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Keeping At It
The Quest for Sound Money and Good Government
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As chairman of the Federal Reserve (1979-1987), Paul Volcker slayed the inflation dragon that was consuming the American economy and restored the world’s faith in central bankers. That extraordinary feat was just one pivotal episode in a decades-long career serving six presidents.
Told with wit, humor, and down-to-earth erudition, the narrative of Volcker’s career illuminates the changes that have taken place in American life, government, and the economy since World War II. He vibrantly illustrates the crises he managed alongside the world’s leading politicians, central bankers, and financiers. Yet he first found his model for competent and ethical governance in his father, the town manager of Teaneck, NJ, who instilled Volcker’s dedication to absolute integrity and his “three verities” of stable prices, sound finance, and good government.
|September 5, 1927||Paul A. Volcker Jr. born in Cape May, New Jersey.|
|1930||Volcker family moves to Teaneck, New Jersey, where Paul Sr. becomes town manager for twenty years.|
|July 1944||International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank are created.|
|1949||Volcker graduates from Princeton with highest honors for senior thesis on the Federal Reserve.|
|1951||Volcker leaves Harvard University’s Graduate School of Public Administration after passing the general exam for his PhD.|
|March 3, 1951||Treasury-Fed Accord reestablishes the Federal Reserve’s independence from the Treasury.|
|April 2, 1951||William McChesney Martin becomes Federal Reserve Board chairman.|
|1951–1952||Volcker is Rotary fellow at the London School of Economics.|
|1952||Volcker joins New York Fed as junior economist, moves to Brooklyn Heights, New York, close to the Brooklyn Dodgers.|
|September 11, 1954||Volcker marries Barbara Marie Bahnson in Jersey City, New Jersey.|
|August 20, 1955||Janice Louise Volcker born.|
|1957||Volcker moves to Plainfield, New Jersey, and joins Chase as a research economist.|
|May 10, 1958||James Paul Volcker born.|
|January 8, 1962||Volcker joins Treasury as director of the new Office of Financial Analysis under Robert Roosa and Secretary Douglas Dillon.|
|November 18, 1963||Volcker named to succeed J. Dewey Daane as Treasury’s deputy under secretary of monetary affairs.|
|November 22, 1963||Kennedy assassinated, Lyndon Johnson becomes president.|
|December 31, 1964||Roosa leaves Treasury to join Brown Brothers.|
|April 1, 1965||Fowler succeeds Dillon as Treasury secretary.|
|October 6, 1965||Johnson clashes with Federal Reserve chairman Martin at White House, calls for delay in raising interest rates.|
|November 1965||Volcker joins Chase as director of forward planning and moves to Montclair, New Jersey.|
|January 20, 1969||President Richard Nixon inaugurated.|
|January 22, 1969||Volcker attends meeting with Nixon, David Kennedy, and Charls Walker in the Oval Office. Volcker officially nominated as Treasury under secretary for monetary affairs, “the best job in the world.”|
|February 1, 1970||Arthur Burns replaces Martin as chairman.|
|February 11, 1971||John Connally sworn in as Treasury secretary.|
|May 28, 1971||Connally’s international debut at banking conference in Munich, Germany.|
|August 15, 1971||Nixon closes gold window, ending official convertibility of the dollar into gold at $35 per ounce, as part of his “new economic policy.”|
|September 15, 1971||Connally tells Group of Ten meeting in London that the United States wants a $13 billion swing in its balance of international payments.|
|November 30, 1971||Group of Ten meeting in Rome.|
|December 14, 1971||Nixon agrees with France’s Georges Pompidou in the Azores to devalue dollar and revise exchange rates without restoring convertibility of the dollar into gold.|
|December 18, 1971||Group of Ten reaches multilateral Smithsonian Agreement on exchange rates; dollar devalued and official gold price rises to $38 an ounce.|
|May 16, 1972||Nixon names George Shultz to succeed Connally.|
|June 23, 1972||Committee of Twenty created to address international monetary reform.|
|February 12, 1973||Dollar depreciated by about 10 percent relative to other major currencies; official gold price changes to $42.22 an ounce.|
|March 9, 1973||Group of Ten meeting in Paris ends with acceptance of temporary float.|
