Michael Lewis’ newest book, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World is a wonderful book, probably his best to date, and is a thoroughly enjoyable read and is full of some of the best descriptive sociology a reporter can do and still it isn’t quite right. Even though it is mostly as right as it can be. I heartily recommend the book and am disappointed by it too. Not the usual reaction to any book, whether it is one you liked or disliked. Which in a way is a recommendation for it, a unique one.
Michael Lewis wrote an excellent earlier book, The Big Short, about the American financial breakdown and how a very few astute people in the financial services industry saw it coming and made large, very large, fortunes betting on it happening when it did. This book is stories of financial shenanigans that he turned up along the way to that book that didn’t fit in between its covers. Four stories, five maybe, of Iceland and its bust, Ireland and its bust, Germany and the proper German bankers who went bust, and the United States’ bust, the California chapter, what the bust was there. All are very readable accounts that cover the important causal factors that led to their busts. More, Lewis goes visiting and tells us, as voyagers to distant lands do, of what the people there in those far parts are like and why their national characteristics, both of the people and their society and nations, contributed to the busts.
Lewis does a very good job, near as I can tell from what I’ve read so far, of describing Iceland and its problems, and does better than any other writer by pointing out wartier aspects of the society, mostly involving endemic male macho dumbassitude, that nobody much else has seen fit to comment on. Lewis hypothesizes that Iceland’s future is going to be found by putting the women in charge; certainly that’s how the women there think. Maybe it’ll happen; let’s see, that’d certainly be interesting to watch. Ireland’s story is also told well; readers who want more details should go off to Fintan O’Toole’s excellent, and ignored and neglected this side of the Atlantic, book Ship of Fools. Fintan O’Toole gives a better societal fix-it blueprint than Lewis does, at least on the governmental/social institutions side. But Lewis’ pointing out the closed-in-edness of the Irish people, compared to most everyone else, which probably is an unavoidable result of their shitty climate (comparable to Seattle, Portland, or Juneau’s), is likely to be a problem with no solution. One of those observations that generally comes from an astute outsider, that, and this book doesn’t lack for them in its descriptions of foreigners. But sadly it just isn’t as good with those insights into America and Americans. And the aggravating part of that is that Lewis is on the right track with his observations about us but just doesn’t quite put it all together. This near-miss of his is most frustrating.
It is a tough call as to which big idea big emotion issue journalism botches worse, war or money. Particularly nowadays, with two and a half failed wars coincident with, and a direct cause of, even if we aren’t supposed to say that, with the biggest economic crisis since the Depression. Anybody militarily knowledgeable winces daily at all the idiotic Hollywood cliches and cheerleading for our glorious armed forces news coverage of our current wars. The frightening part of it all is how much of political debate on the war never strays from this framework of ignorance and cliche. Economics reportage is the same hodgepodge of cliches and cheerleading. For all that, I venture that money and the money issues is covered worse than war is. And for the same reasons mostly, of unprincipled dishonest people in power with an agenda who are trying to put one past you are putting out the news coverage, for their benefit, at your expense. In their defense, reporters themselves basically never have a chance at a decent education in either field and therefore are handicapped badly in evaluating the truth or falsehood of what they are told. Assuming that they are smart enough to get past the cliches in the first place. Hell I’ll grant them some leeway for that–if there are five universities in all the US that have a military history program I’d be surprised. Economics departments are in every university, but mostly as an adjunct of B-school, and the folks there all believe their own PR, which is always dangerous.
I know a lot about war but a whole lot less about the money issues, and that makes it a lot harder for me to write something intelligent and worthwhile about money as compared to war. But I do know enough to realize that monetary issues are fundamentally sociological issues about us as people, us as a people. That is one basic fact truth of economics that doesn’t get any play anywhere, in journalism, or in academia. Economics isn’t any sort of objective science, no more than psychology, anthropology, sociology, or any of the other -ologies. Economics is a collection of ideas we have and use to explain our external world and organize our society and has no more a basis in science than, say, Freudian psychology does. We all know by now that Freud is mostly a crock, however nevertheless the power and grab of his ideas in our subconscious have shaped us and our lives for generations now, and likely will continue to do so even as they finally manage to get totally and absolutely refuted by future scientific researchers. Same is mostly true about economics ideas, ideas that have an even more powerful hold over our minds and worldview. Lots of the commonest economics ideas in common circulation in these parts have been mostly refuted by such scientific research that the economics profession is capable of. But that doesn’t matter; they are still out there doing their thing to people’s brains. There are just so many of these dead and dead wrong ideas that are so overdue for their graves and there is no sign that they ever will be and even if they are they aren’t likely to stay there. Hell, that obnoxious phony Ayn Rand* will keep drawing ill-read unformed 19 year olds for generations yet to come. Such is the power of economics ideas. Economics ideas deserve comparison to religion in their power over our behaviors, how they affect the choices we make in our lives, how they mostly are inherited from parents, and from the generally accepted culture at large, how deeply they are held, how they mostly are immune to evidence based argument or reason. The economics profession doesn’t like to look at themselves like this, and social scientists haven’t had snap enough to realize what a useful tool of sociological inquiry people’s economics beliefs are. Lewis does in this book, perhaps mostly inadvertently, and it is to his great credit and our fine benefit that he does.
