Gordon Brown's "Beyond the Crash"
Friday, March 4, 2011; 11:23 AM
BEYOND THE CRASH
Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalization
By Gordon Brown
Free Press. 314 pp. $26
For a brief, shining moment, the world stood together, and Gordon Brown was its voice. On an April afternoon in 2009, as global markets stared down the abyss and the specter of a second Great Depression loomed, the leaders of 20 major nations gathered in the backrooms of a London convention center to thrash out a salvation plan. Brown, then Britain's prime minister, strode to the podium before hundreds of international journalists to announce an ace in the hole, a $1-trillion pledge from world leaders to save the global economy.
Recounted with pride by Brown himself in "Beyond the Crash," this was the finest hour for a British politician whose moments of greatness are, rightly or wrongly, seen at home as few and far between. Mirroring Brown's political style, the book is impersonal and plodding. But it is a credit to his intellect that the book's significance withstands his dry, textbook-like account of the world's descent into financial crisis, the breaking of that fall and the prescriptions for avoiding a repeat.
Brown paints himself as an audacious protagonist in the bid to save Britain and the world from the jaws of financial ruin. If he is stingy on behind-the-scenes color and gossipy revelation - for prime ministers of Brown's ilk, what happens in G20 meetings stays in G20 meetings - one cannot quibble about his central role in nudging a reluctant George W. Bush and rookie Barack Obama toward a global solution to the financial crisis.
This book excels most when Brown, used to being pilloried in the British press, grudgingly drops his defenses long enough to get personal. He tells, for instance, of pushing reluctant leaders toward that once unimaginable $1-trillion mark, inspiring them with the words of Britain's most cherished prime minister: "As we assembled for pre-dinner drinks, I repeated the words of Winston Churchill in the 1930s: we must ensure that we could never be criticized, as he criticized politicians then, for being 'resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity and all powerful for impotence.' "
Brown's failure to deal credibly with his own gargantuan error in missing the credit bubble and the lending frenzy that precipitated the crisis - he served as Britain's equivalent of treasury secretary from 1997 to 2007 - is a critical flaw. He dismissively blames the bankers for having their heads in the sand, but the politicians and regulators charged with monitoring the economy were on that same beachhead. It is simply not enough to shrug and say, who knew?
In fairness, this is no memoir. Rather, the book blends a chronological account of the height of the crisis with an economic and political argument on where to go from here. Much of the book is dedicated to calls for a "global New Deal" that could create jobs and usher in a more stable era of prosperity by rebalancing trade relationships, adjusting consumer-spending habits and forcing a new moral code on banks. This, he argues, must happen through sweeping global treaties.
Though students of the global economy will find no shocks in Brown's way forward, his arguments are forceful, occasionally persuasive, and laced with optimism. The United States must find a new path to competitiveness, investing in technology and education. Chinese consumers must spend more, and India must gradually open its hermetically sealed market.
Still, there is little here that other economists have not said first, and perhaps better. And it's frustrating that Brown only teases us, holding back the real goods. He dangles in front of us an illuminating dinner with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, where the two men, along with Sonia Gandhi (daughter-in-law of former prime minister Indira Ghandhi) and others, discussed how to end poverty in India. But the inevitable insights from such an evening are never revealed. This reticence underscores the missed opportunities of a book that tells us a lot, but should tell us more.
Anthony Faiola is The Washington Post's London bureau chief.