**spoiler alert** For readers who aren't already aware, I've spent much of the last five years of my life in and around finance. About two thirds of t**spoiler alert** For readers who aren't already aware, I've spent much of the last five years of my life in and around finance. About two thirds of that time, I've been working IT for a very niche subset of the industry: high frequency trading (the other third was spent in a market data vendor).
In spite of the implications certain people have attempted to instill, computerized trading had absolutely nothing to do with the financial crisis of 2008. The products behind that disaster were entirely over the counter---there's no trading floor for mortgage backed securities or credit default swaps. Even today, four years later, you still have a tough time getting an electronic quote for some of these products, and it's not unreasonable to say that trading a lot of these products still requires you pick up a phone and call someone.
While HFT's non-involvement in the crisis may be a boon to my own reputation, it also means that I don't have any special knowledge about what led to the meltdown and where things are now---in spite of what family and friends outside the financial industry may assume.
For that, I'm forced to turn to fellow outsiders who (unlike myself) have actually looked into the situation, and the only ones who seem to have done any research at all are Matt Taibbi and Michael Lewis.
That said, Lewis' Boomerang is not so much about the crisis itself as the consequences of the solutions which governments came up with. Specifically, the consequences to Iceland, Greece, and Ireland.
In the case of Iceland, Lewis focuses on the absolute implosion of the Icelandic financial system, particularly how the entire banking industry collapsed and was bailed out by the Icelandic government. Of course, the bailout of a bank is, essentially, the bailout of it's creditors and depositors, who in the case of Iceland were overwhelmingly foreigners.
What that means, in real terms, is that the Icelandic taxpayer were forced to pick up the tab for non-Icelanders who invested money in Icelandic banks. Unfortunately, a discussion of the causes of this is where Lewis comes off the rails a bit, blaming Icelandic men, their macho culture, and a widespread belief in faeries for the collapse.
I can't disagree that I would be skeptical of investing money in a country where construction companies have to verify there are no "little people" living on the land, but the actions of the engineers of the Icelandic financial system was the primary reason for it's collapse. But to say that the men who joined the banking system later on were at fault is to give the men who's job it was to keep their subordinates in check a pass. Blaming cultural factors is equally fatuous, no matter how rudely the guy who body-checked Lewis on the plane behaved.
From there, Lewis flies on to Greece, to explore the second-largest threat to the global economy. In the case of Greece, it appears as though the proximate cause of the collapse---and the danger to the Euro, and therefore the world economy---is predicated on the arrival of an honest man. Specifically, the rampant corruption, tax cheating, and simple lack of accounting by the government is brought to light when the new government takes over in 2009.
Unfortunately Lewis continues to try and divine some hidden cultural factor responsible for the collapse of the Greek economy, rather than the specific incidents. To put it another way, there are actual individuals responsible for the state of the Greek economy. It wasn't (just) a few corrupt priests and blackmailed officials. It wasn't a "cultural thing." There are people, with names, who put the Greek IRS on leave during election years. There are others who fire agents who prosecute tax cheats. There are still more who understated the Greek budget deficit by a factor of five.
From there, it's on to the Irish, who Lewis concludes were only truly interested in buying as much stuff from other Irishpersons as possible, eventually driven to third-world status by the staggering public incompetence of their banking regulators and politicians. Then it's on to the Germans, where a supposed cultural obsession with feces is responsible for the desire to remain publicly "clean" of the bond insanity which swept the world in the 2000s while secretly "getting dirty" by enabling the rest of the world to make all of these loans.
Finally, the book comes back to the U.S., where it reviews the places in America which have become "the new third-world", particularly towns in California forced to shut down due to (in Lewis' view) the unreasonable pension funds of their government employees.
Ultimately, this modern morality tale attempts to weave a common narrative, by describing the early 2000s as the time "when nations were let into the dark room with all the money." National character, in Lewis' view, is what defines their actions.
While the book is entertaining and a light read---just enough to comfortably knock out during the flight from Chicago (futures) to New York (equities)---it didn't really go deep enough into why things are the way they are. More importantly, it's structure glosses the most obvious failing behind the financial crisis even while condemning it: the idea that if we're all to blame, nobody is....more
* The Kennedy administration's organizational incompetence led to the assassination of Diem, which destroyed any claim to legitimacy which the South Vietnamese government had (more on that later). * Johnson's decision to maintain that organizational incompetence prevented him from receiving military advice. * McNamara's arrogance prevented him from accepting the expertise and advice of the military in favor of what is now easily recognizable as a pseudo-science calling itself "analysis." * McNamara's self-serving, paranoiac approach to running the Department of Defense prevented military advice from bypassing him (even though it was required to do so by law). * Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Maxwell Taylor chose loyalty to McNamara and Johnson over his legal duty to present them with advice which conflicted with their opinions. * Taylor further used his position as Chairman to obstruct the Joint Chiefs from effectively presenting that advice. * The Joint Chiefs allowed themselves to be duped, bribed, or otherwise cajoled by the administration. * The Joint Chiefs lied to Congress about their own analyses when questioned about it. * The Joint Chiefs were incapable of putting aside their own rivalries in order to plan for a war in Vietnam. * As a result, no one properly considered whether the Vietnam War would have been worth it.
