30 May Review of Sebastian Mallaby’s The Man Who Knew
Sebastian Mallaby’s More Money than God was one of the truly great books written in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and one I praised on this very website six years ago (https://www.davidbahnsen.com/?s=More+money+than+god). He is a gifted writer, a cogent thinker, and in The Man Who Knew, has written the authoritative biography of Alan Greenspan that has yet been written (or ever will be). 700 pages was a daunting task, yet as readers will discover, it takes 700 pages to cover the life of this intriguing person in American life.
I have much to say about Alan Greenspan, the public persona, and because so much of what I have to say is critical, it risks taking away from what Mallaby accomplished with this book. His ability to keep the reader’s attention, to move from era to era seamlessly, and to maintain objectivity and a prose that was both critical and complimentary all made this book a phenomenal work of literary accomplishment. My one criticism is a significant one, but not one that takes away from the mastery of the book. The arrogance with which Mallaby treated the supply-side school was completely unbecoming of someone of his intellectual giftedness. I purposely did not say “the manner with which he disagrees with the supply-side school,” for no such argumentation or critique or anything resembling a grown-up treatment was forthcoming; rather a mere dismissiveness was substituted for engagement, and I found it an unfortunate sidebar to a book I so greatly enjoyed.
Complimenting Mallaby’s treatment of Greenspan is different than offering the maestro himself a hall pass. Mallaby was actually quite fair himself, offering fair and poignant criticisms where warranted, but holding back where Mallaby was convinced the narrative was not capturing the entirety of the historical record. Greenspan accomplished much in his life as a public figure that is worthy of praise, and he accomplished much worthy of scorn. Ironically for this student of economic history, it was Greenspan”s own self-serving post-career biography that most did him in for me, more than the actual policy endeavors he was defending. That Greenspan went on an ideological ride throughout his life is not just indisputable, but also not particularly uncommon. Most adults evolve and adapt, for good or for bad, throughout their journeys, and Greenspan can be forgiven for the mere act of change. That so many of his adaptations appear to have been driven by political pragmatism and a sort of “climbing” aspiration (to use the term that Ayn Rand herself used in wondering where young Greenspan was headed), is a different story. Greenspan is not unlike so many public figures in that the greatest parts and most significant weaknesses all come from the same place. On one hand, he was nonpartisan, independent, personally affable, and devoid of great rivalries within ideology that could impair decision-making and productivity. On the other hand, one senses in reading Mallaby’s work a simply incredible sensation that Greenspan was keenly focused on how history would record him, and his sense of pleasantness and cordiality also came with a softness and pliability that did damage to his policy efforts.
Alan Greenspan was no doubt one of the most significant actors in American economic policy in the 20th century, and it is unfortunate that history will record his confidence in the self-regulation of free markets as the cause of the financial crisis, rather than his abysmal coddling of risk assets from 1998-2004 via monetary policy. The victors write the history books, and the Obama era “victors” coming out of the crisis have written a history that is all at once revisionist, self-serving, and dangerous. Mallaby, though, has not contributed to this historical revisionism, and in fact has written a fair and thorough treatise that gives us a glimpse into what drove the genius and unbridled vertical mobility of Alan Greenspan. Whether you are friend or foe to Greenspan’s legacy, your understanding of him will be greatly enhanced by this tremendous work.