Like the other journalistic books on the crash that I've been reading (links at end of post), Wessel makes intrinsically drab subjects like balance sheet acrobatics into gripping stories by treating the individuals involved as complex characters, sometimes myopic, sometimes heroic. In this one, the scholarly Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke, is The Man, doing "whatever it takes" to save the financial system from its own excesses. All the leading figures, Bernanke, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, and New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner come off as hard working, well-meaning public servants. (This is true of most books in this genre; come on writers, there must have been some stupid ones and some grasping ones.)
Sometimes Wessel's metaphors that make the subject approachable verge on too cute. Here's a sample:
Perhaps I recoil from this style of description because I might stumble into it myself on a bad day. I guess I should again credit Wessel for making these men whose work is so remote from what most of us do a little more human.
But however human they are, something awful happened under their tutelage of the economy. I find it notable that Wessel's language for his overarching subject is "Great Panic" -- not Great Recession or Depression 2.0 as some have suggested. Because his subject is the Fed, Wessel's subjects seem far too oblivious to the fact that a failing Lehman Brothers investment operation mattered a heck of a lot more to the 401k investor who lost a nest egg than to the millionaires who ran the company -- and who are the social counterparts of Wessel's characters. In recent months, the same figures seem to being trying to tell the country that the crisis (a panic?) is over, while for most of us, the worst is actually right now with over 10 percent unemployment and no real vision of how an economy that works poorly for the majority can start humming again.
Wessel knows his picture is missing something. He concludes with this take on the contradiction:
There's one of those high school metaphors again.
This is a good book, an accessible account of events that most of us figure we can't understand. I'd rank it less enlightening than Gillian Tett's Fools Gold, but easier to read. Right now I'm ripping through Andrew Ross Sorkin's Too Big to Fail, so readers here can expect more commentary on the financial-follies-journalism genre.
Previous posts in this series examine Justin Fox's Myth of the Rational Market, and Liaquat Ahamad's history, Lords of Finance.