In discussions of today's economic meltdown and what to do about it, the Federal Reserve is a stealth helicopter: it never shows up on the radar. With the exception of a few esoteric specialists and those Ron Paul Revolutionaries who burst into chants of "Abolish the Fed!" during campus rallies last year, it's like something has been put in our water to cause our eyes to glaze over and our minds to wander off at the very mention of centralized banking.
Which is, of course, a Problem, since as historian Thomas Woods notes in this important book, the Federal Reserve bears a large part of the blame for the mess we're in. In the first part of "Meltdown," Woods shows how both in theory (the Austrian School, to be precise) and in practice, Fed policy fueled an artificial boom and instead of allowing the necessary, if unpleasant, short-term bust that will lead to recovery, is pursuing policies guaranteed to drive us deeper into the abyss. Little of this finds its way into the popular or business press, suggesting that the people who know the truth aren't talking, and the people who are talking either don't know or are deliberately trying to keep the helicopter hidden. As Woods writes, "critics of the market who ignore the arguments raised in this chapter are, to say the least, not being honest" (p. 86).
But to paraphrase Will Rogers (no relation), it's not so much the things we don't know that are a problem, it's the things we DO know that aren't really true. That's why every bit as important as Woods' explanation of the role of the Federal Reserve in the unnecessary cycle of boom and bust is his taking down of decades' worth of myths about the government's role in the economy. As the author points out, historians have more or less abandoned the idea that New Deal intervention "got us out of the Depression," but the myth remains stronger than ever among journalists and the public. The result of this is not only a profound misunderstanding of American history, but more to the point, a widespread delusion that "history proves" massive government spending promoting consumer demand is the way out of a recession. Here again we see the apocalyptic power of bad ideas.
All this suggests the economic crisis, and particularly the stimulus-driven response to it on the part of the Bush and Obama administrations, are a domestic equivalent of the Iraq War (I want to note that this is my metaphor, not Woods'): an over-reaction to a situation by and large of our own creation, and sold to the American people through a series of lies, the plan largely benefits those who argue for it most strongly while the rest of us end up poorer. The "opposition" is arguing over details while conceding the fundamental principle -- an intervention that gives the government a foothold of occupation it will probably never relinquish.
That's why "Meltdown" is so important -- and why the Austrian School, which alone not only foresaw the coming crash but understood why it was going to happen, deserves so much wider attention. If I could improve anything about "Meltdown," I would have made even more prominent the citations of thinkers and books interested readers should pursue. Woods does do this in an appendix, and I strongly recommend you read the footnotes closely. But something like the "additional reading" or "books they don't want you to read" call-outs of the author's The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History would, I think, have been even more useful.
If "respectable opinion" does pay attention to this book and the ideas it promotes, it will do so with the same combination of pity and contempt that earlier book received. As Woods writes, "You do not win friends in the political and media establishments by proposing a monetary system that cannot be exploited by governments to enrich their friends, enable their addiction to spending and looting, and fund their bailouts" (p. 134). But out here among the non-establishment, you DO make friends by telling the truth. And Tom Woods has a lot of friends.
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Andrew S. Rogers (Cascadian)
Mostly, I'm a moderately prolific Amazon.com reviewer who's giving Lunch a try as another venue for my reviews.
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[Audio Review] Here, Woods offers a decidedly free-market, conservative approach to the worldwide financial collapse of 2008 09. He explains his take on what led up to the current economic crisis, who's really to blame (namely, the Federal Reserve System), and why government bailouts won't work. Woods's views will appeal to listeners concerned about how the financial crisis impacts them as well as to business leaders and investors wishing to be more enlightened about the crisis. Two-time Audie Award nominee Alan Sklar's (see Behind the Mike, LJ 3/1/09) solid, steady reading helps sustain interest. Dale Farris, Groves, TX --Library Journal--This text refers to theAudio CDedition.