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Insight, humility fill Greenspan's 'World'

In his new book, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan blasts President Bush for a lack of fiscal discipline. In his new book, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan blasts President Bush for a lack of fiscal discipline. (SHIHO FUKADA/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World, By Alan Greenspan, Penguin, 531 pp., illustrated, $35

Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve Board chairman from 1987 to 2006 whose oracular style has often left listeners more confused after he's explained something than before, is uncharacteristically blunt in criticizing the current Bush administration. In his surprisingly entertaining and insightful new book, "The Age of Turbulence," Greenspan blasts President George W. Bush and congressional Republicans for lack of fiscal discipline, allowing the large budget surpluses of the Clinton years to become today's massive deficits.

"Congress and the president viewed budgetary restraint as inhibiting the legislation they wanted. 'Deficits don't matter,' to my chagrin, became part of Republicans' rhetoric," bemoans Greenspan. A libertarian Republican, he believes that budget deficits diminish our future: "We should be preparing ourselves for the retirement of the baby boomers with balanced budgets or surpluses for the difficult years ahead." In analyzing the 2006 midterm election, Greenspan concludes that pork-barrel Republicans deserved to lose: "The Republicans in Congress lost their way. They swapped principle for power. They ended up with neither."

As for the president's costly war in Iraq, he is equally direct: "The Iraq war is largely about oil." He denounces the scorched-earth partisanship that presently bedevils Washington: "Governance has become dangerously dysfunctional." When someone as profoundly circumspect as Greenspan uses language this direct, we know we have problems.

"The Age of Turbulence" is really two books in one. Its second half is a wonk's fantasy, filled with extraordinarily detailed economic analyses of major issues facing the United States, such as burgeoning trade deficits, retirement funding, and the proper role of government regulation. Greenspan also spans the globe with his analytical sensibility, offering chapters on China, Russia, Europe, and other important economic players, and applauding the power of unfettered free markets to deliver global prosperity.

The first half of the book is both more personal and, for those who don't dream about productivity statistics (one suspects that Greenspan does), even borders on fun. Greenspan is doubtless a policy geek, but beneath his grayish veneer lurks an understated charisma. Unlike many other powerful people, he can laugh at himself. After hinting that he's dull at parties, the octogenarian Greenspan admits that "business economists are not exactly party animals." On his first date with his wife, Andrea Mitchell, a correspondent for NBC News, Greenspan made a romantic gambit only he could pull off: "We ended up discussing monopolies. I told her I'd written an essay on the subject and invited her back to my apartment to read it." She went, and his wife still kids him about it.

Greenspan also describes a particularly wild New Year's Eve where he attended a White House party and afterward dropped by the office to check on his staff working late. He got home at 10:30 p.m. and spent midnight "tucked snugly in bed." Not exactly a night of "irrational exuberance." Even in his teenage years, Greenspan's sober demeanor marked him as unique. He was a clarinet player talented enough to earn a spot with a major touring orchestra. Between sets, when fellow musicians smoked pot or gossiped, Greenspan "spent those twenty-minute breaks reading books" about economic history.

Greenspan's appeal is his willingness to admit he doesn't have all the answers, and that nobody else does, either. His rational approach to economics and an insatiable appetite for absorbing and interpreting economic data constitute his genius. He's an oracle smart enough to know what he doesn't know. "There are errors in this book," writes Greenspan. "I do not know where they are. If I did, they wouldn't be there." Such humility, coming from someone as powerful as Alan Greenspan, is disarmingly refreshing, as is this interesting and edifying book.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

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