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Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget Hardcover – July 31, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“An excellent book” –Fareed Zakaria

“Should be a first port of call for American voters sadly misinformed about their federal budget…Wessel’s aim is to explain for a general audience the basics of the budget – where the money comes from and goes to – and to make the explanation interesting. He succeeds.” –Financial Times

“Wessel…has an insider’s grasp of the players, issues and argot surrounding the budget. Yet he writes with an outsider’s eye, distilling his tale of the fiscal monster into about 150 pages of simple prose and a smattering of charts.” –Businessweek

“This is the most useful book on government spending since the publication of the classic work, The Debt and Deficit by Robert Heilbroner and Peter Bernstein. In the service of economic literacy, I wish that a few members of the House and the Senate would read the entire book aloud on the floor of the respective chambers (but don't hold your breath).” –Huffington Post

“The federal budget is an inherently complex subject that could easily become boring. But Wessel staves off yawns by painting miniature portraits of lovable wonks from across the spectrum…He gets right to the core of the problem: Big-ticket programs that much of the public loves but few want to pay for.” –Reason

“An extraordinarily useful book…For people unfamiliar with the ins and outs of the federal budget, it should be required reading. For those who already know their way around government finances, it is still a handy resource, but at the same time deeply depressing.” –Salon
“[Wessel] is blessed with the ability to make the obscure and arcane comprehensible.” –Canada Free Press

"Packed with facts and figures--not normally the sort of material that makes for riveting story-telling. Yet the plot of Red Ink is fascinating and frightening." –Daytona Beach News-Journal
“When laid out in front of us in the clam and talented hand of Wessel, we begin to understand in more detail exactly what we’re deciding on, and that while it’s not going to be easy, fixing the deficit is entirely doable... If you’re interested that dialogue and in further education instead of soundbites and the pontification of pundits this election season, then this is certainly a book for you.” –800 CEO Read

"A highly informative volume designed to give voters a grip on what exactly is at stake...Wessel doesn't tell you how to think, but he does give you the facts to think more clearly about what needs to be done." —Kirkus Reviews

"The inner workings of the federal budget and where the money goes by economics expert David Wessel...Controversy over whether tax increases of spending cuts should be made to defense, Medicare, or Social Security spending provides fuel for great debate." Booklist

"A timely analysis." —Library Journal

“The federal budget deficit is among the country’s most discussed but least understood policy issues. If only everyone would read David Wessel’s Red Ink.”
 —Alan S. Blinder, professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, former vice chairman, Federal Reserve Board
Red Ink is the most concise, understandable, and focused book I have read about the dire problems we now face because of our burgeoning deficits and debt. It is not a pretty tale, but it is a tale all informed citizens should know.” —David M. Rubenstein, co-chief executive officer, The Carlyle Group
“Stop. Buy this book, or at least read the first chapter. David Wessel explains the approaching debt crisis in clear, concise, nonpartisan plain English. It will not only scare your pants off, it will motivate you to call your congressman and scream, ‘For God’s sake, enough partisanship, save America, cut spending, raise revenue, whatever! But do it and do it now.’” —Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff for Bill Clinton and co-chairman of Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility
“In Red Ink David Wessel has accomplished two miracles: he has made a budget book interesting and he has deciphered the behavior of Washington for Americans beyond the Beltway. Nicely done.” —Douglas Holtz-Eakin, former director of the Congressional Budget Office

“David Wessel’s Red Ink is a wise and pithy introduction to the great economic issue of our time.” —N. Gregory Mankiw, professor of Economics, Harvard University
“I wish every voter would read this book. It spells out in a clear, non-partisan way the realities of the deficit, how we got here, and the hard choices that lie ahead. The message is painful, but the book is not -- it is engaging, thoughtful, and a pleasure to read.” —Christina D. Romer, former Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and current professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley

“David Wessel does a first rate job at providing insight into complex fiscal issues. Anyone wanting to understand key players, pivotal moments, and high stakes in the critical issue of America's long-term unsustainable debts would be very well served by Red Ink.” —Peter G. Peterson, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce, founder of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and author of the bestseller, Running on Empty

About the Author

DAVID WESSEL is economics editor of The Wall Street Journal and writes "The Capital" column, a weekly look at forces shaping living standards around the world. Wessel joined The Wall Street Journal in 1983 after working at the Hartford Courant and the Boston Globe. He is a frequent guest on NPR's Morning Edition and has shared two Pulitzer Prizes. He and his wife live in Washington, D.C.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Crown Business; a edition (July 31, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0770436145
  • ISBN-13: 978-0770436148
  • Product Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (113 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #667,248 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

DAVID WESSEL is director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution and a contributing correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, where he worked for 30 years as a reporter, columnist and editor. David has shared two Pulitzer Prizes, one for Boston Globe stories in 1983 on the persistence of racism in Boston and the other for stories in The Wall Street Journal in 2002 on corporate wrongdoing. He appears frequently on National Public Radio.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

59 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Dave Fox on August 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Red Ink explains, simply but powerfully, how the Federal Budget works, what we're spending money on, what we're taking in taxes, and how the Federal debt has become so huge. In page turning fashion, Wessel takes the reader on a tour of the debt, and spells out what it will take to get it under control. Money comes in, and money goes out, and the reason more goes out than comes in comes down to a series of choices made over the decades that have literally mortgaged our future. The book is refreshingly non-partisan, coming from a Pulitzer winning author that sets out the facts, laying blame where appropriate without regard to political ideology, and offering common-sense options to reduce the debt.

