Before moving into the White House, Rahm Emanuel, U.S. President Barack Obama's chief of staff, declared that a serious crisis would a terrible thing to waste. He was referring to the opportunities to make substantial policy changes that might otherwise not get through the usual barricades put up by politicians famously lacking in long-term vision.
Opportunistic publishers feel much the same way about a juicy calamity: Milk it for all it's worth. Which is why bookstore shelves are groaning these days under the weight of new titles and updates of older ones focused in one way or another on the worst global financial and economic crises since the Great Depression. Hence, last year's estimable Trillion Dollar Meltdown has been ratcheted up to The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown in a new paperback edition.
- Bubbles, Bankers and Bailouts: The Global Financial Crisis and How You Can Survive It, by John Lawrence Reynolds, Douglas & McIntyre, 135 pages
Some of these books are academic in nature. But the bulk of the early entries are typically those so-called first drafts of history penned by journalists on tight deadlines. These tend to be heavy on reporting what already happened, advising people what to do with their shrinking piles of money or placing blame for everything that went wrong. Some simply provide a new platform for old polemics.
But when it comes to packing as little new information or fresh insight into as small a package as possible, nothing beats Bubbles, Bankers and Bailouts, a title that promises a lot more entertainment than the author delivers.
That is not to say this slim, breezy volume has no virtues. For one, its mainly Q&A format is perfect for people who are put off by the daunting task of plowing through voluminous articles about economics or finance, or who typically avoid anything in print more taxing than deciphering the TV schedule. Finally, here's a book that touches on everything from John Maynard Keynes to the Icelandic banking meltdown and what to do about those RRSPs, and it's all presented in easily digestible bites that can be swallowed in their entirety on a couple of bus rides to the office.
John Lawrence Reynolds' recipe is simple. First, dice up a mixture of warmed over facts and assessments largely gleaned from the daily flow of news (with next to none of that time-consuming sourcing that slows down an easy read). Blend in a populist thrust - you can never go wrong bashing greedy Wall Street investment bankers, blinkered central bankers or vote-hungry politicians - and top off the whole thing with plenty of pithy questions and answers designed to help us understand and cope with all that has occurred and what might be coming down the road next.
It's a package plainly meant to appeal to Canadians left bewildered over the sudden evaporation of their job security, the sharp decline in their net worth and the severe damage to their retirement funds. Freedom 75 anyone?
Mercifully, the author is not one of those capitalism-is-dead-we-better-buy-our-own-generator types. His barbs are aimed at the right targets and his practical advice is grounded firmly in common sense. For instance, he tells investors to wait out the storms - not to build an ark or load up on bottled water and gold bars. He also recommends diversifying, buying quality stocks at current depressed prices and making sure that your RRSP has a strong foundation of guaranteed government bonds.
Reynolds correctly reminds us that no one knows when we will hit bottom. And he warns that some segments of the market may never recover from the debacle. Just don't try to pin him down on which ones.
Like most such efforts, Bubbles is destined for a short shelf life. Just don't ask how short. I, too, am leery of making any predictions in these most unpredictable of times.
Brian Milner is a reporter for Report on Business.