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Prophet and loss

With Alan Greenspan and the economy, a lot of knowledge proved to be a dangerous thing

The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan

by Sebastian Mallaby (Bloomsbury, £30)

In retrospect, it is easy to see what happened. The 2008 crisis was triggered by the mother of all bank runs: a pan- icky loss of confidence in the financial system, which had loaded up on lousy mortgages that remained unsafe even though they were wrapped up in new and exotic ways. Financial institutions had made too many loss-making invest- ments, but the bubble they had inflated delayed the day of reck- oning—until it didn’t.

The surprising thing is not what happened, but that so few people saw it coming. And even that is not quite right. Many did see enough to know the risks. Some of them were even in a position to do something about it. If they did not do so, it was because either they wilfully ignored the dangers or found the potential remedies worse than the disease. In short, they thought the boom was worth having.

Eight years after the crisis—in the wake of a US election campaign fuelled by the political fallout of economic tough times, and with a previously unthinkable President-elect having been chosen— this sanguine faith seems like an obvious delusion. As Donald Trump’s America dawns, we can see that financial laissez-faire has ultimately proved ruinous not only for the economy, but for the liberal political order. But the 1990s and early 2000s were very different times. It was as though economic policy-makers had fallen under a collective spell. At the heart of it all was the chair of the US Federal Reserve from 1986 to 2005, supposedly “the world’s best central banker,” and the man who more than anyone else was responsible for casting that spell: Alan Greenspan.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.