about his life, including a very obtuse, meandering dedication to him in his father's book when he was young, which may have influenced Greenspan more than he may want to admit. His love for his wife comes through loud and clear, and the book includes a delightful picture of him at the piano with her.

However, Greenspan offers nothing new or insightful in his book other than a life-changing interaction with Ayn Rand, which led him inexorably down the path of libertarianism. (And yes, that's a contradiction for a government economist, if you're keeping score.) His comments on over-dependence on foreign oil, "creative destruction" causing U.S. citizens to become concerned about their quality of life, corn-based ethanol being a boondoggle, warnings against protectionism and economic populism, etc.--this has all been said before, by someone else, somewhere else. Greenspan does advocate a higher tax on gasoline to reduce consumption, which is surprising for a libertarian, but again, not a new idea.

Greenspan also compares the U.S.'s main competitors, especially the U.K., Russia, Japan, France, Italy, and India. He concludes that India needs to overthrow its labyrinth bureaucracy to be competitive, France needs to reform its union-based employment system, Italy made a wise decision to join the EU, and Japan's emphasis on saving face may harm its future growth. He also contends, without saying so directly, that Russia may be the next rising power due to its natural resources and military strength.

Greenspan mentions that the currency markets are more difficult to manipulate than one might think, and points out that Japan bought 20 billion U.S. dollars in one day in 2004, and the dollar-yen exchange rate barely moved. On the other side of the currency divide is Argentina, and Greenspan briefly discusses Argentina's pegging of its currency to the dollar, which led to a financial restructuring. Again, nothing new is said, but Greenspan did have access to many high level politicians and economists, so he is able to discuss, for example, Gerald Ford's "ordinary Joe" persona with more credibility. (For the record, Greenspan did not like Nixon, but found him to be very intelligent, and mentions later in the book that until Clinton, he did not meet anyone as intelligent as Nixon in the White House.)

Although he offers nothing profoundly new (except for perhaps the role liquified natural gas might play in our future energy plans), Greenspan's book is pleasant to read and gives the reader an insight into his sense of humor and tastes. Greenspan's overall message seems to be that the U.S. owes the Constitution much credit as its backbone of stability; citizens should be careful not to revert to the old ideas of centralized government; and the Federal Reserve should maintain an environment of controlled optimism.

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