Wessel explains the intricacies of a notoriously complex subject--the Federal budget--in a way that even American high schoolers can understand. That's why I am so excited about Red Ink, and why I would recommend it to anyone--conservatives, liberals, independents, and those averse to politics. It's a quick read that boils down the Federal budget and the debt to its essentials, and ignores all the noise that clouds the issue. The more people read this book and understand the stakes, the more confidence we can have that citizens will pressure their leaders, of both parties, to come together and save the country's finances.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Book Shark TOP 500 REVIEWER on August 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget by David Wessel

"Red Ink" is a very solid and concise book that provides the public with an essential understanding of how the Federal Budgetary process works. Pulitzer prize-winning author and economics editor for the Wall Street Journal, David Wessel takes the readers on a smooth ride through the US Federal Budgetary process. A book about the budgetary process can be dry and dull but Wessel's command of the topic and lucid prose makes this book a breeze to get through. This educational 208-page book is composed of the following five chapters: 1. Spending $400 Million An Hour, 2. How We Got Here, 3. Where the Money Goes, 4. Where the Money Comes From and Why this Can't Go On Forever.

1. A well-written book, lucid and concise prose.
2. An important and perennial topic handled with expertise.
3. Does a very good job of covering the most important aspects of the Federal Budget in a brief intelligible manner.
4. Educational and enlightening book that provides a basic foundation in understanding the US Federal Budget.
5. Effective use of charts to illustrate points.
6. Fascinating tidbits and facts spruced throughout book.
7. Making it perfectly clear where all the money is spent. A nice and comprehensible breakdown.
8. Where nearly all the growth in the federal budget over the next ten years is coming from. Interesting.
9. Does a wonderful job of defining terms while smoothly immersing them in the narrative: deficit, debt, gross domestic product (GDP), etc...
10. A quick history of the federal budget in six pieces.
11. A look at Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Eye-opening stuff.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By George Bush HALL OF FAME on July 31, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Wessel's first chapter reports our federal government spends $400 million/hour. How is that even possible? Wessel tells us, but we have to wait until chapter three. A 'hint' - nearly two thirds is on autopilot, per Wessel, not even requiring a vote from Congress. Unfortunately, that's a bit of an over-simplification - Congress can and does periodically reauthorize/modify the farm bill, for example.

The 'bad news' is that Wessel deals at an ideological level - eg. Ryan's approach to reforming health care which sounds good at a superficial level, but becomes total nonsense when one looks closer.

We spend about $700 billion/year on the military, about 20% of the total budget - more than most other nations combined. But we don't get much insight on the logic or lack thereof.

Firing every federal employee wouldn't save enough to even cut the deficit in half - only $435 billion in 2011. That means an awful lot goes to health care and transfer payments.

About half of America's spending on health comes from government.

The $700 billion bank bailout didn't cost nearly as much as initially feared. Only about $470 billion was disbursed, and about two-thirds has been paid off, with interest. The biggest losses - AIG and G.M. Meanwhile, we've pumped over $150 billion into Fannie and Freddie.

Most American families pay a lower share of their income in federal taxes than thirty years ago; we also pay less than citizens of nearly every other developed nation. However, it isn't clear what the means, given our huge deficits. What is clear, however is that 46% didn't pay any federal income taxes in 2011.

I laughed when reading Wessel's recap of Jude Wanniski's 'Two Santa Claus Theory.
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53 of 68 people found the following review helpful By Alan F. Sewell on August 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It must be exceedingly difficult to write a book about the federal budget in a way that is interesting enough to hold a reader's attention. The process is mind-numbingly complex, while the numbers, measured in billions and trillions of dollars, are barely comprehensible. Furthermore, we've heard so much about how the "out of control budget deficit is going to bankrupt the nation and destroy our economy" that we've become jaded to books that beat us over the head with the warning yet again.

However, author David Wessel totally succeeds in explaining, in an interesting, logical, and easy-to-read way, the process whereby we've come to ACCEPT an intolerable budget deficit that people of all political stripes know perfectly well will wreck the nation. Wessel explodes the GRAND DELUSIONS of both parties that prevent them from doing anything of substance to restore fiscal sanity.

This book is interesting because Wessel combines the financial history that created the current federal budget monstrosity with human-interest stories of today's prominent fiscal philosophers like Paul Ryan on the Right and Paul Krugman on the Left. He also discusses the behind-the-scenes work of lesser-known public servants of both parties --- people like Leon Panetta, Richard Darman, and David Stockman who have wrestled with the issue of how to balance the government's tax revenues with its spending commitments for decades.

Wessel discusses these people and issues critically but fairly. Neither Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives, Liberals, or Libertarians will find anything of mean-spirited partisanship to offend them. He generally describes the leaders of both parties as being delusional but well-meaning.
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