Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Not So Prophetable

By Ben Winters

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Squandering Aimlessly: My Adventures in the American Marketplace by David Brancaccio (Simon & Schuster), $25, 285 pages

As the senior editor and host of NPR's popular financial program "Marketplace," David Brancaccio is a non-expert's expert: With a radio background and (as he proudly points out in his bio) "no MBA whatsoever," part of Brancaccio's job is to make sense of finance, high and low, for the untutored hordes who don't know a bull market from a bullfight.

It is not surprising, then, that the inspiration for his rambling journey through America's spendthrift heart comes from lottery winners, the truly nouveau of the nouveau riche. Each chapter is headed by a news blip about some schoolteacher or mechanic who suddenly strikes gold and announces their intentions to the media. From these reports, Brancaccio divines ten distinct things a person could do when suddenly possessing a surplus of cash -- from investment to charity to learning to play an instrument to doing nothing at all -- and follows them up with ten trips all over America.

His "pilgrimage to see what other folks were doing with their money" is definitely more about the people than the money. Though Brancaccio drops in plenty of statistics about profit and loss, options and odds, his book is a diary of the American character as writ in its spending habits, not of the American economy. He introduces us to a conference of tofu-eating "groovies" at a conference of socially responsible investors in Wyoming, to a klatch of card sharps in Vegas, to an old high-school chum making a mint in Silicon Valley.

Alas, to invest ourselves (so to speak) in the supporting characters in a book of traveling observations, we must first care about the guy behind the wheel, and Brancaccio's persona is not a particularly engaging one. A book so unfocused -- for really, there is nothing to belie the aimlessness of the title beyond a vaguely defined quest for self-enrichment, literal and figurative -- requires rich veins of humor and/or a series of profound insights to keep a reader satisfied, and "Squandering Aimlessly" exhibits frustratingly little of either.

The jokes are too often labored, as when he finds a wedding chapel in the Mall of America, and awkwardly remarks that "I'm already married and Minnesota happens to be one of the states where bigamy is frowned on." The lessons Brancaccio learns are along the lines of "try to keep my money out of situations... where any profit is a fluke and over time it is highly probably that I will lose." A-ha. Try also to not buy bridges in Brooklyn, nor to chop it up and use it to garnish a taco.

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