September 28, 2011
By Kyle Smith, Contributor
The more complicated the times, the more crucial are those who demystify. These are really complicated times. So let’s acknowledge the endearing, enduring genius of Michael Lewis: the Explainer.
In his new book on the seemingly permanent financial crisis, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Lewis shows again why he is the leading journalist of his generation. He writes about important matters — the most important matters — and he writes about them so amusingly that he can permanently change your point of view, even of things you already had a settled opinion about. Who sees baseball the same way after his Moneyball? Football announcers seldom talked about the immense importance of the left tackle before The Blind Side.
And, thanks to “Boomerang,” a collection of financial-disaster reports from Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany and California, few will be able to think of Germans without recalling what Lewis memorably describes as a national obsession with excrement. In typical Lewis fashion, a bodily aperture becomes a lens for seeing Germany’s role in the global debt calamity.
Germans live fiercely within their means and refuse to play the overleveraging game that has crushed so many individuals and economies — yet they were ultimately the ones who made the game possible. Lewis writes, “When Morgan Stanley devised extremely complicated credit default swaps so they were all but certain to fail, so that their own proprietary traders could bet against them, the buyer was German. When Goldman Sachs helped the New York hedge fund manager John Paulson design a bond to bet against — a bond that Paulson hoped would fail — the buyer on the other side was a German bank.” Iceland, Ireland, Greece — all of their profligacy came from Germany.
Noting that, at a popular German mud-wrestling event, spectators are given rubber coverings to keep scrupulously clean even as they revel in the filth, Lewis writes, “Germans longed to be near the s–t, but not in it. This as it turns out, is an excellent description of their role in the current financial crisis.” As I said: You won’t soon chase Lewis’s ideas from your brain, and journalism that lasts, as Lewis’s will, becomes literature.