Aaron's Reviews > Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Boomerang by Michael Lewis
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May 06, 12

Read from April 20 to May 06, 2012

After The Big Short, this is a weird book. Lewis almost completely abandons the Napoleonic narrative of history suggested by The Big Short in this one, where both success and disaster, no matter how broadly written, is basically the result of the choices of special people who are able to exploit unique opportunities to create economy shaking results. There’s almost none of that here. Whereas the American crisis seems to be the result of a few very smart people either creating or identifying a generally hidden schism in the evaluation of certain mortgage backed securities (and the calamities that followed), the European economic disaster is characterized as having resulted not from personal greatness or systematic efficiency but from culture itself, at a level of generality so grotesque that the decisions of individuals become irrelevant.

To explain: Our economy crashed because a few very wealthy Americans very cleverly found a way to become much richer at the expense of absolutely everyone else. Our government regulators were asleep at the wheel, multiple of our most important financial institutions shoved off their fiduciary obligations and started fleecing their own clients, a few smart people figured out what was going to happen before everyone else and made billions shorting the market, making everything worse by an order of magnitude. Then they all got bailed out. This is by now an old story, but a profoundly “American” one. Compare Iceland, who went under because they have a hyper-masculine, overly entitled culture. Or the Greeks, because they’re so corrupt (as a culture) that they are incapable of collective thinking. Or the Germans, who are fatally bound to morally neutral ideas of obeying the rules so deeply that it’s “part of their cultural DNA” (Lewis’ phrase, not mine) and therefore make easy marks for everyone else, and who are secretly obsessed with feces in a way that ultimately causes their banks to make bad financial decisions (seriously).

There’s something hard to swallow about all of this. Americans survive as the ultimate genius pragmatists, a few rugged individualists who brought down the whole system because they were selfish, and because nobody else could quite follow what they were doing. Lewis makes a few broad conclusions about “American culture” in The Big Short - we’re litigious, we’re not sufficiently regulated, everyone is looking for an angle - but these silly cultural generalizations are nonetheless not the whole point of his analysis. With Boomerang, his cultural tourism doesn’t go much deeper. It seems profoundly unfair to allow that Americans did what they did because they were profoundly rational, but the Germans became the dupes of our crisis because they secretly want to be tied up and spanked.

If anything, Boomerang suffers from follow-up syndrome. After The Big Short and Moneyball, Lewis can pretty much write whatever he wants and someone will publish it. Boomerang is the modest expansion of a series of one-offs written for Vanity Fair and belatedly consolidated into a book, and it shows. Several of the essays have nods to the sort of cultural contemporaneity fine for magazine articles but which serious works try to avoid (at one point, he compares a Greek financial wizard to the Most Interesting Guy In The World from the Dos Equis commercials). This only exacerbates the already extant feeling that this is less a novel of vision than one of opportunity, though Lewis, who is clearly enjoying his moment in the sun, can hardly be blamed for maximizing his income stream, especially given the economically draconian subject matter.

This isn’t to say the book is worthless. At times, it’s a solid work of economic tourism and works better when Lewis zeroes in on specifics and spares the sweeping quasi-anthropological narratives for where each country went wrong. His interviews with the Greek monks who made themselves billionaires through cagey use of Byzantine (literally) property claims are an interesting read. His chronology of the downfall of Irish banks is specific enough to be worthwhile. But Lewis can’t help but draw huge conclusions. The Greeks are selfish. Iceland is full of egomaniacal alpha males. The Germans are fetishists. From this, all else follows.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Mza (new)

Mza isn't going from th specific to th general sort of th point of anthropology? I haven't read th book, so I can't defend Lewis's arguments or th methods he uses to make them, but yr review makes it sounds as if you have a beef w/ generalizations generally

Americans are fat

Love, MZA

Aaron Mza wrote: "isn't going from th specific to th general sort of th point of anthropology? I haven't read th book, so I can't defend Lewis's arguments or th methods he uses to make them, but yr review makes it ..."

But this ain't chiefly anthropology, it's economics. Putting a primarily anthropological spin on economic behavior is dangerous stuff. Saying the Americans overleveraged themselves on real estate because they're economic opportunists and aren't capable of rational medium-to-long term thinking seems fishy to me, though recasting the same conclusions as neurology and removing the cultural subjectivity variable gives me a boner. This is in the territory of saying that French are afraid to fight, Samoans are fatties who love spam, indigenous peoples in African deserts are hilarious when you drop Coke bottles on them from the sky. The word, I suppose, is "essentializing", and I know that because my dildo-vendor little sister explained it to me when she gave me a book called "The Ethical Slut" for Christmas. (it didn't have any pictures)

Anyhow, essentializing as a way of putting a sort of "you deserved it, Germany" topspin on economic calamity only has the potential to work when you are a little more self-aware about it. This dude really does seem to think you can explain the banking decisions of a Top 5 Global Economy with poo fetishisms. But stop and think how entertaining that argument would be if Eran was the one making it, and then give this book two stars.

message 3: by Mza (new)

Mza as I see both economics and anthropology as not particularly rigorous disciplines, I don't see mixing th two as any more dangerous than wielding either separately. I see yr point on 'essentializing' -- it's an attempt @ rigor (greater precision in language), but it's also a catchphrase for people who find actual thinking painful. A lot of what liberal undergrads call 'essentializing', I would call 'pattern recognition' -- e.g., not trying to define all Germans as shit eaters, but recognizing that they are th statistical leader in that category ...

I don't plan to read th Lewis book but did enjoy Th Pitt in Moneyball


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