|September 1973||Effort to negotiate new monetary system, led by Volcker, abandoned.|
|April 8, 1974||Volcker resigns and says he’ll leave Treasury after Committee of Twenty meeting in June.|
|August 9, 1974||Nixon resigns, Gerald Ford becomes president.|
|September 11, 1974||Volcker named senior fellow of the Woodrow Wilson School.|
|August 1, 1975||Volcker becomes New York Federal Reserve Bank president.|
|December 27, 1977||President Carter nominates G. William Miller to replace Arthur Burns at Fed.|
|July 15, 1979||Carter’s “malaise” speech.|
|July 19, 1979||Carter names Miller to replace Michael Blumenthal as Treasury secretary.|
|August 6, 1979||Volcker replaces Miller at Fed; Miller becomes Treasury secretary.|
|August 16, 1979||Board raises discount rate to 10.5 percent from 10 percent.|
|September 18, 1979||Board raises discount rate to 11 percent, but three of the seven members dissent: Charles Partee, Nancy Teeters, Emmett Rice. Gold and silver surge in wild speculative trading.|
|October 2, 1979||Volcker leaves IMF meeting early, flies back to DC.|
|October 6, 1979||Meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) to agree to new policy package, unveiled at 6 p.m. press conference. Plan includes increase in discount rate to 12 percent, new reserve requirements, and a new focus on controlling the money supply instead of short-term interest rates.|
|March 14, 1980||Carter unveils Anti-Inflation Program, including plans to submit a smaller 1981 budget (reduced by $13 billion) and to impose credit controls.|
|March 27, 1980||Silver price decline sets off margin calls against Hunt brothers’ massive holdings, threatening Bache Group and other financial institutions.|
|April 28, 1980||First Pennsylvania Bank announces it has received a $1.5 billion rescue, sponsored by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) and Federal Reserve.|
|May 22, 1980||In midst of sudden recession, Fed rolls back most of the credit controls implemented in March.|
|October 2, 1980||Monetary policy tightening ahead of the election incites mild presidential criticism.|
|November 4, 1980||Ronald Reagan elected president.|
|January 20, 1981||Reagan takes office, nominates Donald Regan as Treasury secretary.|
|January 23, 1981||Volcker has lunch with Reagan at the Treasury Department along with Donald Regan, Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) chief Murray Weidenbaum and others.|
|June 30, 1982||Mexico is world’s largest borrower, with $21.5 billion owed to US banks alone. Fed agrees to short-term swap line, conditional on the willingness of the new Mexican president to work with the IMF.|
|July 5, 1982||Penn Square Bank shut by banking regulators, exposing substantial credit losses on oil loans at major banks.|
|August 17, 1982||Salomon Brothers economist Henry Kaufman reverses prediction for higher rates, instead saying short-term and long-term rates will fall in response to Fed easing (following First Boston’s Albert Wojnilower). Stocks rally, rates fall.|
|August 20, 1982||Mexican ministers meet with 115 creditors at the New York Fed, beginning the long process of dealing with the Latin American debt crisis with IMF support.|
|October 9, 1982||Volcker’s remarks at Business Council in Hot Springs, Virginia, describe a change in monetary policy tactics, but not in the anti-inflation policy.|
|June 6, 1983||Volcker meets Reagan; tells him he would serve only a year or so of a second term if reappointed.|
|June 18, 1983||Reagan calls Volcker at 11 a.m. to ask him to serve a second term; announces it in his Saturday radio address.|
|May 17, 1984||Continental Illinois bank bailout, including $1.5 billion in new capital from FDIC.|
|July 23, 1984||Continental Illinois gets additional $4.5 billion rescue, including $3.5 billion loan from Fed to help FDIC buy Continental’s problem loans.|
|July 24, 1984||Volcker meets with Reagan, James Baker in White House library.|
|February 4, 1985||James Baker replaces Donald Regan as Treasury secretary.|
|September 22, 1985||Plaza Accord agreed by group of five nations (United States, West Germany, Japan, Britain, France); first major effort since 1973 for international cooperation on exchange rates.|
|October 8, 1985||“Baker Plan” proposed in speech at IMF–World Bank meeting in Seoul, South Korea, modifying the established approach toward the Latin American debt crisis.|
|February 24, 1986||Federal Reserve Board revolt led by Preston Martin, calling for discount rate reduction.|
