The Financial Crisis Exhibit at the Human Zoo

Boomerang: Travels in the New World
Michael Lewis

boomerang_lewisWhat’s in a name? Or,  for that matter, a title?

Evidently not a whole lot judging from the present volume. Readers may recognize Mr Lewis’ name from my post earlier this year. That book looked at the financial crisis from the perspective of a few, clear-eyed individuals who saw it coming.

Well,  an enterprising agent and/or editor saw an opportunity in the bits of that book that ended up on the cutting room floor. And so we have this quick read, a travelog of nations beset by the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Travel writing is not a genre I gravitate toward. For every Bruce Chatwin, you get a handful or more of writers who pack up all their personal nonsense and take it on the road. The result is what I call a visit to the human zoo. There’s no nuance. Limited ability to recognize let alone sketch social structure. A demonstrated need to understand what’s being seeing terms of what’s already known–better yet, what’s known by experience.

For all his strengths as a writer and observer, Lewis is a poor social scientist. He is, though, an excellent zoo guide. Before I went looking for this book I heard an interview with Lewis  probably on NPR. He was talking about the different reactions to the financial crisis and  how they were rooted in ‘national character’ and ‘culture.’

Pish posh.

Lewis’ search for explanations takes him to Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and California. He meets fisherman turned bankers. Monks who might teach Donald Trump a thing or two about real estate. An academic whom everybody ignored until they no longer could. He goes in search of mud wrestlers and visits modern-day near-ghost towns. It’s an exhausting itinerary.

It’s also a ridiculous quest.

Here’s what he discovers along the way:  A testosterone-heavy Viking past of “conflict and heroism” lies behind transforming a fishing-based economy into a highly leveraged financial one. A Mediterranean love of the big get-over explains boundless energy for schemes and the belief that no one should have to pay their way.

The Irish, he thinks, shrug and accept their fate–having dared to rise above their station as the sad, poor men-and-women of Europe. In Germany he finds Sigmund Freud‘s ghost rumbling about in a deep, mass psychological inability to reconcile filth and cleanliness. America‘s own culture-within-a-culture, the Bear Republic, offers an opportunity to find ever-present optimism.

Entertaining vignettes and interviews aside there is little substance here. What’s truly astonishing is the prism Lewis chooses. The financial system is arguably the most interconnected part of the global economy. The troubles (see lots of sources, some reviewed on this blog, just click on ‘financial crisis’ in the ‘What we Talk About’ section to find them) are widespread and essentially the same, whatever subsequent decisions have done to worsen or lessen them.

So there’s a real opportunity here to look at common human behaviors. Obviously you couldn’t have similar outcomes in widely separated places without similar behaviors. Nope. There’s no book there, at least not one without charts, graphs and maths. Better to tell stories rooted in the 19th century stereotypes held by WASPs .

I’ve said before that Lewis is an entertaining writer. He entertains here. That’s  the extent of it: the accidental tourist goes depression-hunting.


3 thoughts on “The Financial Crisis Exhibit at the Human Zoo

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