I just finished reading “Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World” by Michael Lewis. It’s a great read. Funny and insightful. What’s it about? The “new third world” Lewis refers to is the collection of countries hardest hit by the recent financial crisis: Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the good ol’ US of A.
Anyone into economics would love Lewis’ analysis of how each country basically destroyed itself after falling for the lure of cheap credit: Iceland’s inability to recognize their own incompetence in global finance; Greece’s all pervasive corruption; Ireland’s buying what it couldn’t afford at increasingly higher prices; Germany’s inability to understand why everyone else was acting so stupidly; and the United States’ Ponzi scheme tradition of continually wanting more and expecting someone else to pick up the tab.
The aspect I liked most, however, was Lewis’ thoughts on how different cultures produced such different results from the same conditions. For example many other countries’ out of control spending was simply unconscionable and unacceptable to the Germans:
“The curious thing about the eruption of cheap and indiscriminate lending of money between 2002 and 2008 was the different effects it had from country to country. Every developed country was subjected to more or less the same temptation, but no two countries responded precisely the same way. Much of Europe had borrowed money cheaply to buy stuff they it couldn’t honestly afford. In effect lots of non-Germans had used Germany’s credit rating to indulge their material desires. The Germans were the exception. Given the chance to take something for nothing, the German people simply ignored the offer.”
Lewis also examines the situation closer to home. The bankrupt city of Vallejo, California may be ground zero for the economic crisis in the U.S. and the new City Manager Phil Batchelor views the city’s problems (and solutions) not as economic, but cultural:
“When I met him, a few months after he had taken the job, he was still trying to resolve a narrow financial dispute: the city had 1,103 claimants with half a billion dollars in claims but only $6 million to dole out to them. They were survivors of a shipwreck on a life raft with limited provisions. His job, as he saw it, was to persuade them that their only chance of survival was to work together. He didn’t view the city’s main problem as financial: the financial problems were a symptom. The disease was the culture. Just a few weeks earlier, he had sent a memo to the remaining city staff – the city council, the mayor, the public safety workers. The central message was that if you want to fix this place you need to change how you behave, each and every one of you.”
While we search for the right laws, restrictions, and regulations to avoid another economic catastrophe, it may just be that the answer has less to do with reigning-in banks and corporations and more to do with reigning-in ourselves.