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Central Banking for Poets
on November 11, 2002
One might think of William Greider's "Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country" as "Central Banking for Poets." If you've ever scratched your head in wonder when reading how Alan Greenspan and the Fed have "lowered interest rates" or are "easing monetary policy," this book will be extremely enlightening and well worth the time it will take you to plow through all 700 plus pages. If (like me) you majored in economics, you'll be surprised how much better Greider is in explaining arcane economic theory than your college professors (and you'll probably learn -- or re-learn -- quite a bit in the process).
The focal point of the book is the celebrated and controversial tenure of Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volker (1979-1987), but the mechanics of central banking so clearly and concisely explained are just as much applicable today as in 1980 - or 1950 for that matter.
Greider divides the book into three more-or-less equal thirds. The first covers the inflationary surge of the 1970s, Carter's tenuous decision to appoint Volker, and Volker's radical move of abandoning the control of interest rates in favor of controlling the nation's money supply. (In other words, a shift from the Keynesian orthodoxy dominant in the post-War period in favor of a monetarist approach more in line with the theories of the iconoclastic economist Milton Friedman.) The second, and most informative third provides an historical overview of central banking and its development in the United States. For those solely interested in a better understanding of central banking and the US Federal Reserve in particular, this book will be worth your while even if you only read this middle section. The final third deals with Volker's punishing monetary policy during the early 1980s, as he attempted to destroy lingering anticipation of inflation and the incredibly simulative effects of the Reagan era federal deficits and tax cuts.
Greider is highly critical of Volker's performance as Fed chairman. In short, he argues that far from being the independent and benevolent Shepard of the economy it often claims to be, the Fed, in practice, is beholden to its most powerful constituency: the major money-center financial institutions (i.e. Citibank, Bank of America, etc.). Traditional central bankers view combating inflation as their primary professional objective, which tends to favor creditors at the expense of debtors. Grieder suggests that in waging war on inflation the Fed in effect was waging war on the millions of ordinary Americans struggling to make end meets and keep their heads above water.
Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, Greider's "Secrets of the Temple" is exhaustively researched, expertly written, and extremely enlightening.