Mr. Greenspan, you haven't disappointed us
By ALECIA SWASY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 19, 2000
To: Alan Greenspan
Hi, Mr. Greenspan! Are you free for dinner next Saturday?
I thought that you and Andrea could come on down to St. Petersburg and grill some dogs -- maybe filet mignon if I'm feeling irrationally exuberant in the market. Who wouldn't want to break bread with a Woody Allen with math skills, the man who gets credit for this long-running economic expansion?
We would raise a glass to you, and to the author Justin Martin for his new biography, a delightful account of your personal and professional journey from nerdy, swing-band clarinet player to revered Federal Reserve chairman.
What is fascinating about the biography is its attention to minutiae. Did you really go to a cocktail party, spot the latest Statistical Abstract of the United States on a shelf, then retreat to a corner, ignoring everyone? One fan described you as the "kind of person who knew how many thousand flat-headed bolts were used in a 1964 Chevrolet and what it would do to the economy if you took out three of them."
This love affair with the economy has roots in your early years at New York University's School of Commerce, where you read Keynes, a key influence on Franklin D. Roosevelt, who put people to work building roads during the Depression. Your work at the Conference Board was a natural fit, a place brimming with raw data to help you study the steel and rail industries. Sorry to read that your marriage to Joan Mitchell lasted less than a year -- but at least you two remained friends.
By the 1950s you had put away your clarinet, and at the tender age of 27 that Greenspan intellect won you a partnership at the New York consulting firm Townsend-Skinner, which became Townsend-Greenspan. Studying how X number of men working Y hours produced Z tons of steel proved to be a logical alternative to a failed musical career. "I get the same kind of joy from solving a hard mathematical problem as I do from hearing a Haydn quartet," you once said.
Too bad the author didn't give more than a couple of paragraphs to how you hired women economists at a lower wage than men -- even if everyone pulled that stunt back then. Still, your skepticism about Richard Nixon redeems you. At your meeting with the future president, the author says you "waxed on about the economy in the obscuromystical style" that has become your trademark. Nixon was impressed. You described him as "intellectually insecure."
The book is especially useful for those of us who were mere punks when Nixon pre-empted Bonanza on Aug. 15, 1971 to say that he was freezing wages and prices -- a move your pal Milton Friedman deemed the worst mistake in American economic policy in 40 years. From my days as a 7-year-old, all I remember is Dad complaining about grocery prices, so it's helpful to have a refresher course on double-digit inflation.
The author does give you a thump for your gaffe in the fall of 1974, when you were head of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Ford administration. As inflation and unemployment were out of control, you said Wall Street brokers were "hurt the most" by inflation. That remark earned you a place on the AFL-CIO's dubious distinction list. Maybe that's why you now talk in obscuromystical ways.
But you were on your way in the mid-1970s when Newsweek put you on a cover in a year (1975) when the magazine also featured Bruce Springsteen, Patty Hearst and Jimmy Hoffa.
What's your take on the author's Freudian dissection of your relationships with women? He says your relationship with your mother gave you a comfort level with strong, unconventional women, like the TV newswomen Barbara Walters and your future wife Andrea Mitchell. Maybe you just like those Cuban cigars they get from Fidel.
Speaking of Mitchell, the book discloses only a few details of your marriage (your honeymoon in Venice, the Steinway piano, a gift from your in-laws, that you loved to play for your wife). It would have been fun to read more. Alas, that first year of marriage sure was busy with a global financial crisis, the Asian contagion, to solve.
If the book has a weakness, it is the rushed feeling of the closing chapters, which condense the Reagan, Bush and Clinton years. This was your prime time, starting when you became Fed chairman in 1987, just before the stock market crash. Then came the savings-and-loan crisis. I'm sure you don't want to remember that glowing letter of recommendation you wrote about Charles Keating, the king of that mess, endorsing his management of Lincoln. But, hey, he did fool a lot of people before the regulators caught up with him.
Nailing that Asian contagion earned you virtual coronation around the globe. The author says that CNBC has become GNBC -- all Greenspan, all the time. John McCain said it best: "If you die, we will prop you up and put dark glasses on you, just like the movie Weekend at Bernie's."
The only person on the globe, in fact, who wouldn't want to have supper with you is George Bush -- the former president, that is -- but he's just a grouch who thinks he could have beaten Bill Clinton if you had acted faster to lower interest rates. "I reappointed him, and he disappointed me," Bush said of you.
But you haven't disappointed the rest of us. Glad you enlisted for a fourth term. Hope you and yours will stop by to chew on those dogs, with a side of GDP and CPI data. And don't worry: I'll round up a copy of the Statistical Abstract.
-Alecia Swasy, Times assistant managing editor/Business, is author of Soap Opera: The Inside Story of Procter & Gamble.
GREENSPAN: The Man Behind Money
By Justin Martin
Perseus Publishing, $28
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