Bestselling author Michael Lewis delivers again with this series of themed travelogues about the financial crisis and originally published in Vanity Fair. Each of the articles stands well on its own, but in series they manage to bring an additional element, a much broader perspective on the financial crisis and on human nature.
Lewis travels to the major hot-spots: Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the US, noting the similarities and the differences in each of their situations, but mostly letting the individual characters who populate his essays tell the stories. Descriptions of people are rich, humorous, playful and cutting, but never mean spirited - the kind of descriptions your friends might use at your roast. Descriptions of countries' national characters and of specific places are equally pithy; 'it's the sort of place bankers stay because they think it's where the artists stay.'
As expected, bank leadership, politicians and regulators fare poorly in Lewis' crosshairs, and although they play small walk-on parts, investment banks such as Merrill Lynch come across as morally bankrupt and duplicitous, far worse than their aforementioned dimwitted but greedy co-conspirators. Lewis is finance literature's equivalent of television's Jon Stewart, calling all out on their motives, their revisionist explanations, and their mistakes. Ultimately, though, Lewis settles on the root cause - it's us; it's human nature and short term thinking. One of his interviewees sums it up best when he says about the virtual bankruptcy of his city, 'I think we've suffered from a series of mass delusions.'
As much as Charles Kindleberger's excellent book Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises
offers a deep retrospective of the evidence of our foibles, Boomerang offers finely drawn characters who give insight into the human behaviour that inevitably leads to the crashes. A much different perspective, much more enjoyable to read, but no less effective. (Margaret Atwood's Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth
is an equally excellent and alternative take).
As a former bond trader himself, Lewis has an easy grasp of the issues, the interests and the conflicts, and he segues from character to character and setting to setting to weave his story in the most entertaining and engaging of ways. These strengths set Lewis apart from most financial writers who concentrate on a chronological recounting of facts, with character development playing second fiddle. In all of the best ways in these short articles, Lewis is like Charles Dickens with a sketchbook rather than the vast canvas of a full length novel.
You really should read this book. You will be entertained, you will learn something, and whatever your political or economic stripe, you will pause for some self reflection, because in the end the financial crisis boomerangs back to us and to human nature.