Tuesday, February 7, 2012
100 Books #12 - Michael Lewis' BOOMERANG: TRAVELS IN THE NEW THIRD WORLD
My name is Kate Sherrod, and I have a problem.
I seem to be unable to resist indulging in my bad, unhealthy, depressing habit of snagging every remotely interesting-sounding book about the current financial crisis that I see. And reading them quickly, even though, at this point, I'm pretty sure I've read every perspective on it available, if not every one imaginable.
But then, see, there's always something new to be found. And this book is a great example -- even though I had previously read early versions of two of the chapters when they were articles in Vanity Fair.
For what Michael Lewis has done here is visit two of the "PIG" countries* to try to get a grip on what happened there, and continues to happen, as well as making stops in Iceland (they of the brand-new high-flying bankers-who-should-have-stayed-fishermen and also of ordinary citizens who have flat-out refused to bail those bankers out), Germany and California**.
It was the German chapter that I found most eye-opening, despite the fact that Lewis spends a lot of it amused at watching his interpreter-driver come to grips with a book purporting to expose Germany's natural character (as, esentially a bunch of badly closeted fecophiliacs, obsessed with dirt but preferring to appear otherwise, to appear spotlessly sterile and clean; clean on the outside, dirty on the inside). For as many books as I have read on this subject, I had never thought to ask why Deutchebank and other German banks were so willing to participate in the sub-prime mortgage debacle that the American investment banks cooked up. I was too fixated on the greed and suicidal stupidity of the Americans to concern myself with the apparent cluelessness of the Germans.
But Lewis wasn't -- which is why he's a bigtime financial writer and I'm a doofus poet living on Mars -- and he wanted to know why the German bankers had acted so witlessly in the years heading up to the crisis. And what he found had a lot to do with that whole national character thing - dirty on the inside, clean on the outside. Since the USA's banking sector appeared to be well-regulated, to have serious rules, then why wouldn't its financial products be as good as the American bankers said they were? The forms were being obeyed to the letter, after all.
So yes, while the Greeks were busy not paying taxes and being woefully un-civic minded and the Irish were busy selling Irish real estate to each other and the Icelanders were busy doing something other than fishing for once, the Germans were willfully not looking for the evil little man behind the curtain. And California, well, California, as I observe in my second footnote, needs a whole 'nother book maybe.***
So yes, I have a problem, but with books like this still out there for me to enjoy and learn from, it's not a problem I'm much interested in solving at present. Which makes me just like everybody else.
*PIG now being the financial dude acronym for the quickly sinking/defaulting nations of Portugal, Ireland and Greece.
**His hillbombing mountain biking interview with former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger alone is probably worth the price of the book, guys, and would probably make an awesome book with more material. Apparently, someone else already wrote it and yes, a sample of California Crackup is already on my Kindle. Did I mention that I have a problem?
***Though a Cadillac Desert comparison does come to mind. Just as the Colorado river is now way over-allocated and doesn't make it to the ocean anymore because the original allocations were made in a record flood year, so too California's budget; everyone (by which I mean state employees and retirees) got used to what they were getting in fat years and refused to give it up in lean until boom! California is completely dysfunctional and heading for ruin.