David's Reviews > I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay

I.O.U. by John Lanchester
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Jan 23, 10

bookshelves: read-in-2010, unexpectedly-terrific
Read on January 23, 2010

I'd been putting off thinking about the economic meltdown. It just seemed like a surefire trigger for righteous indignation. Helpless, righteous indignation. And what good is that - it's the stuff that heart attacks are made of (note: not ulcers - they come from bacteria) - feeling angry about stuff you have no control over just leaves you out there on the heath, shaking your fist at the uncaring deities above.

Well, actually, it turns out that the exercise can be quite cathartic. John Lanchester's explanation of the economic meltdown of 2008-2009 gets my 5-star rating for a number of reasons:

* it's short, but comprehensive - in just over 200 pages, he tells you not just what happened, but how and why
* it's brilliantly written - Lanchester, a novelist and regular contributor to "The New Yorker" and "London Review of Books", hits the ideal combination of explanation and analysis. When he started his research from the book, he did so as a smart, intelligent outsider, with the curiosity and bullshit-detecting skills of a keen reporter, all of which makes him an ideal guide.
* the author's ability to explain complicated technical material in a way that is succinct, but crystal clear
* even though some of the book's implications are pretty depressing, Lanchester is authoritative, clear-sighted, and extremely funny
* his ability to place events in the relevant historical and cultural perspective is impressive

Before reading "I.O.U.", the only other work by Lanchester that I had read was his debut novel "The Debt to Pleasure" (which won the Whitbread award, among other prizes). That book had a certain appeal, but was also quite disturbing. This latest book is a terrific accomplishment, and I have no reservations about giving it my highest rating.

One of the metaphors that Lanchester concludes with is borrowed from climate scientist James Lovelock, who observed, about 20 years ago, that what the planet needed was the equivalent of a small heart attack. Such an episode, in an individual's life, is often beneficial, because it forces the person to fact unpleasant facts and to adopt a healthier lifestyle. In Lanchester's view, the recent economic crisis, is the equivalent of laissez-faire capitalism's small heart attack. We have the chance to insist that our governments change the rules to make sure that it truly can never happen again, because even if there is only the ghost of a chance that it can, it will; that's the nature of modern markets. Failure to make the needed changes at this point is the equivalent of celebrating our release from hospital with a carton of Rothmans, a bottle of tequila, and a supersized Big Mac with jumbo fries.

In other words, it's time to abandon the hedonic treadmill and hop on a real one.
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01/23/2010 page 125
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message 1: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Failure to make the needed changes at this point is the equivalent of celebrating our release from hospital with a carton of Rothmans, a bottle of tequila, and a supersized Big Mac with jumbo fries.

The analogy makes the banks the financial institution equivalent of tobacco companies. Love it!!



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