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11 December 2023

Forecasting the fallout

As the US downturn deepens, a handful of books look at the financial implosion. (REUTERS)

By Tom Hals

Does the current global crisis set the stage for a future marked by cramped and violent American cities or a vibrant democracy enriched by mass transit powered by renewable energy?

As the US downturn deepens, a handful of books autopsy the financial implosion, assign blame and chart the needed reforms or potential consequences.

Michael Panzner serves up pessimism and doom in When Giants Fall.

Financial catastrophe will undermine the United States' economic and military power, he writes. Competing nations such as China and India will rush to fill the vacuum and the scramble for influence will undermine the current global economic structure. Trading groups such as the North American Free-Trade Agreement will collapse and tensions will erupt over resources.

The book follows Panzner's Financial Armageddon, in which he warned, before most Americans ever heard the word sub-prime, that the country's reliance on debt and derivatives would bring ruin and stagnation.

Giants promises that those sufficiently prepared can prosper amid the rubble. However, the 25-year veteran of Wall Street sounds a bit like a survivalist as he offers advice for identifying cities with adequate food and energy supplies rather than investment funds that will grow a nest egg. Of course, that's his point.

In The Gods that Failed, two journalists sift through the changes to the financial, labour and trading structures since World War Two and trace the flow of power from individuals to what they call the New Olympians.

Larry Elliot, the economics editor of the Guardian, in the UK and Dan Atkinson, at The Mail on Sunday, argue that the current crisis will clear the way for what they call the New Populism.

This coalition of middle class professionals, unionised workers, independent farmers and the vast array of workers threatened by outsourcing will unite to fight to replace the pursuit of "shareholder value" with fairness and decency, they argue.

William Greider, strikes similar themes in Come Home, America. While the book also covers US war efforts and the military threat from China and Russia, Greider's arguments about the failings of globalisation echo those of Elliot and Atkinson.

He floats relatively radical proposals such as withdrawing from international trade agreements and capping the trade deficit.

The author describes what he calls the "underground river" of popular revolt could burst to the surface at any point, as it did during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Greider argues that these unseen currents have the potential to rip the US two-party system and reclaim the economy and politics for the benefit of the masses.

As the United States implements a $787 billion (Dh2.8 trillion) stimulus plan, Felix Rohatyn takes readers through a brief history of public works projects and their benefits in his new book Bold Endeavors.

Rohatyn, best known as the investment banker who helped save New York City from bankruptcy in the 1970s, tells the story of 10 of the largest US public investments, from the Louisiana Purchase to the interstate highway system.

He focuses on the work of the exceptional individuals who doggedly overcame widespread opposition to pursue projects whose benefits are now taken for granted. Rohatyn briefly argues for a National Infrastructure Bank, as a way to coordinate and finance projects such as expanding airports and improving public transit, while weeding out wasteful "bridges to nowhere".