Friday, May 25, 2012

Gold Rush: I review "The New Empire of Debt"


I know. I'm a little late. I never promised the reviews would be of recent books. That would require too much effort and sucking up.

The New Empire of Debt: The Rise and Fall of an Epic Financial Bubble did not pay me to write this review. I read this book on vacation. We rented a house from a man of means, who has a wonderful collection of rich-guy literature and this was the book that caught my eye first, edging out something by Colin Powell and something else by Richard Branson (thankfully vacation isn't over).

This book is very funny. Not "haha" funny, but more like, "we're all going to die comically" funny. But before we go, let's really stick to the man and mock some age-old beliefs and icons. They take jabs at everyone and because the prose is well-written and witty, it's funny...at first. The problem is that under the sarcastic, nihilistic veneer, they present a rather simplistic view of history: Problems are caused by stupid people who try to do things, so we should all ignore history makers in favor of listening to dead people who didn't do things, oh, and also the founding fathers, because we all know they never tried to do anything.

See? It doesn't really make sense. It's an easy-to-read journey through history and the authors make a convincing case for why America should mind its own business more and stop spending so much, but that's like making the case that people should eat more vegetables. We hear you; we just don't care. Telling us to save more would be great if we had any money. Nobody wants to hear about installing smoke detectors while their house is burning down.

I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the book. I did. And you should read it, because it gives an apolitical (read: everyone sucks) view of financial history. You will agree. You will be offended. You will be frightened. You will not be comforted. This is not a book for people who need to be told everything is going to be alright. This is Chicken Little with a line graph. If I had any doubts, they were obliterated when in the final chapter (yeah, spoiler alert), the authors encourage the reader to buy gold. That's really just a few steps away from a bomb shelter and potted meat, although it is fun to imagine the crafty among us living like Scrooge McDuck while Rome burns. Still, the American public needs to be scared every once in a while and we definitely need to hear a well-defined argument that doesn't reinforce the existing narrative we have chosen to believe. Just try to control your eye-rolling when they spend pages eviscerating Thomas Friedman like he stole their women. We get it. You don't agree with him. Move on. (They also seem to have a keen dislike for Woodrow Wilson, JFK and Alan Greenspan, but who doesn't nowadays? Is it really contrarian if we all agree with you? It's like when the goth kids realized we were all into vampires...)

Also, try to ignore the glaringly obvious criticism that people who favor true conservatism (not the fake, social neo-conservatism we have now) and limited action tend to be the people that already have it pretty good. That kind of life philosophy doesn't really support much upward mobility because successful people don't really want company. Just table that thought and focus on the history and the financial explanations. According to this book, you will probably never have to worry about your wealth anyway, because you won't have any.

So, if you ever happen to be in a rich man's house, check and see if he has The New Empire of Debt: The Rise and Fall of an Epic Financial Bubble by Will Bonner and Addison Wiggin. Or you could check out their website, The Daily Reckoning (yeah, the doomsday line isn't an act), which is frequently   published from Baltimore, MD. (Why is no one surprised that contrarian doomsday-ers feel at home in Baltimore?) Whatever you do, don't go to Amazon and buy it, because you should be saving your money to buy gold.

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