Peter G. Peterson has spent most of his life trying to guide economic policy, with a level of access to power that most citizens will never achieve. For the most part, by his own admission, he has been ignored. With Running on Empty, in a startling gesture of faith, he turns that mission back to the American public. He also offers more than a gleam of hope and an action-ready plan for success in a book that accomplishes two incredible feats for a treatise on social and economic policy.
First, it is remarkably non-partisan. While Peterson admits to being an old-school fiscally conservative Republican, he never excuses his partyís faults or inconsistencies. He spends a chapter discussing the fiscal sins of each major party, and while his discussion of Democratic failings is surprising in both focus and fairness, his critique of Republican policies is far more detailed and knowledgeable, and made more piercing by a sense of innocent disillusionment that has surely affected many old school Republicans watching the direction of their party.
When discussing policy actions or political guidelines he disagrees with, Peterson goes out of his way to acknowledge vital points. This fairness encourages the same open-minded reading of his ideas. While readers may not agree with every one of suggestions, they will find none of them ungrounded or poorly thought-out. It helps that Peterson is no party-line extremist. He supports the idea of a basic social safety net and offers frequent support for more means-based social aid - even a widespread healthcare reform. This never stops him from pointing out flawed entitlement programs, but it means that when he does criticize those he disagrees with, it canít be dismissed as party-line bickering or the moaning of a disgruntled official.
His second achievement is perhaps even more remarkable. With approachable language and an historical narrative approach to the story of American financial policy, Peterson has managed to make a book about economics not only readable, but riveting. Structured almost like a mystery novel, Running on Empty makes deficits, savings and social policy sound as dramatic and life-changing as they in fact are. In the first chapters, we find the crime -- the creation of a staggering deficit; are introduced to the suspects -ó leaders and policy makers of both major parties -ó and are treated to viscerally thrilling scenes of the carnage this crime will wreak. As the tale unfolds, the suspects are examined, the methods and motives explained, and finally sentence is passed. Part of the appeal is from the accessibility of his prose. Petersonís intended audience is directed not at existing policy makers and economic think tanks, but towards the average citizen, especially the under-thirty crowd. Readers with little or no knowledge of economic terms, like myself, will nonetheless be able to understand them through context. When context will not suffice, Peterson takes the time to explain the necessary background. While he never assumes readers to share his specialized knowledge, he does assume a reader capable of understanding context and basic explanations, and the resulting quick and dirty guide to economics makes the book worth the purchase price as a textbook alone.
Running on Empty is an excellent guide, and not just because Petersonís suggested economic reforms are appealing and well-argued. What makes the book truly useful is that it offers the information readers need to come up with their own plans, and to support or criticize Americaís economic policies from a position of informed strength, rather than follow along and grimly hope for the best. Entertaining, informative and empowering, Running on Empty is more than an introduction to economics, or even a political text; itís a tool for the future, one that should find use in every American household.