|March 7, 1986||Fed cuts discount rate half a point to 7 percent in coordinated move with West Germany and Japan.|
|March 21, 1986||Preston Martin resigns from Fed.|
|February 22, 1987||Louvre Accord between the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan, West Germany, and Canada signals the end of the decline of the dollar over previous two years.|
|May 1987||Volcker tells Howard Baker and James Baker he doesn’t want to be reappointed.|
|June 1, 1987||Volcker meets with Reagan and hands him a written resignation.|
|June 2, 1987||Reagan nominates Alan Greenspan as Fed chairman.|
|July 7, 1987||Volcker concludes his last FOMC meeting as chairman by saying, “I appreciate the cooperation of all, in these recent years in particular. This is a wild and woolly venture sometimes, with so many people. But it works and I trust it will continue with all your intelligent and forceful efforts. Thank you.”|
|July 23, 1987||Volcker agrees to serve as chairman of the National Commission on the Public Service to study what he calls a “quiet crisis” in governmental administration.|
|March 2, 1988||Volcker announces he’ll become a professor at the Woodrow Wilson School and chairman at James D. Wolfensohn Inc.|
|March 29, 1989||National Commission on the Public Service report presented to President George H. W. Bush.|
|September 23,||1990 Volcker delivers “The Triumph of Central Banking?” as Per Jacobsson Lecture at IMF–World Bank meeting in Washington.|
|June 1, 1995||James Wolfensohn becomes World Bank president; Volcker becomes CEO of James D. Wolfensohn Inc., which is renamed Wolfensohn & Company.|
|May 22, 1996||Bankers Trust New York Corp. agrees to acquire Wolfensohn & Company.|
|May 1996||Independent Committee of Eminent Persons (the “Volcker Commission”) established to investigate Swiss banks’ holdings of assets belonging to victims of the Holocaust.|
|June 14, 1998||Barbara Bahnson Volcker dies.|
|November 12, 1999||Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 signed into law (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act), ending separation of commercial and investment banking.|
|December 6, 1999||Volcker Commission releases report on Swiss banks’ Holocaust-era accounts.|
|May 2000||Volcker named chairman of nineteen-member International Accounting Standards Committee trustees, working to establish international standards.|
|February–May 2002||Volcker chairs Independent Oversight Board for Arthur Andersen (Andersen indictment unsealed on March 14).|
|January 2003||Volcker’s second National Commission on the Public Service releases report.|
|April 16, 2004||Volcker named chairman of Independent Inquiry Committee (the “Volcker Committee”) to investigate corruption in the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food program.|
|October 27, 2005||Volcker Committee releases 623-page report detailing findings of corruption in the United Nations’ Oil-for-Food program.|
|February 2007||Volcker named by World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz to chair Independent Review Panel (the “Volcker Panel”) to study the work of the Department of Institutional Integrity and the effectiveness of its anti-corruption efforts.|
|September 13, 2007||Volcker Panel submits report to new World Bank president Robert Zoellick calling for fundamental change in the anti-corruption effort.|
|January 31, 2008||Volcker endorses Barack Obama for president.|
|November 4, 2008||Barack Obama elected president.|
|January 15, 2009||Group of Thirty working group, chaired by Volcker, issues report proposing comprehensive financial reforms.|
|February 6, 2009||Obama names Volcker chairman of the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board for a two-year term.|
|January 21, 2010||Obama announces he plans to support “Volcker Rule” in Dodd-Frank legislation.|
|February 11, 2010||Volcker marries Anke Dening.|
|July 21, 2010||Dodd-Frank bill signed into law.|
|May 26, 2013||Volcker Alliance launched to address the challenge of effective execution of public policies and to rebuild public trust in government.|
THE WISE OLD PARROT
Years ago, I was told a story that somehow seems relevant to this memoir. It’s about a lonely old man. His wife had died, his children were gone, his business was closed. Yearning for company, he decided to buy a parrot. Off to the local pet store he went, pointed a finger at the first parrot he saw, and asked the price.
