Barry Eichengreen, UC Berkeley professor, is up for a 2012 Northern California Book Award

By Karen Laws

“It’s important not to forget what happened in 2008 and remain angry,” says Barry Eichengreen, professor of economics and political science at UC Berkeley.

One of ten East Bay authors who will be honored at the Northern California Book Awards ceremony in San Francisco next month, Eichengreen has written and edited many scholarly books geared to specialists in his field. But the recent economic crisis left him feeling obliged to offer an explanation to people at large, rather than just his colleagues in academia. The result was Exorbitant Privilege: The Rise and Fall of the Dollar and the Future of the International Monetary System, which the Financial Times calls, “A rare combination of macroeconomic mastery, historical erudition, good political instincts and the sort of stubborn common sense that is constantly placing familiar problems in a new light.”

Could the book have been written somewhere else besides Berkeley?

Professor Eichengreen thinks not. “Being surrounded by chefs and artists and poets inspired me to reach out with my own area of expertise,” he said in a telephone interview. Moreover, the Cal Economics Department is unique among university economics departments in its strong historical focus, an approach that’s close to Eichengreen’s heart.

In Exorbitant Privilege, Eichengreen starts with wampum and proceeds to remind us that the U.S. dollar has risen to its dominant position globally only within the last two generations. Siding with those who think regulation is necessary to rein in banks, he lucidly explains how U.S. monetary policy “fanned the flames” of the global housing crisis. Now that toxic financial instruments rank among America’s most well known exports— and with the euro facing the challenges of a currency without a country — the Chinese renminbi may soon inherit the dollar’s privileged status.

The latest stats from the Federal Reserve Board are available on line, but Eichengreen relies on Cal’s libraries for older sources. At the Environmental Design Library he’s been looking into the real-estate bubble—in 1920s America—and investigating the origins of Coral Gables, a sub-development in Florida.

A Berkeley native, Eichengreen grew up in Kensington. He moved away for fifteen years before returning to teach at Cal. He’s aware of the distance between him and the financial centers he writes about in his books, especially when, “I wake up and find the European markets have been open for eight hours.” But Eichengreen sees advantages to not sitting in meetings with Wall Street types and values the “larger picture” he gets here in Berkeley. In accordance with the laws of supply and demand, he plans to stay home for the summer.

“Summer is best, you can park.”

The Northern California Book Awards have been presented annually since 1981. Exorbitant Privilege is one of five finalists in the Nonfiction category. The nine East Bay authors who will be honored this year are: Barry Eichengreen, Adam Hochschild, Sandra Gilbert, Andrea Lingenfelter, Mary Mackey, Edie Meidav, David Meltzer, Michael Pollan (Fred Cody Award Winner), Amy Reed, and Katherine Silver.

The authors will appear at the Northern California Book Awards Ceremony, Book Signing, and Reception 1:00-4:00 pm, Sunday June 10 at San Francisco Main Library Koret Auditorium, 100 Larkin Street. Sedge Thomson from “West Coast Live” will emcee, and it’s all free to the public.

The Northern California Book Awards are presented by Northern California Book Reviewers, Poetry Flash, Center for the Art of Translation, Red Room, PEN West, Mechanics’ Institute, San Francisco Public Library, Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, and Readers Bookstore at the Main. For more information visit Poetryflash.Look here for a complete list of nominees.

Berkeleyside is spotlighting one of the writers who is nominated for an award every week until the June 10 Awards Ceremony.

Accolades for Edie Meidav and other East Bay authors [05.17.12]

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