For two decades, from his appointment by President Reagan in 1987 to his retirement from the Federal Reserve in 2006, Alan Greenspan communicated in what even he calls "Fedspeak"—a separate language that is opaque, technical and nearly always cryptic. (In the land of Fedspeak, "irrational exuberance" was a model of clear expression.) It was with more than a little trepidation, then, that I began to read the manuscript pages of Greenspan's new memoir, "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World."
My trepidation was short-lived. Long an enigmatic, purposely placid figure in the public imagination, Greenspan emerges from the book as a vivid and engaging man. An adviser to presidents from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush, he has, in a way, been hiding in plain sight for 40 years, and is only now, at 81, really able to speak his mind to a broad audience.
In person he has a quiet charm, and his smile can be surprisingly delightful (Nigel Parry captured such a moment for our cover). His wit is more parched than dry. When asked what he would like history to make of his tenure at the helm of a period of prosperity and rising standards of living, he says, "I'd like very much for people to say, 'Well, he caused all of that.' But I don't think the evidence holds up very well for that hypothesis."
Aside from religion, economics is perhaps the most pervasive yet least understood force in American life. People understand their own pocketbooks and, one hopes, their own portfolios, but the connections between Chinese imports and how you are going to pay off your student loans are more obscure. Greenspan's professorial book—detached and somewhat demanding, but accessible and sensible—is a good place to start grasping the inevitable links between the global economy and your own life.
Edited by David Jefferson, our package offers Daniel Gross's assessment of Greenspan's legacy, an interview with the former chairman and an excerpt covering what Greenspan thinks the economy may be like in 2030. As an author, Greenspan is no James Patterson—thankfully; who would want Patterson running monetary policy?—but he writes compellingly about globalization and the infinite complexity of the world in which we must now live and work.
Such talk of complexity is not hyperbole. Our era, he says, is complicated in ways unimaginable to those born before the Enlightenment. As Greenspan explained to NEWSWEEK, economic growth was virtually nonexistent for much of human history. It was only in 1820 that the numbers began to move straight up. According to Greenspan, we are still in the midst of similarly vast shifts that will shape the next quarter century.
Income inequality is an issue of consuming concern, and his suggested remedies defy conventional political categorization. He would not raise taxes on the wealthy but would, instead, reform American education and open the borders to highly skilled immigrants who would create competition for—and thus drive down, or at least control—top-level wages.
In this moment of mortgage crisis and new Fed moves, Greenspan's historical perspective is reassuring—not Panglossian, certainly, but reassuring all the same. "Turbulence," he told us last week, "is probably a necessary condition to maintain an economy worldwide as high-powered as the one that now exists." Hearing the voice of that economy's key architect is, we think, a necessary condition to looking ahead with reasoned confidence.