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Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream Hardcover – 10 Nov 2010


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‘…takes the reader on a journey through more than two centuries of monetary and fiscal policy and banking.’ (The Economist, December 2010).

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When it comes to matters of money, most Americans tend to view themselves as reasonably prudent people, reflecting the puritan roots of their European ancestors. Yet, at the same time, Americans also seem to feel entitled to a lifestyle, individually and nationally, that is well above the rest of the world′s, and well beyond our current means. Inflated: How Money and Debt Built the American Dream explores more than two hundred years of American politics and monetary policy to examine this conflict. In doing so, it asks whether the current understanding of the American Dream, one of entitlement, is so ingrained that to expect Americans willingly to live in a "deflated" world is unrealistic. This book simply and directly tells the story of inflation and public debt as enduring, and perhaps even endearing, features of American life. It describes: The Gold Rush and how dreams of instant wealth replaced the notions of hard work and saving as the national ideal How Congress′s deficit spending is a direct legacy of Abraham Lincoln′s presiding over the first legal tender laws, which gave the federal government control overthe issuance of "money" How the financial crisis of 1893 led to the creation of the Federal Reserve System, ultimately confirming the cautionary views of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson that a central bank would prove antithetical to democracy and individual rights The rise of investment trusts during the 1890s, and how those trusts were the precursors of hedge funds and complex financial derivatives How the dollar′s role as the world′s currency after WWII encouraged America′s tendency to demand immediate gratification of national wants and needs Why the Gold Standard Act of 1900 was the high watermark for sound money in the United States, and why Richard Nixon′s decision to end the dollar′s gold convertibility in 1971 opened the door to vast inflation and debt in the decades that followed Whether taming the frontier in the 1800s, fighting poverty during the Great Depression, or bailing out private corporations deemed "too big to fail" in the twenty–first century, America′s tendency to borrow from the future is a core ethic of American society. In the post—market meltdown economy, Inflated explores the rich history of living beyond one′s means, and whether Americans—an instinctively self–reliant, isolationist people—are more likely either to embrace fiscal stringency if other nations demand it or turn their backs on the rest of the world.

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Amazon.com: 22 reviews
59 of 60 people found the following review helpful
A Must Read! 8 Dec 2010
By Brandon G. Adams - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I've read an insane number of books on the current economic crisis (I was Michael Lewis' research assistant for The Big Short) and this is one of the few that I would put in the "must read" category.

Very few of the recent published books on the US economic crisis have an adequate historical perspective. In Inflated, Chris gives us a very full history -- he starts at the founding of the Republic! The book is nonetheless extremely entertaining. I found myself captivated by it, and finished it fairly quickly.

Chris is an endearing narrator who is obviously more detail-oriented than many of his fellow commentators -- he clearly brings a high level of understanding to this work.

The book is very much of the Austrian School. I don't fully agree with some of Chris' views -- I think I'm generally more tolerant of inflation and inflation risk than he is.

Chris is quite pessimistic about the long future of the American economy, but I think I'm more pessimistic. He believes that austerity measures are required in the US and that the US will be able to weather these austerity measures fairly well socially and politically. I believe that the US cannot deal with austerity measures socially or politically -- therefore, they will not occur. The consequences of a lack of austerity are anyone's guess. Chris believes that high rates of inflation are inevitable without austerity -- I think high inflation and declining living standards are likely but not inevitable.

I find Chris overall views on debt and inflation quite similar to those of Peter Warburton, author of the truly incredible book, Debt and Delusion. The views of both of these authors are wholly different than the New Keynesian thinking of Ben Bernanke. I tend to slightly favor the Warburton/Whalen side of the debate.

Brandon
72 of 76 people found the following review helpful
A Brilliant One Stop Shop Read Through Financial History 23 Nov 2010
By Lawrence G. Mcdonald - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I first noticed the brains and talent in R. Christopher Whalen in 2007. I was a trader at Lehman and every time I saw Chris on CNBC I was blown away by his straight forward common sense approach to the inner workings of the world of modern finance. Chris called many ills of the financial crisis over a year before they happened. He's made me a lot of money on more than one occasion. His book is much like his personality and intellect. He traces the deep roots of our financial system soiled years ago and brings them right into the 21st century. The book is a MUST read for anyone in finance or someone who wants to learn how we got here. I really like the way the book ties together a behind the scenes look in Washington and Wall St. The book should be required reading for every Federal Reserve board governor as well, lets learn from history instead of repeating it.

Buy "Inflated" it's a great read.