There’s plenty of good sociological insights Lewis gives us about foreign countries with his fine use of the economics lens. More of concern for us here are the big sociological insight into us here in America that Lewis investigates. Lewis argues, correctly in my estimation, that the core of America’s economic problems is our having lived beyond our means for the last couple of decades. We’ve been doing so increasingly so the past decade or so. That isn’t entirely news to some of us; Emmanual Todd, the first person to predict (in his 1976 book, when he was all of 24 years old) the impending collapse and fall of the Soviet Union, came out with a book on the US in 2001 wherein he applied the same demographical analysis to the US that he applied to the USSR in 1976. Book got ignored here except when it got ridiculed. Todd argued that the US was living beyond its means and required a 15% reduction in its standard of living to live within its means. And duh, the huge amount of debt, individual and governmental, says loud and clear many of us as individuals, and a fair chunk of our sociopolitical entities are too. Lewis’ explanation for our doing this is that it comes from our individual and collective sense of self-indulgence and sense of entitlement. No argument there; just look at all the fat people wandering around nowadays. God-damn but the ’90’s are going to go down in history as the decade one third of everybody got fat. And they all got fat from eating too much sugary and fatty indulgence foods and being too lazy to exercise seriously. Our economic ideology, our economic policy choices have to reflect these same ideas of indulgence and physical laziness.**
Self-indulgence, sense of entitlement, lack of discipline, an unwillingness to sacrifice now for the future, all good, sadly accurate, observations about us. But Lewis doesn’t touch the why. Why has the US become afflicted with these ailments across the entire of the socioeconomic spectrum? Why now these afflictions? And what could cure them? Lewis regrettably gives us no answers. And I wish he would have. We’d all be better off for it.
But a big part of me isn’t satisfied with self-indulgence as the answer. One of those little voices in the back of my head is telling me that there is more, there is something else, something out in the open that we’ve all lived with so long that we just don’t see it any more. Maybe I’m wrong thinking this, but I’ve learned along the way to pay heed to those little voices; most of us have I think. This is where Lewis really fails us, and this is the source of my great disquiet with this book. What else is it with us and our society that has us in our current straits? Lewis, regrettably, lacks whatever it is, and I’d start with the useful perspective of the outsider, to see whatever that is, and that’s too bad. We need a foreign Lewis, a new de Toqueville to point it out to us. I wish to hell one would.***
*Ayn Rand was inarguably a full-blown nutcase whose continuing attraction to youth mostly hasn’t yet been adequately investigated. She spent her lifetime denouncing persons who took social security or other welfare payments as sniveling weaklings of some lesser sort than her and her ilk. She also, while on the college lecture circuit in the ’60’s, made a big show of lighting up a cigarette on stage, with a big flourish, and announcing that her doing so was another brave blow of hers against the enfeebling nanny-staters who were telling us that smoking was bad. She was exercising her free will by smoking, and telling them all what for, you know, by lighting up. When she was later dying of lung cancer, she was facing staggering medical bills for her cancer treatment. She availed herself fully and freely of Medicaid and Medicare, after denouncing them for decades. Cancer still killed her shortly enough, hundreds of thousands of doctor dollars later. Lung cancer always does; there just aren’t good treatments for it then or now. I need to check out the new biographies of her to find out if she just didn’t have the money for the doctor bills because of bad financial management on her part or if she just didn’t want to spend them because her nutty organization needed them more than the doctors did.
**How our broken political system is supposed to manage such a task, one heretofore never attempted, and one that goes as hard as possible against the American grain, is maybe the biggest political question of the next decade. Or three.
***Insofar as I have any idea as to what it is, I think it has to do somehow with anomie. I’ve always maintained that anomie is at the heart of most American’s lives and at the core of our society. Anomie and self-indulgence is a strange combination; not a good one I don’t think. There are other disturbing flashes I see that I can’t fit into a coherent picture, and the biggest of them is our infatuation with zombies and vampires. That has to show some sort of infatuation with death, and that’s bad.