Generally, I agree with much of this, though there are complimentary analyses by others which cover some of this.
Most fundamentally, Chomsky is right to point out that the war was predicated on propping up an illegal government in the first place. The Geneva Accords, which partitioned French Indochina into North and South Vietnam also included the provision that Vietnam-wide election in 1956 to re-unify the country. After taking power in the obviously fraudulent 1955 plebiscite (for example, he won Saigon with 133% of the vote), Diem simply canceled South Vietnam's participation in those elections.
Further, while it is simply a fact that Ho Chi Minh was a communist, and as early as 1946, the communist government he led began to conduct itself as a one-party state, with the usual attending horrors, it is also a fact that the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence was closely modeled on the American Declaration, and Minh had repeatedly requested recognition of his regime by the Truman administration---no doubt at least partially inspired by the support which his anti-Japanese resistance army was given by the OSS, the precursor to the CIA.
Had less ideologically anticommunist (or even more creative) minds been available, the "enemy" status of the communist government (and/or it's alignment with the USSR) might well have been bypassed altogether, negating the need for a "State of Vietnam," and therefore the war itself.
That didn't happen, of course, which left the non-communist government of South Vietnam in the hands of Diem, who (by the account of the U.S., at least) would have won the election anyways, albeit by a much smaller margin. Once he was assassinated in a military coup which appears to have been fomented as a result of a mis-communication between U.S. Ambassador Lodge and President Kennedy, any of the already marginal claims to legitimacy in South Vietnam were killed with him. Indeed, South Vietnam suffered a succession of coups that lasted throughout at least 1965.
Elsewhere in the book, the description of McNamara's "leadership" style is (unfortunately for me), completely familiar. In particular, C-level executives who feel it necessary to "channelize" information flow from more experienced subordinates to those responsible for cutting the checks (in small companies) or middle managers who do the same (in large companies) are a persistent source of both frustration for subordinates and failure for the organization. What's worse, the cause is easily discernible: the manager has risen above their comfort/competence level---they are incapable of anticipatory action---and they are attempting to conceal this fact.
McMaster alludes briefly to Johnson's own feelings upon taking office after Kennedy's assassination, and I'm comfortable putting his actions into the same category.
In terms of the Joint Chiefs, they are portrayed (correctly, in my view) as weak, parochial, and unable to move their bureaucracy fast enough to satisfy Johnson's desire for rapid decision-making. They all had come to the conclusion that well over a half-million soldiers would be required to maintain the ultimately artificial creation of colonial France otherwise known as South Vietnam as an independent country, and never seemed to quite get around to telling the President that forcefully enough to make him listen. Hence the charge that they were all in dereliction of duty for not doing so.
It is also worth pointing out another difficulty with this book: while McNamara was obviously wrong in his view that ongoing insurgency against the government of South Vietnam could be treated in the same manner as the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his view the Joint Chiefs were incapable of providing sane guidance, it only briefly glances across the crisis itself and why that view was allowed to foster.
Assuming the facts provided about the Bay of Pigs are correct (the CIA told Kennedy that the invasion was already green-lit by Eisenhower, Kennedy didn't seriously review the proposal before signing off on it, and refused to support the invasion once it was underway), the Joint Chiefs' proposals frustrations, while mostly justified, could not help but prevent them from being given adequate access going forward.
Further, their planning surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis---effectively, using it as a pre-text to allow regime change in Cuba---was the path to a nuclear war, and the tight control over the military exercised during the crisis was probably necessary to ensure war did not break out. In those cases, the Joint Chief's poor reputation was earned, and my own opinion is that McMaster did not do enough to illustrate it.
In situation where one is attempting to avoid a war, the opinions offered by the military are inherently less valuable than those by diplomats. Tight control of the military in order to threaten the opposite side without actually starting a war is justified, and the use of a crisis in peacetime to escalate an essentially diplomatic confrontation with military overtones into a full-scale invasion against a potentially nuclear-armed opponent is, in fact, nuts.
That said, once people are shooting at each other, all of those requirements are hindrances, which is the primary complaint against the way the civilian leadership conducted itself during the early days of the war. In turn, this turned a political problem in a third-world country into a generational nightmare for a superpower....more