By Michael Lewis

“It’s the lure of easy money, it has a very strong appeal.” – Glenn Frey

In an essay on Suetonius’s chronicle of spectacularly degenerate Caesars, Gore Vidal saw absolute power, following Lord Acton’s dictum, corrupting absolutely. “What will men so placed do? The answer, apparently, is anything and everything.”

Such examples have always fascinated us, but they are, after all, mercifully rare. My own interest has always been less in what happens at the top of the food chain and more directed toward what happens when mere mortals acquire a taste of power: a little of it being a dangerous thing. How does the modern bourgeoisie (itself a diminished species) behave when there are no restraints on their appetites?

This is the question Michael Lewis asks in Boomerang. The answer: not as badly as a Nero or Caligula, but still very irresponsibly. In the best deterministic fashion we are driven to satisfy native impulses with no thought for the consequences to ourselves or others.

The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way.

And so what we have is a travelogue. Luckily our tour guide is a sharp, observant writer, with the high-ranking political connections of a Thomas Friedman (but less of the sycophancy) and even an in at a Mount Athos monastery. Want to go biking through Los Angeles with ex-governor Arnie? No problem. That’s what a string of bestsellers will do for you.

The travelogue form allows Lewis to individualize each of the national calamities while at the same time universalizing certain themes. Lewis’s critique of the hyper-masculine, alpha-male dimwittedness of Icelandic culture is devastating, and his take on the Irish is even better:

The Irish people and their country are like lovers whose passion is heightened by their suspicion that they will probably wind up leaving each other. Their loud patriotism is a cargo ship for their doubt.

National differences give rise to local variations, but while these are nicely drawn, Lewis’s real interest lies in what these interconnected stories have in common. Or, more pointedly, what Irish, Greek or Icelandic behaviour tells us about our own failings when the financial-disaster tourist’s boomerang comes home in the book’s final section.

What cultural universals does Lewis identify with his night-vision goggles? I count three.

In the first place, with affluence a bourgeois citizen will become lazy. Why work hard when you can settle into a comfortable government sinecure guaranteed for life? Or consider the example of Iceland:

Back away from the Icelandic economy and you can’t help but notice something really strange about it: the people have cultivated themselves to the point where they are unsuited to the work available to them. All these exquisitely schooled, sophisticated people, each and every one of whom feels special, are presented with two mainly horrible ways to make a living: trawler fishing and aluminum smelting. There are, of course, a few jobs in Iceland that any refined, educated person might like to do. . . . But not nearly so many as the place needs, given its talent for turning cod into PhDs. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Icelanders are still waiting for some task more suited to their filigreed minds to turn up inside their economy so they might do it.
Enter investment banking.

It’s important to note that there’s nothing irrational or “really strange” about this sort of behaviour, despite Lewis’s (unwarranted, I think) sarcastic tone. Shouldn’t we all aspire to a certain level of cultivation? Who doesn’t believe they are special? Who the hell would want to work in an aluminum plant? Nobody I know. Iceland’s predicament is in part the product of its geography (there are only so many “good” jobs to go around a small island), but still more the expression of a twenty-first century dilemma: who wants to do any economy’s strenuous, degrading, often times dangerous, poorly-paid, but still necessary grunt work when you can be in management or work in the financial services industry and make big money sitting on your ass doing nothing? How ya gonna keep ’em trawling for cod after they’ve had a taste of a better life?

Laziness, however, isn’t the worst of it. When the lights went out we also became selfish and greedy. And so we come to Greece, poster-child for financial delinquency and a case study for projecting the current crisis into the future:

Even if it is technically possible for these people [Greeks] to repay their debts, live within their means, and return to good standing inside the European Union, do they have the inner resources to do it? Or have they so lost their ability to feel connected to anything outside their small worlds that they would rather just shed their obligations? On the face of it, defaulting on their debts and walking away would seem a mad act . . . But the place does not behave like a collective . . . It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good.

Again one has to register, in the face of Lewis’s critical prose, that there is nothing irrational or unnatural about this. We know, not just because we’ve been told but because we can see it around us every day, that greed is god (the single “o” is deliberate). It has long been assumed in mainstream political theory that, as Smith and Mandeville told us, acting as individual selfish agents would necessarily serve the common good. When faced with a situation where pursuing one’s own interests is done “at the expense of the common good” classical ideology has no answer. The common good simply isn’t part of the calculation, and I’m not sure it ever has been. And so when Lewis talks about a return to civic life I can’t even imagine what age or nation he’s referring to.

I have to admit to some surprise then at Lewis’s final complaint about Americans “taking what they can, just because they can, without regard to the larger social consequences.” Haven’t these “larger social consequences,” when they’ve been recognized at all, always been written off as externalities? When did capitalism ever care about such things? That such behaviour is now being recognized as a “problem” by a writer like Lewis (hardly a radical) is, I suppose, a small step in the direction of enlightenment, but nothing more.

As I write, it’s still not clear how the European financial crisis will play out. One thing that does seem clear is that any solution will only be a temporary reprieve, kicking the can a bit further down the road. There is nothing in the current economic system that is sustainable over the long term, a fact that I think most of us understand. In so far as we do spare any thought for the morrow it is as atomized particles, trying to position ourselves as close as we can to the lifeboats. Hoping that, maybe, when the ship goes down, we can escape to some safe island. Like Ireland, or Iceland, or a speck in the Aegean . . .

Review first published online December 5, 2011.

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