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Book Review: Rollback

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Despite compelling arguments, Woods is unlikely to find widespread appeal

Thomas Woods’ latest and most ambitious book, Rollback: Repealing big government before the coming fiscal collapse, has so much going for it: countless jaw-dropping statistics, analytical rigor, timeliness, and a generous helping of sarcasm. However, few people are likely to finish a book as combative, loosely themed, and heavy-going as this one.

In a Monday article, to coincide with Rollback’s release, Woods wrote that an equally fitting title would be “Everything needs to be abolished, and here’s why.” Actually, it would have been a superior title, since it clarifies how drastic he believes the changes need to be if America is to avoid “fiscal collapse.”

Woods is a well credentialed American historian, a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, and an author of 11 books, including New York Times bestsellers. However, refuting virtually all federal programs, explaining the free market perspective on the latest recession, defending libertarian ethics, calling for a change of heart in the American people, and proposing reform strategies – all in one book – is a mammoth task for any man.

Unfazed, Woods quantifies the gravity of the situation with extensive research, equating to 30 pages of endnotes. “The light you see at the end of the tunnel,” he says, “may well be an oncoming train.” In his view, even a strong recovery will not bring Americans out of the fiscal mess, primarily because of ponzi style programs and longer life spans.

On this point, given that federal debt and unfunded liabilities exceed the worth of the entire American economy, there seems little room for debate. All the while, federal “public servants” continue to receive ever higher salaries, almost double the private sector average. Apparently 1,700 Department of Transportation employees are worth more than $170,000 per year, plus lavish benefits. (Click below to hear Peter Schiff, chief executive and global strategist for Euro Pacific Capital Inc., interview Woods on Rollback – 17 minutes.)

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Fortunately, in between the outrageous data, Woods lightens the mood by poking fun at established talking heads and with bizarre stories of collectivism run amok. Swedes going to their veterinarians instead of free-but-unavailable doctors is one of many.

As Woods proceeds in chapter two to crush misperceptions surrounding the latest health care reform and George W. Bush’s expansion of Medicare, he is rolling. One is eager to hear how he proposes that Americans get out of the broader mess.

However, Rollback rapidly loses its readability, and not because of the endless statistics that would make D.C.-dwellers blush. Chapter three, “Government and Economic Crisis: Savior or Perpetrator?” – hmm, let me guess – provides 34 pages on the latest recession and an Austrian school economic account. Then Woods treats his readers to 20 more pages on the Federal Reserve.

Attempts to roll back government may fail without an address of the monetary system, as Woods believes, but this emphasis, already hammered home in the previous chapter, gets out of hand. At this point one wonders what the precise theme is and who his targeted readers are. I mean, who doesn’t love a good business cycle and deflation read on a Sunday afternoon?

Woods’ frequent use of lengthy block quotations also grows tiresome.

Just as concerning as readability is that Rollback grows progressively combative in style, which adds little to the story and is unbecoming of Woods. His repeated critiques of Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist, may be warranted. However, he takes aim at many other people, including Americans in general, whom he frequently dismisses as misinformed and foolish of government.

This negativity overshadows his touching and more important call for Americans to consider how government programs have fostered the decline of charity and gratitude – sad but true – while helpless dependence and a sense of entitlement have risen.

He twice references Laurence Kotlikoff, a Boston University economics professor, including with a block quote, but then sloppily belittles him. Kotlikoff, author of The Coming Generational Storm, does not appreciate being characterized as a Democrat who conceals his proposed reforms.

“Mr. Woods must be on a different planet,” he says. “I’ve written extensively how to fix the fiscal gap problem. And I’m not a registered anything, politically.” He points to his latest book, Jimmy Stewart is Dead, and his Bloomberg columns for policy ideas.

Woods has since retracted his statement and said he will edit it out of further additions, but he did not retreat completely.

“When we do discover what [Kotlikoff’s] four proposals are, we realize that none of them are politically viable, and therefore that his assurances are woefully misplaced.”

As though Woods’ ideas pass based on their political viability. Woods even references Friedrich Hayek, another economics Nobel laureate, to warn against such concerns.

In Rollback, though, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Woods’ analysis of military spending is surprisingly revealing, particularly with his examination of how conservative thinking has shifted over the past decades. He seeks to persuade modern conservatives, delicately, that Department of Defense spending ought to be cut, and audited to start with. And he questions whether we can justify an annual expense of $1 million per soldier by prolonging wars in the Middle East.

The final chapter is teaming with ideas that Woods hopes will gain momentum as the outlook worsens. In doing so, he remains nonpartisan and doesn’t look to the Republican establishment. He accurately describes their “Pledge to America” and its $100 billion proposed cut, compared to unfunded liabilities in the range of $200 trillion, as “like taking three dollars off a trip to the moon.”

“Gingrich and his allies are part of the problem.” That’s the Gingrich who advocates a taxpayer funded lap-top for every American child. (I must have missed that in Article 1, Section 8.) So it seems unlikely that he would end the war on drugs, the Department of Education, the estate tax, repudiate the national debt, or cut defense spending, among other things Woods advocates. Whether any presidential candidate would, and have a chance of winning, remains to be seen.

Woods’ discussion of what individuals and their state representatives can do is concise, illuminating, and worth the wait. In addition to a host of practical steps, from jury nullification to the agorist movement, Rollback provides a stepping stone to additional resources, including Woods’ website and book on state nullification.

Finally, he addresses the moral assumptions of many Americans, most importantly that we owe government officials our allegiance or payment for debts they have generated. If people do get that far, they will find plenty of food for thought.

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy and editor of The Pelican Post. He can be contacted at fhodgson@pelicaninstitute.org, and one can follow him on twitter.

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