A Terrific Writer Mails It In

By Mike Dorf

By any measure, Michael Lewis is one of the best contemporary American non-fiction writers.  Liar's Poker, Moneyball, The Blind Side, and The Big Short were all wonderfully insightful books that told the story of very familiar phenomena in a way that made you say "aha, now I really understand."  (Lewis has written a bunch of other books but those are his most well-known).  I was excited by the prospect of another Michael Lewis book when I purchased and read his latest, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World.  I was quite disappointed.

Boomerang is an attempt to tell the story of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis as a kind of travelogue.  Lewis journeys to Iceland, Ireland, Greece, Germany, and California, interspersing what he learns from talking to people in these places with some background material.  That's not an inherently bad methodology, but it falls badly flat.

One of my complaints about the book is substantive/normative.  The overarching lesson of Boomerang looks a lot like a Tea Party diagnosis of the global economy: Too-easy credit led to profligate public and private borrowing to finance luxuries that the people doing the borrowing could not afford.

The problem with this view is not so much that it's wrong, but that it's incomplete.  Yes, Greeks did borrow recklessly so they could live beyond their means.  But Lewis doesn't travel to Spain, Italy, or France--three countries now at risk due to the debt crisis, none of which engaged in profligate borrowing.  Moreover, his single-minded focus on the borrowing and spending leaves the decidedly false impression that the austerity that has followed in their wake (especially in Europe) is the right corrective, when in fact, premature austerity has undermined economic growth and thus exacerbated the problems.

But the foregoing is, I acknowledge, a substantive criticism.  Were my only complaint about the book its substantive take, that would amount to nothing more than a disagreement.  There are plenty of excellent books that take positions with which I disagree and I am almost always glad for having read them.  Unfortunately, Boomerang is not an excellent book.  Its fundamental problem appears to be that Lewis mailed it in.

I'll give just two examples.  In describing his stay in Iceland, Lewis complains about the couple in the next hotel room loudly having sex.  The factoid is completely irrelevant to the narrative.  Much of the book consists of Lewis trying to identify national characteristics that led whole nations to act foolishly in particular ways during the buildup of debt.  (More about that in a moment.)  Yet the reader never learns whether the guests in the next room are Icelandic--and thus illustrative of some Icelandic character flaw--or from somewhere else (as one might expect in a hotel).  Nor does Lewis explain the relevance of the anecdote.  It's something that happened during his travels so, what the heck, he throws it in.

My second example is more damning.  Lewis acknowledges that his search for national characteristics that can serve as metaphors for national economic character flaws is hopelessly reductionist--but he does it anyway.  He tells the following just-so story (really, I'm not making this up):  Germans appear to be obsessed with cleanliness, which masks their secret obsession with filth, as illustrated by Lewis's trip to a red-light district in Germany.  That's a metaphor!  Germans like things clean on the outside, dirty on the inside.  Just like all those AAA-rated bonds the German banks bought that proved to be worthless: They were clean on the outside (the AAA rating) but dirty on the inside (containing the right to mortgage payments from people who couldn't afford the houses backing the mortgages.)

That's just a really really bad analogy.  Even if you believe that Germans, more than other people, like things clean on the outside but dirty on the inside, that's a bad metaphor for German banks making bad bets on AAA-rated junk.  Presumably in the latter case, the German bankers liked the bonds clean on the outside because they thought that connoted clean on the inside.  That would be a form of naivete, not a secret desire to enjoy the dirty bonds.  So even on its own terms, the metaphor fails.

But more generally, so much of the book has a thrown-together feel.  Lewis substitutes his report of a day talking to some randomly situated player for any real analysis.  At far too many points, Lewis sounds a lot like Thomas here's-a-random-thing-that-occurred-to-me-while-I-was-flying-over-Victoria-Falls-in-a-prop-plane Friedman.  True, even at his worst, Lewis is a better writer than Friedman.  But the fact that Boomerang even prompts the comparison is damning.

Sadly, it does not seem to matter.  As this glowing review of Boomerang in the NY Times last fall indicates, Lewis's reputation is sufficiently strong that enough people don't seem to notice when what he's saying is a combination of speculation and nonsense.  Lewis worked hard to earn his reputation and perhaps he feels it's time to cash in (some more) on it by coasting.  But that would be a shame, because he really is a terrific observer and analyst when he does his homework.