The former chairman of the Federal Reserve describes the “challenge and satisfactions of public service” and laments the “breakdown” of effective governance in the United States.
In this thoughtful memoir, Volcker (co-author: Changing Fortunes, 1992), now 91, reflects on his lifelong dedication to good government, sparked during his comfortable Depression-era childhood in Teaneck, New Jersey, where his engineer-father was city manager. The grandson of German immigrants, Volcker studied at Princeton and Harvard before bringing his need for a “sense of order” to a lengthy career with the Treasury Department and the Fed, which he chaired from 1979 to 1987. He devotes much of the book to his high-level involvement in money matters from domestic finance to international banking, including behind-the-scenes stories about the relationship between the independent Fed and the administration in power. The author includes lengthy accounts of his actions on financial and monetary policy, the handling of financial crises (Chrysler and Latin American debt), and the recurrent challenge of inflation. Despite satisfying teaching stints there, he faults Princeton for its present failure to offer “effective education for public service.” Too many new graduates are interested only in large starting salaries. Volcker is sharply disappointed by Americans’ current distrust of government and institutions, from public education to a free press: “The once honored phrase ‘good government’ is now viewed as an oxymoron.” He continues later, “the rising tide of progress toward open democratic societies—the world in which I have lived and served—seems to be ebbing away.” In 2013, the author created the Volcker Alliance to rebuild trust in government. Amid recollections of his roles under several presidents, he also conveys personal enthusiasms (the Dodgers) and his gratitude to Princeton, both for making possible his senior thesis on the Fed and for an art class that allowed him to identify the Cezanne in David Rockefeller’s office restroom at Chase Manhattan.
An orderly, winning book from the economist whose Volcker Rule limits risk-taking by banks.