Personal Reflections of: Irwin N., The Alchemist: Three Central Bankers and A World On Fire (New York: Penguin Press, 2013), pp.430

Oooh “poor sweet” Kyeku!! She wonders who is the alchemist? … but not as lost as the man sitting next to her on the plane, asking “are you studying chemistry”? “No, why?” Kyeku responded with a question mark! “The book your reading is about Chemistry”, Kyeku laughed inside her but then with her typical and almost natural desire to share the little knowledge she has, she opened pages 24 and 25 of the book and read the following for her seat neighbor “in the medieval age, alchemists included everyone from garden-variety con artists to skilled technicians of metallurgy to some of the most brilliant scientists of he day” (e.g. Sir Isaac Newton). “Alchemists” Irwin continues, “were an insular group, speaking a language that outsiders couldn’t grasp and disdainful of the uninitiated. Those outside the club viewed it as a shadowy cabal”.

Well, in this well researched book with chains of evidence of triangulation of sources, Irwin tells about Central Banks and the Central Bankers (the alchemists). He mainly focuses on the European Union (EU and it’s ECB- European Central Bank), UK (Central Bank of England), and the USA (Fed Reserve) together with their three Chairmen of the time, Jean- Claude Trichet, Mervyn King, and Ben Bernanke respectively. The rationale for that selection is based on the book case selection of which it analyses responses to the 2007-09 banking crisis. However, the book does not restrict its analysis on those three entities only but it includes the responses of other key central bankers including China and Japan. The book also gives the history of Central Bank, which was very interesting and fun. It started in Sweden in 17th Century. It is a classic piece on Central Banking, a space where many people don’t understand.  (I wish Iddi Amin was alive to read this book so as to understand you can’t just print money)!

I personally enjoyed every sentence of the book, which I prudently read without missing any word. I wanted to understand the financial crisis that shook the world and how it was countered. The book, if anything, kept reminding me of arguments in my Uni of Nottingham IPE (International Political Economy) students’ essays especially from one Greek student who was very much against the IMF and the ECB bailout deal to Greece. Luckily, the book has a whole chapter “The New Greet Odyssey” dedicated to Greece. Now the students’ arguments, some of them backed with references to Bernanke’s interviews on TV, became so live again even though it is already more than two years since I taught and marked the essays. In our seminars, students were brilliant critics of capitalism and as a “feeble” postcolonial kinda of an academic (loose leftie), I am also critical of capitalism. And…I think, nothing proves us more right than financial crises, which even Irwin himself has cited that (I’m paraphrasing) it faces “periodical destruction of credit and confidence” (p. 43).

Nevertheless, just as I had mentioned in my previous reflection of the “The Ladies Delight” book, “capitalists” work very hard and they do act by taking advantage of everything possible and available. The way the central bankers of the three entities worked day and night with many sleepless nights thinking of how to save the banks and their respective economies at large is something impressive. Trichet, King, and Bernanke together with the staff in their various committees and offices tirelessly sought after efforts to rescue the economy with an unselfish motives but seeing the economy recovering.

One point that I’d like to make is how these central bankers made use of the “state” to rescue/bail out the banks. If you have basic knowledge of the different between the “left” and the “right” you would know that the right advocates for the private sector/ownership and non-intervention of state in the economic activities, while the left advocates for the state interactions in the economy. However, in the economic crisis, those in the rights were not scared of bringing in the state as long as the banks would be bailed out. This reality, again, reminded me of the IPE class where we discussed in much detailed the role of state…the space here is not enough to get into those detailed discussion, but one sentence – it is not black and white as the basic knowledge of “right” and “left” tells us. The state, many a times, has been used as a catalyst for capitalism.

The book is very detailed in discussing the personalities of each of the central bankers including their education background, leadership traits, and management styles. In fact, the reason as to why I picked this book among tens of unread books in my shelf is out of my brother’s advice after I was selected to be a member in a certain board. My brother told me, read “The Alchemist” to get idea on how things go in the boardrooms. Indeed, the book has been so instrumental and handy that I cannot explain its invaluable benefit to the insight I’ve gained.

It is getting long now and I don’t know what to say and what not to say. I probably need to get back into proper “academic reviewing of the books” if my readers expect detailed critical review of the content, style, and methodology used in the book. But since this is a reflection (Kyeku doesn’t like academic reviewing anymore because she’s a groupie for creative writing_…I will say one last sentence: it seems like MIT has produced many central bankers…! I then wondered, could it be the reason why Piketty ran away? Mmh…chotto wakaranai! But Piketty is also an alchemist in his own way…

So Kyeku is now dreaming of an alchemist? Will she ever meet one….!

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