07 April 2010
In Fed We Trust: Ben Bernanke's War on the Great Panic by David Wessel. New York: Crown Business, 2009. 323 p., $26.99.
Perhaps I have a higher standard for literature after having read three excellent books in a row in three very different genres. Perhaps I had high expectations because I have done a fair amount of research concerning central banking in financial crises. And perhaps I simply read a different book than the one read by Joseph Stiglitz, Professor Mankiw, and the others quoted on the dust cover. Whatever the reason, this was a terrible book.
Combining immense journalistic superficiality with an unrestrained tone of condescension towards the reader, David Wessel attempts to explain the working of the US Federal Reserve and its current President, Ben Bernanke. The author gives us his interpretation of how the Federal Reserve suddenly rose to prominence during the ongoing financial crisis, and "translates" every comment from the Federal Reserve statements for the untrained, a habit that quickly annoys. According to Wessel, the Fed's ability to act quickly with large resources at its disposal and without democratic constraints propelled it to the key actor during the frantic days in 2007 and 2008 when the crisis was at its peak. As the author writes at least 150 times Bernanke is willing to do whatever it takes to stabilize the economy (yes, the italics are the authors).
But I honestly do not know what point the author wishes to make beyond that. At times, it feels like he cobbled together clippings from his Wall Street Journal articles and instructed a secretary to insert the phrase whatever it takes as transition paragraphs. As such, the book is at best a timeline history of the crisis during the past two years but without real information, data, or bibliography. Or it is an extended op-ed praising (and warning about?) the Federal Reserve. Or perhaps it is merely an attempt to make some quick money off the continuing recession. (Note: The recession is continuing. So how can you write a comprehensive examination of the Federal Reserve even before we have all the details?)
The only redeeming aspect of the book is that it is short: 275 pages with generous margins and spacing. So thankfully, I was able to finish it relatively quickly. Hopefully, I can find another book that will explain and discuss the financial crisis without also managing to annoy and frustrate.