Lawrence G. McDonald

New York Times Best Selling Author of "A Colossal Failure of Common Sense - The Inside Story of the Collapse of Lehman Brothers"
28 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Largely Disappointing 19 Dec 2010
By Dan Thibeault - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have followed Whalen in the media and at conferences over the past two years. I found him to be insightful but more importantly highly objective and independently minded. This did not come through in his book. The second half read slightly better than the first but the first came off as an inconsistent recitation of facts. The booked lacked first-hand thought which can be seen in the sheer number of footnotes, but what's worse, the few opinions he provided often didn't relate to his area of expertise (Lincoln's sole motivation was unity). I believe a number of statements were not properly researched as well, as was the case with his contention that FDR could not bring himself to raise taxes, while in fact the top income tax bracket was raised three times from 1932 to 1940 (going from 25% to 81%). I still believe Whalen is an outstanding analyst, just not a good author.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
Extremely Disappointing 26 Feb 2011
By David Dubbert - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I struggled somewhat over how many stars to give this book, but given the amount of suffering and frustration I went through to finish the book, I felt that I couldn't give it more than two stars. It's unfortunate, because I've read other articles written by Whalen, as well as seen interviews he has given on TV on several occasions, and I have a great deal of respect for his intelligence and financial acumen. If you're looking for ideas on how we as a country should extricate ourselves from the mess in which we find ourselves, I think Mr. Whalen has a great deal to say that is worth listening to. He gives us some of his insight in the final chapter of this book, which I found to be by far the most interesting and insightful section of the book. Where Mr. Whalen's book falls short is in the quality of the writing and editing throughout, as well as certain instances of editorializing in which the author indulges.
I purchased this book with the hope that not only would it provide me an introduction to the financial history of the United States, but also a great deal of the author's opinion on the future path that we as a nation must take. Prospective readers must be aware that this is much more of a history than it is an analysis of present day financial issues. Furthermore, the financial and economic history as provided is poorly written, and as a result, confusing. I fully understand that in economic history, cause and effect can be difficult to trace, and it's not always obvious, even many years later, why exactly events transpired as they did. Nevertheless, Mr. Whalen's consistent habit of looping back and forth between years, while telling what appears to be a chronologically linear economic story is extremely confusing. For example, in relating events that occurred in and around 1913, he will reference WWI as a cause for those events. This can clearly not be the case, as WWI had not at that point been initiated. I'm sure that WWI was related to the primary topic of discussion, and I do not suspect the author of being disingenuous. However, as I've found in my own time in the financial sector, intimate familiarity with events can often lead the narrator of a story to jump back and forth between months and years in order to paint what he believes to be a better picture of events. I think this is what has happened to Mr. Whalen, and in all fairness, his editors should have made a better effort to help him clean up the flow of time in his writing. I found this to be a consistent problem throughout the book, and it severely detracted from what I was able to gain from my reading.
The second major issue the reader faces when trying to glean useful information from the book is the author's ongoing, but not always obvious, editorializing. Examples include his constant attacks on FDR's policies and personality during the Great Depression (on page 187 he calls him "just another American politician from New York, albeit with more than the usual personal flair and affectation due to his inherited wealth," and on page 214 he claims FDR took "direct example from fascist Italy") and his claim that "of course" General Patton should have continued his march eastwards to attack the Russians in 1945. No matter how you wish to look at it, it seems that there should be little place in a history for this kind of personal attack, nor is it in any way the case that "of course" Patton should have attacked the Russians. You can make arguments for both, to be sure, but they should not be presented as fact. Furthermore, I was a little uncomfortable with the pervasive references to work by the author's father, Richard Whalen. I understand that the author was in a unique position to make use of his father's works (both interviews, and published books), but the extent of the references made still strikes me as ill-advised in anything approaching a rigorous and defensible treatment of the subject at hand.
In conclusion, although I would recommend the author's other published work, I cannot recommend Inflated. Although I certainly did learn a fair amount of history from the book, it's almost certainly the case that I would have been better served reading other works on the matter.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Another Book Review from The Aleph Blog 17 Feb 2011
By David Merkel - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book was not what I expected. I expected a book on the current crisis, and got a book on monetary/credit policy over the whole of the existence of the US. What is more, unlike most books that cover a long sweep of history, this book is even, and does not overemphasize the recent past, which is a humble thing for an author to do, because we don't know the full ramifications of recent actions yet.

Now, I respect the writings of Chris Whalen at Institutional Risk Analytics and elsewhere -- a bright guy. But this outperformed my high expectations. Some books I glide through because I know the topic well. This was a book where I thought I knew the topic well, but found that I did not know as much as I thought, and so I read more slowly than I usually do.

But this book changed my view on financial crises. Whether one is under a gold standard or a fiat currency standard, the main order for assuring stability is the regulation of banks and credit.

In the same way that people need help in verifying whether a drug is effective or food is pure, they need to know that promises to pay will be honored. It does not matter what backs the currency if banks are allowed to overlever, or mismatch assets long -- there will be a financial panic, and it is not due to gold, silver, or fiat money necessarily, but that that banks made promises that could not be kept under all scenarios.

Yes, I think it is better to be under a gold standard, because it restricts the power of the government. But that is not the main issue with financial crises; we need to restrict that ability of banks to borrow short and lend long; we also need to restrict their overall leverage. Do that, and crises disappear -- also, banks are far less profitable, and that is a good thing. We will get fewer banks, and bright people will go to more useful places in the economy.

Other things that stood out to me were the First and Second National Banks of the US, and how their creation led to booms, and dissolution led to busts. Lincoln is unique in every way, even in monetary policy terms, as he created unbacked paper money to fight the civil war, which funded a lot of it. After the war, the return to the gold standard, much as it should have been done, was depressive, but it was an effect of paying off the war.

I came away from this book with a more balanced view of US politics -- many of those I like came off worse, and those I did not like were shown to have been better than I thought -- with the exception of Lincoln, who in hindsight seems to be a radical in most senses. I am very glad that slavery is gone, but not the way that it got done.

Quibbles

Ignore Roubini's introduction. Better Whalen should have gotten a real intellect like James Grant or Caroline Baum.

Also, in the middle of the book, in WWII, the US spends far more than its GDP on the war. I get it, but I think it would be more reasonable to classify defense spending inside GDP so that we can see what proportion of national output is going to the war effort.

Who would benefit from this book:

Anyone with a moderate intellect or better could learn from this balanced account of America's monetary and credit policies. It is very well written; those with little knowledge will learn much, but those with greater knowledge will still learn something.
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