The proprietor said, “He’s a fine parrot, and he costs $5,000.”
“How is that one parrot worth $5,000?”
“Well, his native language is English, but he also speaks French, German, Italian, and Spanish—all of the important languages of the European Union.”
“I’m old, I’m not working anymore, and I don’t give a damn about the European Union. Give me that young one over there.”
“Okay, but he’s $10,000.”
“How can he be $10,000? What’s so special about him?”
“He’s young but he’s learning. He already knows Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and he’s working on Korean. He is just the right parrot for the twenty-first century.”
“Look, I’m not going to live for long in the twenty-first century. How about that old one up in the corner with his feathers falling out and glassy eyes. He’s for me. I’ll take him.”
“I understand, but he’s $25,000.”
“How can that grizzly old guy possibly be worth $25,000?”
“None of us can figure it out. All we know is the other parrots call him Mr. Chairman.”
I’ve told that story maybe a hundred times. This will be the last. Even now I’m called Mr. Chairman fairly often and I actually still chair—these days mostly “honorably”—a few small organizations. One is the Volcker Alliance, which I created in 2013 as part of my effort to encourage training and education for public service. But when somebody stops me on the street or on the bus, which still happens every once in a while, they’re usually thinking of when I was one particular chairman, of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington, some forty years ago. Inflation rising to record levels, 10 percent unemployment and interest rates topping 20 percent made a lasting impression.
We’ve seen plenty of financial crises since then, including the Great Recession that began in 2008. Sweeping reforms in financial regulation, including the so-called Volcker Rule, have followed.
Important as those events were in shaping my life, they aren’t the reason I decided to write this memoir. I’m driven by a growing, and much broader, concern. We have for some time been experiencing a breakdown in the effective governance of the United States.
Polarization between (and even within) political parties, accompanied by the ever-growing influence of highly concentrated wealth, has paralyzed key elements of public policymaking: prudent budgeting able to finance programs ranging from our military services to old-age retirement; sensible strategies for international affairs, immigration policy, health care, and much more. Even needs as self-evident as rebuilding our infrastructure seem, for all the talk, beyond our capacity for action.
Less understood is the erosion in what Alexander Hamilton insisted at the very beginnings of the republic would be the true test of government: “its aptitude and tendency to produce a good administration.” There has been a lack of attention for years to the need for effective governmental organizations staffed by talented, dedicated public servants. The result has been too many breakdowns, too little efficiency, and, most critically, too much distrust of government itself. Polls show fewer than 20 percent of Americans trust government to do what’s right most of the time, down from about 75 percent sixty years ago.
In the early 1950s, when I first took a government job, it was a matter of personal pride, as it was for others. With strong leadership in both political parties, America supported Europe’s economic recovery, helped restore democracies in the free world, and opened global trade and investment. The result seemed evident: unprecedented gains in the human condition, marked by growing populations over most of the world that were healthier and wealthier than ever before.
Looking back, I am forced to recognize that the United States, in leading the grand coalition of free and emerging states, could not entirely escape the mortal sin of hubris. We embarked on long, unnecessary, and ultimately unwinnable wars far from home. We failed to recognize the costs of open markets and rapid innovation to sizable fractions of our own citizenry. We came to think that inventive financial markets could discipline themselves. We underestimated how much the growing size, economic weight, and ambitions of other countries, most critically China, would come to upset the easy assumption of America’s unique global reach.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and a more open, prosperous China at the end of the twentieth century made some believe we had come to the end of history—a victory of democratic values and perpetual growth around the world. Now, we find ourselves in a different mood. Our historic allies are perplexed and questioning our leadership. The vision of spreading democracy and the rule of law is in jeopardy.
Over the seventy years of my adult life I have had the good fortune of playing a small part in American governance, observing its great strengths—and some large blunders—firsthand. I hope this memoir provides lessons, particularly in matters of financial and monetary policy to which I have dedicated most of my life.
But I have come to understand something broader and more important: the need to restore trust in the full range of our governmental processes. My hope is that the Volcker Alliance can play a part.
It will not be easy.
My early life was relatively comfortable given that I grew up in the midst of the Great Depression and then World War II. By good fortune, my hometown of Teaneck, New Jersey, was growing rapidly. I was too young to serve in the war. But, as I look back, there is no doubt that my father’s prominent position in local government had a huge impact on the way I view life and the world.
