By Chet Yarbrough
On the Brink
By Henry M. Paulson, Jr.
Narrated by Dan Woren
Crisis reveals human strength and weakness. Perception is not reality, but Henry Paulson, the former Treasurer of the United States, names names and paints pictures of (mostly) men in the 2007/2008 financial crisis. In his analysis, there are political losers and winners.
Paulson reveals himself as a Christian Scientist, a pragmatist, and enigmatically, a somewhat left-of-center, presumably Republican, liberal. Paulson suggests a Republican left-of-center lean when writing about his mother and wife’s reluctance for him to take the Department of the Treasury position in the Bush administration. (Paulson’s mother strongly supported Hillary Clinton for President.)
Interestingly, Paulson characterizes George Bush as an equally pragmatic, non-ideological decision maker. Differences between the two are in the details; i.e. Paulson analyzes his own and other experts’ details and presents informed alternatives and recommendations while Bush acts on recommendations from people he trusts.
Paulson characterizes Ben Bernanke as a brilliant financial advisor, participant, and ally in supporting and executing complex rescue plans for a financial system nearing default.
Tim Geitner is shown as a team player that bridges the divide between political and administrative decision-making when plans are formed to rescue Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and AIG.
Rahm Emanuel is described as an effective political organization man who is able to get things done in a highly political environment.
Dimon is characterized as a rationale business man who is willing to take a risk for the benefit of more than his own aggrandizement.
John Thain seems a competent manager in crisis that makes the best of a terrible situation by moving rapidly to sell Merrill Lynch to B of A before total collapse.
Some crisis profiles shown by Paulson are less complementary. Sarah Palin comes across as a decision maker driven by politics rather than pragmatic results. John McCain seems to gravitate to Palin’s perception of reality by political posturing for election results rather than pragmatic solutions for the financial crisis. Jim Bunning, the former baseball player and House of Representative’s Republican, is shown to be an ideologically driven populist extremist.
Richard Fuld seems arrogantly delusional about Lehman Brothers’ assets and an ineffective manager in crises. Michael Lewis of B of A appears Machiavellian in grabbing what he thinks are the best and rejecting what he thinks are the worst financial risks in America’s near economic collapse.
Paulson reinforces perceptions of Barack Obama as a smart guy that grasps the big picture; ditto for Barney Frank, and Lindsey Graham but less so for Christopher Dodd.
Paulson suggests that Republican Senator Shelby can drive his point and take control when pushed to act but ideological belief seems to constrain proactive action in the financial crises. Senator Reid is shown to be a consummate, seasoned political manager in the Senate and Nancy Pelosi an equally dynamic oldster in the House of Representatives.
In contrast, Representative Boehner is unable to lead his Republican constituency and seems awkwardly suited for either a minority or majority Speaker of the House position.
It seems today the decisions made by Bush, Paulson, Bernanke, Geitner, and Congress were correct. After listening to Paulson’s book, one appreciates these civil servants hard work in doing the right thing. Today is too soon to tell but Paulson gives outsiders a fascinating glimpse of people making a difference when a nation is in crisis.
One wonders who the political losers and winners will be in today’s immigration, world trade, and budget deficit crises.