Volcker: The Triumph of Persistence

William L. Silber

Book cover

If you’ve ever read a Zagat restaurant guide, you know that they use quotes in a really weird way, so that the fact of them being quotes is almost irrelevant. Like, “This ‘classic’ downtown bistro serves up ‘meat and potatoes’ without any ‘fuss,’ though some say the decor is ‘a little lacking.’” I kind of felt the same way about Silber’s book. According to the author, he recorded a hundred hours of interviews with Volcker, yet I felt that the quotes he included tended to be completely unremarkable. Like (I’m just mimicking here), “I always watched the gold price as a warning signal for inflation expectations.” Well, great. Perhaps this is a drawback of the author being a finance professor rather than a journalist or professional writer.

Part of my problem may have been having already read Meltzer’s exhaustive “History of the Federal Reserve,” which covers many of the same events in far greater detail. Meltzer works almost entirely off minutes and transcripts, and he does an extremely close reading of them, to tell the stories in a way that no one else has. Silber, on the other hand, tends to cover the events of Volcker’s career at about the level of a business magazine, so I finished the book feeling like I hadn’t learned much. What’s more, this is a “professional biography,” so we get very little in the way of information on Volcker’s personal life, the things that shaped his thinking–beyond numerous folksy cracks about his love of cheap cigars. In fact, among the most striking things about the book to me were the few remarks that Silber makes about Volcker’s wife. Essentially, she stayed in New York while he was Fed chairman, suffered from a number of medical problems, and had to take on a boarder to pay the bills because of the salary cut he took. When Volcker was asked about serving a second term as chairman, she urged him not to, and he compromised with her by saying that he would accept but only stay for 18 months or 2 years (of 4)–and ended up breaking his promise. It’s really a sad story that just kind of darkened the rest of the book for me. It’s clear that Volcker is a heroic figure to Silber, but for all that the man accomplished good things, I couldn’t feel the same way about him.

My Goodreads rating: 3 stars