As a longtime reader of Taleb, I find him at best mostly bracing, sometimes head-turning with new twists of ideas, sometimes charmingly abrasive. He can be like a bright, independent-thinking pal to spend a walk with (and I walk with books mostly). This book is worth it on that level. There are important ideas here which the herd misses, probably to its ultimate regret. But plenty of time is spent here with ideas not as new and revolutionary as he touts them as, and of course the self-absorbed cheap-shot attacks on straw-man "academics," etc. Why spend so much time attacking mediocrities in that corner of the world? It gets repetitive, and that's where (despite his protestations) a SMART editor (unlike, again, the mediocre straw-man editors he criticizes) would come in handy. There seems to be a framing effect, a saliency bias, Mr Taleb is brilliant but very wrapped up in his world of airport luggage, dinners, academics, with a certain adolescent resentment about elements of it. I feel sometimes like I'm trapped in an airport luncheon with him and his loathsome dull academics, as he prattles on.
This book walks through stories of a lot of individuals and their money and logistical arrangements on the way to major terror operations. The narrator has the perfect sober, rich voice and gravitas to deliver this content.
The book really shines when the author pulls back and gives us an overview of the evolving world political economy after the fall of the USSR. While the west was congratulating itself, economic infrastructure all over the former communist-dominated world was withering. Where there had been political discipline (bad as it might have been in its way) and such things as regional arrangements allocating resources such as water, now these little atomized separatist groups were falling back into their enclosed, impoverished little zones. There were huge vacuums opening up in societies, on many levels, with large numbers of low-opportunity youths milling around, with nihilism, desperation and radicalization hovering and ready to take root. Along come the "right" people with money, an ideology, and bingo! Large swaths of the developing world fall into this atomized militia type condition, a breeding ground for radicalism. This is masterfully portrayed along with lots of particulars.
This history of course lacks the very latest round of developments, but gives very meaningful history. As a part of my recent studies into money laundering and offshore finance, I was curious about the bank, BCCI, and this history goes that far back (into the 80s), This sort of context vastly improves my understanding of what is happening now.
This book delivers nicely on its title. The editing sequence was a little odd, inasmuch as we get a lot of history before, some 4/5 of the way through, we go through a flurry of actual laws and regulations. I was fascinated at the perspective of the 2008 meltdown and the responses of Paulsen, Bernanke, Geithner and company as "shotgun takeovers" and "regulation by deal." I see it, from that perspective, as a virtuoso performance by these fellows, given the situation they found themselves in. (Their arguable misfeasance on the way there is a whole different discussion, not in this book.) To think, once upon a time, it was J. P. Morgan who pulled such bravura moves, and we institutionalized that power into public servants. Very interesting stuff.
By "these topics" I mean mid-20th century Europe (including UK), the related financial history, merchant banking, and the actions and plight of German Jews in those settings. I not only have these interests in abundance, but also benefitted in having just finished "The Warburgs" by Ron Chernow. That book, which tells the saga of the whole sprawling family from the 1800s into the 1990s, across Europe and the USA, but in a less strictly finance-centric way, gave a perfect backdrop and introduction to the times and characters.
It was Siegmund I best related to, for better or worse, as I am a similarly dour, restrained intellectual type. Yet he came vividly alive in the crossing of boundaries, internationally and in banking business, and the bold creativity of his buildup of his own establishment, alongside the more staid doings of his continental and US relatives. He flowed across borders with the facility and liquidity of the namesake of one of his trading arms, Mercury (from whose name the word "commerce" also comes). (Digging further into this type of personality can be done in Jean Shinoda Bolen's "Gods in Everyman," relating to the Hermes-Mercury character.) And, fittingly, Siegmund could be rather ethically limber, for example, willing to deal in Germany postwar and with Germans some of his relatives considered objectionable. He was a very driven man, very limited in other departments of his life, as in his very disciplined marriage; he had to show the world and his doubting family members (in the rivalrous Hamburg branch of the family) his importance. And he did, aplenty: he was a great shaper of postwar finance on that side of the Atlantic. Author Niall Ferguson shows all this with a graceful precision, digging into deals and details at a level Mr. Chernow (for all the quality of his book) did not. Mr. Ferguson's bigger tomes are right at the sweet spot for my interests: he has precision and thoroughness delivered in that crackling English prose I so love. And the narrator is spot on for the job too: ideally British but shifting into convincing German accents to highlight other speakers' own words. Bravo!
