Boomerang by Michael Lewis
I lent this book before I had a chance to note my favourite excerpts…
The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2008 was more than a simple financial phenomenon: it was temptation, offering entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.
Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers. The Greeks wanted to turn their country into a piñata stuffed with cash and allow as many citizens as possible to take a whack at it. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish.
Michael Lewis’s investigation of bubbles beyond our shores is so brilliantly, sadly hilarious that it leads the American reader to a comfortable complacency: oh, those foolish foreigners. But when he turns a merciless eye on California and Washington, DC, we see that the narrative is a trap baited with humor, and we understand the reckoning that awaits the greatest and greediest of debtor nations.
To get a flavor for the book and Lewis’ writing style, here are some of Lewis’ passages, in his own words:
Iceland: “Iceland instantly became the only nation on earth that Americans could point to and say, `Well, at least we didn’t do that!'”
Greece: “As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was to turn their government into a pinata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it.”
Ireland: “But while the Icelandic male used foreign money to conquer foreign places–trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia–the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do was buy Ireland. From each other.”
Germany: “Either Germans must agree to integrate Europe fiscally, so that Germany and Greece bear the same relationship to each other as, say, Indiana and Mississippi (the tax dollars of ordinary Germans would go into a common coffer and be used to pay for the lifestyles of ordinary Greeks) or the Greeks (and probably, eventually, every non-German) must introduce `structural reforms,’ a euphemism for magically and radically transforming themselves into a people as efficient and productive as the Germans.”
Quoting Lewis quote UCLA neuroscientist Peter Whybrow in the book’s last chapter (on California’s financial problems, not European countries), Lewis writes, “‘Human beings are wandering around with brains that are fabulously limited. We’ve got the core of the average lizard.’ Wrapped around this reptilian core is a mammalian layer (associated with maternal concern and social interaction), and around that is wrapped a third layer, which enables feats of memory and the capacity for abstract thought. ‘The only problem is our passions are still driven by the lizard core.’ Even a person on a diet who sensibly avoids coming face-to-face with a piece of chocolate cake will find it hard to control himself if the chocolate cake somehow finds him. Every pastry chef in America understands this, and now nueroscience does, too. ‘In that moment the value of eating the chocolate cake exceeds the value of the diet. We cannot think down the road when we are faced with the chocolate cake.’ … Everywhere you turn you see Americans sacrifice their long-term interests for a short-term reward.”