Frank Stein's Reviews > Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Confidence Men by Ron Suskind
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's review
Sep 30, 2011

it was ok
Read in September, 2011

This has got to be one of the most infuriating books ever written. First, the author knows nothing, and I mean nothing, about the basic economics that underpins the whole debate the book is putatively about. He confuses bank assets with liabilities, the "multiplier effect" with consumption spending, annual deficits with total debt, and on and on and on. Even more frustrating, however, is the fact that I have never in my life read a book with more plain and simple factual errors. It is almost inevitable that any time Suskind spends at least a paragraph discussing the background or history of an issue, he will write something glaringly and indisputably false. He seems to think "BASEL" is the acronym for the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) (Basel is the city it is based in), he says Columbia is the third greatest oil exporter to the US (it's at least seventh), Geithner was President not "chairman" of the New York Federal Reserve, the terms billion and trillion are continuously confused. Other reviewers, and the White House itself, have noted a stream of similar basic errors. If I had to guess at Suskind's research methodology, I'd say that he looked up something on Wikipedia once, and then included it in the book months later based on the best of his recollections about it. There's no explanation for some of these. Literally dozens of errors in the book could have been corrected with a 10 second Google search done by a college intern. Yet, for whatever reason, this was not done. The editors for this book should seriously reconsider their career choices.

In any case, I didn't read this book hoping to get another hackneyed exegesis on the financial crisis, I read it to get an inside look at how economic policy is made in the Obama White House. Now there has also been plenty of dispute about a few of the quotes and characterizations in the book by Obama's staff, but in my mind Suskind has come out okay in most of these. A surprisingly large amount of the book is told by people on the record and for attribution, and when they are not quoted directly it is patently obvious that they are the source ("Summers and Krueger met alone in...") His basic sources are Peter Orszag of OMB, Christina Romer of the CEA, Alan Krueger of Treasury, Gary Geneslar of the CFTC, and a handful of others, all trusted and respected individuals. Some of the stories to come out of their descriptions are indeed fascinating and funny, like when Obama almost tears up when talking about his aide Pete Rouse at a press conference and later tells him "you almost made me pull a Boehner there," or when Larry Summers is turned down for the job of chairman of the Fed, which he felt had been promised him, and in a huff demands "two rounds of golf" with Obama and a government car. The book did make me marginally more convinced that the Obama White House was disorganized and chaotic in its early days, and that Larry Summers and his imperialistic ambitions as head of the National Economic Council was at the root of this chaos (when the President personally asked Orszag to deliver a memo to him on recession responses, Summer stomped into Orszag's office and told him that he should know the rules were everything was to go through Summers (never mind a request from the President himself)).

Overall though, Suskind seems more interested in making facile comparisons between "good guys" and "bad guys" in the administration. The good guys just happen to be whoever will talk to him, and, usually, whoever will be more interventionist in the economy. Considering Suskind's shaky grasp on the whole subject of economic policy you'd think he would try a more Woodwardian, non-judgmental stance, but instead much of the book is taken up with cheap editorializing. Finally, for all the talk of disorganization, Suskind seems pressed to explain how such a disorganized White House could pass the most comprehensive health care bill in history, the biggest stimulus in history, the most interventionist wall street reform act in 60 years, and on and on. For all the stories from this book that have made it into the press, the biggest story should be that there's no real story here at all.
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