This did not change what I have found unsatisfying about the major players pre-2008 (which included Tim Geithner as NY Fed boss): how this regulatory system drifted over time such that this outlandish other-worldly asset bubble and psychological mania got so raging across the whole financial business and society, without much substantive challenge by the watchmen. That lapse in leadership was beyond bizarre, and I have never heard a credible explanation. (I would say, a partial explanation is offered here: greed and stupidity are not against the law here.) That said, once things started slipping way out of control, some smart and steady hands grabbed the tiller, Geithner's included. There was incredible creativity involved, in the face of vast uncertainty and gale-force political complainers on all sides. It is great to have a front row seat here with the decision-makers. I am still amazed how we managed not to slide into Great Depression 2 (and potentially in my view, World War 3, which was the sequence the last time something this bad happened). George W. Bush had for once the good sense to get out of the way and let the pros call the shots. Tim Geithner is the kind of person I want in oversight positions: he understands the excruciating difficulty to chart a good (or at least, least-bad) course, understanding all the fallout that will happen, and hang on while the cheap shots come raining in from the extremes on both sides. His explanation of the thinking behind the policies here is clear and thoughtful. I am on many things a few degrees politically to his right, but I applaud his performance and his careful walk-through of it here. He defends himself to the degree one might expect of anyone, but he admits mistakes too.
Have you wondered why Goldman Sachs was paid 100 cents on the dollar on its AIG CDS contracts? Why punitive haircuts were not handed out all around? Find out here. I for one generally accept Geithner's explanations. Look, our system is widely intact and functioning today. Wow. It didn't happen by accident. There was a method to what seemed like madness, or corruption. Here it is, chronologically laid out. Also, there is a quick explanation of Dodd-Frank and a critique of its strengths and weaknesses. We are not out of the woods yet, and never will be. Lastly, I'm glad he read this. He is not a pro narrator, but it is ideal in his own voice.
I would retitle this, "lots of anecdotes in recent economic times, and maybe some useful stories and terminology for general background understanding." I do not find the repeated term "context" which jumps up willy-nilly, to lend any useful rigorous meaning or traction to understanding the twists and turns that have occurred. But for a person who has not followed this area closely over the last several years, there may be some useful info here.
Once upon a time there was a setting of relationship finance practiced between neatly stratified teams of jolly fellows (partners with skin in the game) who traded (as much as they traded financial instruments) lively ethical bon mots straight out of Horatio Alger stories around the Good Scout campfire. Each of them felt like a member of a family in their firms, and the warmed-over feelings flowed like glowing marmalade between them. There seemed never a conflict between fiduciary duties to make maximum profits for firm owners, and a willingness to endlessly bend over for counter-parties in arm's-length deals who, after all, in this wonderland of loyalty and bonhommie all around, had relationships that never ended. How wonderful it must have been to survey this landscape where resources were allocated around the richly set dinner tables without the faintest stain of actual competitive pressure. It was (the myth usually recites) that way, if not in old J.P. Morgan's day, then, post-Depression when financiers again had neat silos of privilege fenced off (this time) by New Deal regulations. WAKE-UP CALL: something called later 20th century history happened. It disrupted markets from the inside out, top to bottom, adding energy, if certain new instabilities. That fond older vision (if it existed) unraveled for everyone just like it unraveled for the dinosaurs and the endlessly well-employed horses of the 1800s. So why are we back gazing with wet eyes at this glowing postcard of a bygone day, that couldn't be reconstructed any more than the dinosaurs' habitat could be? Well, some people are just weepy-eyed sentimental. They love to recite at great length their feelings about the caring captains of industry they served with (goes the rhetoric). Oh, please. One cannot drive at full speed with eyes too exclusively and weepily on the rear view mirror. And here, the narrator has a perfect forlorn wistfulness to go with it. I'm concerned with these topics, as a teacher of ethics. I choose a different approach. And, large parts of this book for me are indistinguishable from Charles D. Ellis' earlier history of GS. It had a lot of this sort of tone too, with a bigger (if slightly earlier) historical sweep.
