White, a conservative Democrat who served as U.S. deputy secretary of energy in the Clinton administration and as mayor of Houston from 2004 to 2010, has written an unusual and important book that grounds its discussion of the United States’ contemporary budget woes in a history of American fiscal policy. He demonstrates how, until very recently, a common set of ideas about why and when the federal government should go into debt kept Washington’s fiscal house in order. It is a convincing analysis, although it is not always clear that the elements of the American “fiscal constitution” are quite as coherent or consistent as White depicts them to be. White argues for a set of reforms that he believes could win public support and restore the country’s tradition of financial prudence. He is no starry-eyed optimist and recognizes the serious political obstacles to his program. But he argues that because the reforms he supports aim to revitalize a fiscal tradition that has deep roots in American culture and history, the public can be brought around to support the sometimes painful choices they would require.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.