Postcards From Europe, Hastily Scrawled

Postcards From Europe, Hastily Scrawled

Michael Lewis’s new book Boomerang is a short collection of Vanity Fair essays in which the author tours Europe to see how Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany got into such a financial mess. His central thesis is that cheap credit offered “entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge.” In each essay Lewis sets up stereotypes of national character, and blames these straw men for the whole thing.

The subtitle of the international version of the book is “The Meltdown Tour.” Lewis acts as tour guide, showing us some ruins, dramatizing the fall with anecdotes, spouting historical hyperbole, and stitching it together with stereotypes. The book is enjoyable when the sheer ineptitude of the powerful is drawn out—like Greece's monks and Iceland’s megalomaniac finance-rookies who made so many bad decisions. Rather than appreciating these unique characters, and by extension the differences in each country’s situation, Lewis instead seems to place the most blame on a stereotypical view of national character.

Lewis call Iceland’s Central Bank “the ground zero of the global calamity”—just the start of the book’s hyperbole. Iceland suffered tragedy that affected the world, but Iceland hasn’t burnt to the ground, just its banks made of paper money, and the globe will be fine. When Lewis says “politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French,” it’s not made so clear that a third of the population of Ireland understand some Gaelic; instead he supposes that Irish people have a desire to be less Irish. The chapter on Germany suggests the country’s love/hate relationship with shit/cleanliness to be a serious way to understand their economic management. Finally, the idea that Greece is “a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves” may be true, but someone other than Greece opened the cheap-credit hose, but this is discussed little.

Instead, Lewis casually mentions that Bear Stearns hedge fund managers convened at an Icelandic hotel at the height of the crisis to work out how to best profit from the predicted collapse. The next chapter notes that Goldman Sachs profited to the tune of $300 million from telling the Greek government how to hide money, but skips over their role. Lewis seems surprised German bureaucrats stayed to fight for their country, rather than going to Goldman Sachs to cash out. Merrill Lynch’s role in inflating and hiding the Irish bubble is explored a bit, but Merrill Lynch receives little scorn in the final judgment. When Lewis finally gets to root causes, it’s more hyperbole; he suggests recent years to have been an era when “capitalists went out of their way to destroy capitalism.” Only, capitalism’s status in the world has hardly been bruised, let alone questioned.

In the preface Lewis introduces Kyle Bass, a hedge fund manager from Texas who in 2008 bet on financial crises in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain. Lewis notes that Bass made “sweeping statements about the future of countries he’d hardly set foot in.” The subtitle to Boomerang is “Travels in the New Third World,” a sweeping statement about the future of countries Lewis hardly set foot in.

Lewis says that because Ireland is the world’s third most likely country to default, it is “distinctively third world.” Lewis’ world seems to be one in which a country’s geopolitical status is determined not by its level of social, political, and economic development, but by risk to traders—as if credit ratings were the ultimate arbiter of national standing and characters. Lewis quotes an IMF official who likens the failed Greek bureaucracy to a third world bureaucracy, but nothing Lewis says comes close to proving Europe is anywhere approaching third world status. Nor does he leave a lasting impression of what damage, post-boom, the boomerang did when it returned.

For balance an essay on California is thrown in at the end, and it’s more enjoyable than the rest, particularly the section about how we can blame our lizard brains for making us so materialistic. Perhaps I like that essay because, living in Europe, California’s financial crisis is distant to me, or maybe Lewis is better on the topic of California because, living in Berkeley, the state’s financial mismanagement hits closer to home. Maybe it’s the emotional distance to Europe’s woes that makes Lewis’ essay so popular in the U.S., or maybe they are popular because he doesn’t explain what suffering Europe is being forced to endure at such depth. It’s not so much fun to read and laugh about characters suffering the effects of austerity, but that’s the legacy of these financial crises that matters.

Reading them in Vanity Fair, the essays were quick and fun. But reading them more closely in book form, most come across as shallow, like they were quickly scrawled on the back of postcards—with caricatures of Irish, Greek, German, and Icelandic people performing on the front.


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith

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