Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Boomerang: Book Review

Michael Lewis is a writer you might want to read even if he wrote about something really boring, like baseball statistics - oh wait, he did - and it became a hit movie (Moneyball). He has a magical ability to capture interesting characters at or near the core of interesting economic events, so he is a business writer, after a fashion. His other famous movie, The Blind Side, was also sports oriented (football), but the characters are always at the center of his stories, and that's what makes his tales of Wall Street shenaningans and national bankruptcies winners.

That's true of Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, but the if it were only about some characters caught up in a global calamity, the book would be much less interesting to the analytically inclined (I've seen the movies, but I haven't read those two of his books.)

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way. No response was as peculiar as the Greeks’, however: anyone who had spent even a few days talking to people in charge of the place could see that.

Lewis, Michael (2011-09-28). Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (pp. 42-43). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Lewis ends up in California, our very quintessential disaster tourist destination. His book ends with some philosophical/evolutionary psychological thoughts on our species vulnerability to this kind of disaster:

The succession of financial bubbles, and the amassing of personal and public debt, Whybrow views as simply an expression of the lizard-brained way of life. A color-coded map of American personal indebtedness could be laid on top of the Centers for Disease Control’s color-coded map that illustrates the fantastic rise in rates of obesity across the United States since 1985 without disturbing the general pattern. The boom in trading activity in individual stock portfolios; the spread of legalized gambling; the rise of drug and alcohol addiction; it is all of a piece. Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward. What happens

Lewis, Michael (2011-09-28). Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World (p. 205). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Most of the those countries/States that plunged themselves into ruin have now begun to recuperate. How long the lessons will last is another question.

A good look at Lewis and his work is in New York Magazine here.