A Model Town
“Government is a science and I am happy that the officials and the people of this community agree that the man who is to manage it should be thoroughly trained in the science of government.”
That was my father, city manager of Teaneck, explaining in 1948 why he was hiring a successor, two full years before he planned to retire.
My father cared deeply about making things work. The oldest son of German immigrants, his childhood in Brooklyn, New York, had included some gang battles (modest by recent standards) and other mischief. But mostly he found comfort in the rigorous classical education he received at Boys High School and later as a civil engineering student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he stood high in his class both physically and academically.
A job helping to rebuild New York State’s Erie Canal system took him to the small upstate town of Lyons. There he met my mother, a Vassar College graduate and the only child of one of the town’s more prominent families. They married in 1915 and moved to Lebanon, Pennsylvania, when he was hired to be that town’s engineer.
But he soon saw a greater opportunity. Government itself needed fixing too. That was certainly true in Cape May, New Jersey.
Once a favorite summer resort of wealthy Philadelphia families and even a president or two, its big old Victorian hotels had lost their luster. The city finances were extended to the point of bankruptcy. The local leaders decided radical change was needed. In 1925 they became the first in New Jersey to adopt a recently created system of city government: a nonpartisan part-time council and a professional city manager.
My father was drawn to city management, to the challenge of creating civic order out of disarray. So nobody was surprised when he joined a large number of applicants for the $4,500-a-year Cape May job. “As the first official in such a capacity, Mr. Volcker will, of course, have the eyes of the entire state upon him,” the Lebanon Daily News reported on the day he was awarded the position. At age thirty-five he moved to Cape May with my mother and three sisters, two years before I was born.
It proved an excellent fit. He soon straightened out the city’s finances and discovered a knack for publicizing “cool Cape May, twenty miles at sea,” with “shaded streets and golden sands” that not so subtly contrasted with rival New Jersey resorts built on treeless barrier beaches with flimsy housing.
Atlantic City, forty miles north, was another story: much larger, with a nationally famous boardwalk and pier, majestic hotels, and big-time entertainment. In the twenties its promoters started a beauty pageant. Cape May usually sent a contestant.
Just weeks into his job, my straitlaced father made headlines by ending that practice. No young Cape May maiden should be encouraged to exhibit herself in a bathing suit before leering men in a city of questionable morals.
Meanwhile, a much larger municipality in northern New Jersey was falling into financial and governmental crisis. Voters decided to throw out the politicians and bring in the council-management form of government. Teaneck, a New Jersey township twenty minutes outside of New York City, hired my father in 1930, immediately saving money when he also agreed to be city engineer for no extra pay.
He turned Teaneck around too. In his two-decade tenure, which overlapped with the Depression and war, Teaneck’s debt dropped to $1.8 million from $5 million and the population doubled. The town acquired ninety-five acres of parks. Taxes were cut.
Bespectacled, pipe-smoking, and six feet, four inches tall, my father cut an imposing and authoritative figure. On the wall behind his office desk he posted a framed quotation from George Washington to put favor seekers on notice: “Do not suffer your good nature, when application is made, to say ‘yes’ when you ought to say ‘no.’ Remember that it is a public not a private cause that is to be injured or benefited by your choice.”
To the best of my knowledge, his local authority was seriously challenged only once. I was way too young at the time to understand the implications, but I did know it was highly unusual for him to come home early from a town council meeting, bringing along two or three of his close associates. Later I learned the full story.
Determined to professionalize the police and fire departments, my father told the council he would be hiring a new police chief from out of town. The contentious mayor fiercely objected, demanding that one of the local good old boys be promoted instead. My father refused, insisting that the law (which I believe he largely drafted) made the appointment his responsibility as city manager.
The council could fire him but knew it would lack public support. It equivocated by suspending his pay. The issue went to court, which promptly upheld my father. Teaneck got a professional police chief, the mayor lost his influence, and my father’s salary was restored.
