The life of perhaps the wonkiest financial theorist to sit at the helm of the Federal Reserve.
Alan Greenspan (b. 1926) is infamous for having led the government’s chief financial institution in the years when all the perfect-storm conditions were setting up for the economy to tank and for, at least until that collapse, pressing an Ayn Rand–derived libertarian case whenever he could. Financial journalist Mallaby (More Money than God: Hedge Funds and the Making of a New Elite, 2010, etc.) offers correctives and nuances to this view in this not uncritical portrait. As a math whiz kid with an interest in politics, Greenspan held a cautious contempt for the gray mass culture of the 1950s, “despite his eagerness to share in the prosperity it brought.” While he played golf and drove nice cars, sure, he also came to a rightist critique that turned, as Mallaby writes, on his membership in “a fringe group that was one part libertarian salon, two parts strange cult,” namely the circle around the Russian egotist Rand and its embrace of a particularly austere brand of logical positivism. Greenspan’s ideological purity did not preclude him from mixing in society—he dated Barbara Walters, after all—but it certainly seemed to reinforce an otherworldliness that prized theory over reality. In matters economic, Mallaby writes, Greenspan urged a kind of limited-government, free-market vision that rested uneasily with the close management required of the Fed. In that role, Greenspan took risky positions, including a complacent view of the housing bubble; after all, “subprime lending and mortgage securitization had been around for years without triggering a catastrophe,” though catastrophe is what ensued on his watch. Even so, as Mallaby closes by noting, Greenspan was not wholly averse to regulation, made financial calls that were seen as sound at the time, and may not have been able to ward off a crisis that was many years in the making.
A well-crafted, thorough biography sure to interest students of the modern economy and financial system.