This is why you should buy Neil Irwin’s new book

April 23, 2013

I should begin by saying Neil doesn't know I'm writing this post. So shh, don't tell him. He might be embarrassed.

I hope you know by now that Neil's got a new book out. It's called "The Alchemists: Three Central Bankers and a World on Fire." You should buy it.

Is this book a hero tale? No.
Is this book a hero tale? No.

I should say at the outset: This isn't a review. I think the book is great, but I don't think telling you that will make you buy it. Instead, I want to explain why you should buy this particular book -- why it tells you a story you need to hear, and that you can't get anywhere else.

People talk a lot about media bias. Some say there's a bias towards liberals or conservatives. Others say it's towards ostentatious even-handedness, or sensationalism. But one of the most dangerous media biases is simply the bias towards events, sources and narratives that are easy for those of us in the media to cover.

This bias was particularly corrosive during the financial crisis. Because many of the reporters called on to cover it -- myself included -- were well-sourced in Congress, and in the White House, and in Washington think tanks, and in academic economic departments, there was a tendency to cover the crisis from those perspectives -- or at least filtered through those perspectives.

That would have been fine if the financial crisis was a domestic political debate, the way, say, health-care reform was. But it wasn't. It was a global financial crisis -- a term that's become so trite that we rarely stop to think about what it means.

Here's what it means: The problems were global, and that meant the policy response, if it was to be at all effective, had to be global, too. The world's central banks, much more so than the world's legislators, were the frontline in that fight. But few of the reporters called on to cover the crisis -- again, myself included -- were sourced in the Federal Reserve or in the central banks of Japan and Germany and the United Kingdom.

That made it difficult for us to tell that story, or even to see that it was happening, and so, by and large, that story was downplayed, and the story we did have access to was narrativized, and so we gave you The FInancial Crisis: A Tale of Happenings and Intrigue in the White House and Congress and on Wall Street, Starring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Presidential Candidate Barack Obama, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, JP Morgan Chief Jamie Dimon, and Many Other Famous Characters You Already Know and Love. (By the way, I have already trademarked this title.)

When the markets collapsed, Neil was covering the Federal Reserve. That is to say, he actually was sourced in central banks -- both ours and others around the world. He saw that bigger, truer story unfolding, and he covered it. This is the period during which I became a huge fan of Neil's work. But it was a tough story to follow in real time.

This book adds a lot of reporting, a lot of travel, a lot of research, and a lot of narrative and pulls together a full retelling of the crisis -- and arguably of modern economies -- from the perspective of global central banking. That makes it a very different perspective than you've heard before, and an important corrective to the kind of coverage you get every day. It's not just a great book about the crisis, but it's a great book about how and where economic policy is really made. That makes it a book worth buying, because it will help you understand where so many of the other books and articles and blog posts you'll read go wrong.

So buy the book. You'll be glad you did.

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Neil Irwin · April 23, 2013