The New York Times lead economics writer has managed a reasonable, simplified explanation of economics-and-politics from Johnson's inflationary kickoff to Reagan's mounting deficits--with some privileged sidelights thrown in. Much of this is a familiar story: Johnson's guns-and-butter spending, and delay in raising taxes; Nixon's expedient policy shifts, exacerbating inflation and undermining the world economy; the first oil shock--who gained and who lost. Citing Ford's reversion to ""old-time Republican"" laissez-faire, Silk gives due weight to his economic advisers--a key feature throughout (with sharp, shaded characterization). At that parlous time, he distinguishes deftly between New York--going down, counting costs--and Washington, standing aloof, counting votes. There are digressions as well--to the Orwellian warnings of Robert Heilbroner and, in a chapter-long interview, the latter-day thinking of Road to Serfdom's Frederich Hayek (who believes his warnings were heeded). But it's with Carter that Silk really digs in--scoring Carter's search for a politically painless way to end inflation, assaying the economics benefits of a Mideast peace, disputing Carter's account of Andrew Young's P.L.O. meeting, reporting on the White House dinner where Carter likened the Palestine issue to the civil rights movement, deeming him at once ""intelligent and sensitive"" and ""febrile and vacillating."" He's unenamoured thereafter of Reaganomics--but equally hard on the Democrats who ""more than went along."" And apropos of a visit to the USSR, he gapes at the Soviets' ""sloppy and disorderly"" economic system--returning home to question the gigantic military buildups on both sides. Silk draws some obvious lessons--political decision-making is bad, disregarding the international economy is wrong, tight money is costly to people's lives--but his strong suit is actually informed skepticism of pundits and politicians.