This work is by and for people with long attention spans and some knowledge of (and pretty strong motivation to stay with and learn) legal concepts. As a longtime legal scholar, I can't know what this would sound like to someone without that background. It seems clear as a bell to me, all through. Listening to this, I realize the vastness of the topic, and impossibility of fitting a fully comprehensive treatment into even this larger audiobook. But I came away with much improved knowledge of such topics as: (1) property rights in the colonies, and vis a vis the Native Americans; (2) "justice" as practiced in relation to those natives; (3) shifts in legal doctrines as new ways of business (e.g., canals, railroads, more new business entities appearing and competing, in areas formerly under older-type monopoly charters) emerged along with cities, more courts, and various judicial and other government personalities; (4) the runup to the Civil War, which receives a very detailed legal treatment, along with the status of slaves; and (4) the course of that war. The discussion of the Confederate Constitution (and much of the mentality and doctrines of the South as regards slavery) is but one example of very eye-opening contents of this book. The Dred Scott decision is taken apart in meticulous detail. Of course, some areas get shorter treatment, such as the finer details of government finance, but this book is great value for me. It's not everyone's cup of tea, though. I sure hope the author puts out the promised further volume!
This story, as the title suggests, plays out across a big canvas, with many participants. It does not conceal its general suspicions of the motives of big bankers, but the motives of self-interested big players in a political economy can profitably be viewed through such a prism. It is balanced enough not to cause me revulsion, which I feel at any crazily filered and tilted story in either direction politically. As an avid reader in this area, plenty of useful detail is to be had here. I would combine this listening with the excellent (more conservative) audiobook 'Fragile By Design,' to get a more overall balanced view. The narration is listenable if not great.
I appreciate a good plain overview of such areas as design of the the postwar (WW2) global financial world order, the role of private bankers (whose mixing into the New Deal and WW2 US financial structure is well described) and how it fit with the emerging Cold War. This book is very good at sketching the overall structures taking shape in different eras. And true to the title, we see how the various sales pitches made by presidential candidates became the actual arrangements during each of the presidencies. Certainly such personalities as Morgan's Thomas Lamont were huge influences in the governance of this country, though private actors.
Anyone wondering whether (s)he has the "minerals" (as the Brits say) to jump into the deep end of corporate M&A ought to give this little gem a listening-to. Carl Icahn as depicted here was at the same moment a sharp-elbowed, hugely exasperating, and skillful, brilliant intruder into formerly staid halls of US corporate life. He's the kind of guy who, no matter how you personally feel about him or his ways of business, is going to be here and in your face and involved in your affairs if he wants to be. And he wants to be, if his brilliant tactical multi-level chess-playing mind can see a way to make money. (I imagine he might launch into the shareholder value enhancement speech at this point, which I came to see as often correct. But only consistent with his profits.) Unlike another reviewer, I found the author's street-level east-coast accent a perfect fit here. I was surprised the author got access to Icahn himself, as the author at turns is quite critical of him. That's all for the better.
This is the first Ron Chernow book I have read. Wow, what a storyteller. I presume the reader already has an interest in the overall topic. Mr Chernow has a way of plucking out a telling little detail that sets a scene or gives a sense of a personality marvelously. And he tirelessly delivers this sort of thing across a vast canvas. He did the same with Alexander Hamilton, as I have since heard it. I hope an audio of his book "The Warburgs" is forthcoming.
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