Behind his formality and reticence, my father concealed a dry wit and sophisticated political instincts. As I grew older he’d take me along sometimes as he consulted with the mayor, councilmen, or other influential citizens. He also made a point of visiting with the town’s less influential workers. He was fanatic about disclosure. Every family would get a detailed annual report about the state of the town. He described the budget, spending and taxes, the number of police cars and fire engines, the condition of the town’s facilities, and the salaries of employees, including his own.
By the standards of the day, the city manager was reasonably paid, starting out at about $8,000 a year. Only later did I discover that in the middle of the Depression my father volunteered to reduce that by $2,000, and it was a long time before it was restored.
The town’s success, and the city-manager form of government, was publicized nationally and even internationally. In 1945 the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s national statistics identified Teaneck as the lowest-crime town in the country. The Saturday Evening Post carried an article headlined “There’s No Crime in Teaneck.” While proud of the sizable juvenile recreation programs and professional police force that contributed to Teaneck’s low crime rate, he made clear his discomfort about declaring such an absolute victory in a speech to the New York City Federation of Women’s Clubs that he titled “There Is No Crime in Teaneck?”*
A little later the US Army selected Teaneck from ten thousand applicants as the model town to be featured in an exhibit used to educate occupied countries about democratic practices after the war. Through his dedicated, professional, and nonpolitical management, my father had created an example for his own parents’ war-destroyed homeland—and for me.
- "Paul Volcker is the greatest man I have known. He is endowed to the highest degree with what the Romans called virtus (virtue): moral courage, integrity, sagacity, prudence and devotion to the service of country. This book is more than an account of his life. It is his credo."—--Martin Wolf, Financial Times
- "If there were a Nobel Prize for government service, Paul Volcker's name would surely be on the short list...It paints an accurate personal portrait. The picture that emerges is of a man of granitic integrity, committed to what he perceives as wise policies-committed, that is, to what he calls The Verities: stable prices, sound finance, and good government...There are few people like Paul Volcker in the U.S. government today, or in business, for that matter-respected and trusted by everyone, whatever the disagreements, and motivated by public service."—Charles R. Morris, The Atlantic
- "Engaging...'Keeping At It' is part autobiography, part monetary history, part plea for the restoration of trust in American political institutions...Humility is one of the charms of both the man and his book."—James Grant, Wall Street Journal
- "Arguably the greatest Fed chairman all time, this book is at the top of my list."—Barry Ritholtz, Bloomberg
- "Who is the most influential political figure alive? The Queen? Henry Kissinger? Donald Trump, Bill Gates or the Google founder Larry Page? Wrong. It's Paul Volcker. Some of you may not have heard of this 91-year-old American but it is hard to think of another living person who has had more influence on the world today."—Ed Conway, The Times (UK)
- "[a] frugal and charming autobiography is filled with illuminating stories from Volcker's seven decades of public service."—Richard N. Cooper, Foreign Affairs
- "Never has a message like Paul Volcker's been more important. At a time of deep divisions in this country, his courageous fight for America's financial and economic stability--under six different U.S. presidents--provide a model that should unite us all."—--President Jimmy Carter
- "This book is a monument erected by a man who played a key role in the world financial affairs over more than 50 years. Paul Volcker was the only one to master inflation in the early '80s. He devoted himself to public service with exceptional integrity and energy."—--Jacques de Larosiere, advisor to the chairman of BNP ParibasSA, chairman of the strategic committee of Agence France Tresor, and formerdirector of the International Monetary Fund
- "Paul Volcker is an American hero who has seen more and done more to shape the world economy than anyone else over the last 50 years. His memoir Keeping at It is a must read."—--Ray Dalio, founder ofBridgewater Associates and author of Principles
- " Keeping at It is a delight to read. It is the story of the long and distinguished banking career of the remarkable Paul Volcker, who has dedicated his entire adult life to building a sound central banking system for the United States and beyond. When this pillar of wisdom and integrity tells us that effective governance in the US is broken, we must listen. And those of us who care about America's future must answer Paul's call to do whatever it takes to fix it."—--John C. Bogle, founder ofThe Vanguard Group
- "Thoughtful...An orderly, winning book from the economist whose Volcker Rule limits risk-taking by banks."—Kirkus Reviews
- On Sale
- Oct 30, 2018
- Page Count
- 304 pages