Monday, January 16, 2012

Confidence Men by Ron Suskind

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a PresidentConfidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President by Ron Suskind
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is a point at which journalism turns into historiography, when the current events have passed sufficiently to allow the historian beach-comber to piece together a more comprehensive representation of the events. This was one of those first historical accounts to emerge from the nascent Obama administration. The author was given plenty of access to the President and his economic team in writing this book. Previously, Ron Suskind had written critically of Pres. Bush and so perhaps the administration thought that Suskind was ‘on their side.’ That extraordinary access provides a clear look into President Obama’s management style, thinking, and the resulting conflict and success in his first two years.

There are several themes that run through this book. It is principally rooted in the events and people surrounding the 2007 financial meltdown and aftermath. It is not a rosy assessment of Pres. Obama or his economic team, which Suskind labels the ‘B-team’ of Summers, Geithner, Romer, &co.. The book outlines how many of these advisors were the very people who sowed the seeds of financial collapse by removing the laws that resulted in the 2007 financial collapse during the final hours of the Clinton Administration. It was interesting to read about how Wall Street financiers were able to cloak the true market price and risk of their collateralized debt obligation derivatives by operating financial cartels (Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Citibank), and backed up by low-interest non-risk adjusted lending and a quasi-governmental business that was essentially guaranteed not to fail (Fanny May and Freddie Mac).

The focus of the book, however shows Obama administration reacted to the crisis, and can be summed up in the words of Larry Summers who said they were ‘home alone’ in the white house (his full quote was “We’re home alone. There’s no adult in charge. Clinton would never have made these mistakes.”). President Obama did exhibit his grasp of the issues, however he saw his role as more a storyteller in chief who needed to instill confidence in the American People by inspiring them to greatness rather than by substantive ‘administration’ or legislative work. This resulted in a supremely dysfunctional administration where actions and agendas were constantly being relitigated, ignored, or pursued independently of other administration officials. President Obama serves more as an impartial sage moderating the bickering amongst his staff, all the while nothing is actually accomplished. For example, the supposed chief accomplishment of the Obama administration, Health Care Reform, took a year before Nancy Pelosi was able to get the bill to President Obama with almost zero input from the administration (a fact that enraged Nancy Pelosi). That’s not the worst managerial flaw of this administration—as the book points out, which is the burdensome and pervasive sexism of the good-ol’-boy mingled with the juvenile boy’s only basketball and golf games that clearly favored men.

Having read the books chronically the Bush Administration written by Rumsfeld, Cheney, Rove, and Bush himself, I find it interesting to compare the two administrations up to this point. Sure, Bush’s administration had similar problems with e.g., Condoleezza Rice taking action before getting approval from the President—a degree of power assumption is par for the course with such a large unwieldy administration, but whereas Bush saw himself as a decider, Obama appears to see himself as the inspirer—a movement president who actualizes greatness through the sheer force of words and speeches. Perhaps Bush was less curious (although he was reportedly a voracious reader of history and non-fiction), and perhaps Bush’s intellect was not so grand (although this too seems to be overstated since his grades were in fact comparable to both his opponents Kerry and Gore). Even so, it will be interesting to see how the clarifying hindsight of history compares both of these presidents: one, the decider, and the other, the inspirer.

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The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Being a finance layman who isn't as familiar with the craft except on the individual, micro level, I was interested in reading this book to clarify in my mind the way real equity capital (is there really such a thing?) works along with derived financial products such as stocks, bonds, options, etc.. I typically read a series of books of the same theme, and as I just finished Pinker's 'Better Angels' about the decline of violence and the blossoming of culture--including the role of good government, I decided to pick this book up to better understand how the increasing complexity and liquidity of finance has helped industrious citizens and countries prosper. This is a poorly understood topic (not helped by the populist demagogues who amass power by investing ignorance twinged with the black sin of envy on the public)-a subject that when properly understood and followed can produce general wealth and social flourishing.

The book runs through a history of finance from the Babylonian times through the Medici up past the engineering of corporate and national bonds as a mechanism to finance enterprise and finally through the most recent advances in finance that have incorporated the massive computing power and statistics that have generated incredible fortunes as well as incredible losses. As with any complex political or economic instrument there are bumps along the way that usually increases the efficiency of the instrument--sometimes through catastrophe, or that reveal some essential flaw in the instrument, which is then promptly discarded. The book runs through many of these forays into financial innovation and the constructive and/or destructive consequences for society. The cultural attitudes towards money, profit, greed and wealth through the centuries are explored as well.

By the end of the book I had a better appreciation for the progress we have made in finance and continue to wonder at how, like the building of a great city, the efforts of individuals come together to erect a system that is almost too complicated to understand in real-time for any one person or group, but that simply works to the benefit of every member. I have lived in broken societies with failed governments (Nicaragua--two years), and have experienced the effects of political phenomena such as hyperinflation as well as the social turmoil that comes from diminished wealth accumulation and credit, and this book helped me understand better the reasons for these financial failures.

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