Disclaimer: I chose not to read "On the Brink," former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's memoir, because I suspected it would not be worth my time. After reading the early reviews, ranging from Max Abelson's annihilation of the book in the New York Observer to Daniel Gross's far more gentle treatment in the Washington Post, I feel confident I made the right call.
Gross writes that "On the Brink" provides "plenty of excellent color and detail," but "a surprising inability to see the big picture." And much of what he does tell us, we already knew. For example:
John McCain comes off worst of all: impulsive, ill-informed and counterproductive. "This was crazy," Paulson writes of McCain's decision to suspend his campaign in late September 2008 and demand a White House meeting on the bailout. At the climactic meeting in the Cabinet room, Obama spoke for the Democrats, delivering a "thoughtful, well-prepared presentation." But McCain? "When it came right down to it, he had little to say in the forum he himself had called."
We waited a year and a half for an insight that was apparent the week it happened?
Abelson observes that "On the Brink" "gives the spectacularly unsettling sense that world history is decided by an assortment of guys who are improvising, and may not be particularly good at it." This almost makes me think the book might be worth reading, after all, because understanding the improvisational nature of reality might be unsettling, but is also important. Nobody's got a plan -- they're just making it up as they go along!
But the kicker does not lend itself to enthusiasm:
Not only did Mr. Paulson "not have time for regret, recriminations, or second-guessing," but he doesn't use the newfound power of hindsight.... Surely he has more sophisticated and subtle insights into the ugliness of American finance, but he keeps them to himself. "
But if you are in the mood for a good, long, meaty read, I second Felix Salmon's recommendation to read Moe Tkacik's opus distilling the essence of the financial crisis in The Baffler.
Tkacik pulls together elements of 13 different books (but not including "On the Brink") on the crisis into a masterpiece, and I say this not just because she coins the phrase, "soft bigotry of subprime moral standards." She does a really good job of trying to figure out what it all means, and finishes with a great flourish.
And that is why so many journalists, economists, intellectuals and financiers now scramble to churn out books that for the most part read like the memoirs of people trying to make themselves feel less stupid. The current financial system was constructed to make us all feel stupid, and in the process of building it the architects allowed themselves to become stupid as well. That ignorance begat infantilization, which bred cowardice and systemic moral decay. The only sustainable way out is to reacquaint ourselves and our fellow citizens with the wisdom of asking stupid questions.