Travels in the New Third WorldLarge Print - 2011
From the critics
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Isocrates: “Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches its citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.
As it happens, a story had just broken that a German reinsurance company called Munich Re, back in June 2007, or just before the crash, had sponsored a party for its best producers that offered not just chicken dinners and nearest-to-the-pin golf competitions but a blowout with prostitutes in a public bath. In finance, high or low, this sort of thing is of course not unusual. What was striking was how organized the German event was. The company tied white and yellow and red ribbons to the prostitutes to indicate which ones were available to which men. After each sexual encounter the prostitute received a stamp on her arm to indicate how often she had been used. The Germans didn’t just want hookers: they wanted hookers with rules.
In 1980 only 23 percent of state pension money had been invested in the stock market; by 2008 the number had risen to 60 percent.
Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was buy Ireland. From each other.
Thousands upon thousands of government employees take to the streets to protest the bill. Here is Greece’s version of the Tea Party: tax collectors on the take, public-school teachers who don’t really teach, well-paid employees of bankrupt state railroads whose trains never run on time, state hospital workers bribed to buy overpriced supplies.
The politicians in Ireland speak Gaelic the way the Real Housewives of Orange County speak French.
Alcoa, the biggest aluminum company in the country, encountered two problems peculiar to Iceland when, in 2004, it set about erecting its giant smelting plant. The first was the so-called hidden people—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe. Before Alcoa could build its smelter it had to defer to a government expert to scour the enclosed plant site and certify that no elves were on or under it. It was a delicate corporate situation, an Alcoa spokesman told me, because they had to pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free, but, as he put it, “we couldn’t as a company be in a position of acknowledging the existence of hidden people.
The relationship between the people and their money in California is such that you can pluck almost any city at random and enter a crisis. San Jose has the highest per capita income of any city in the United States, after New York. It has the highest credit rating of any city in California with a population over 250,000. It is one of the few cities in America with a triple-A rating from Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s, but only because its bondholders have the power to compel the city to levy a tax on property owners to pay off the bonds. The city itself is not all that far from being bankrupt
The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as "arduous" is as early as fifty-five for men and fifty for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than six hundred Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, writers, musicians, and on and on and on.
Two things strike an American when he comes to Ireland: how small it is, and how tight-lipped. An Irish person with a personal problem takes it into a hole with him, like a squirrel with a nut before winter. He tortures himself and sometimes his loved ones, too. What he doesn’t do, if he has suffered some reversal, is vent about it to the outside world. The famous Irish gift of gab is a cover for all the things they aren’t telling you.
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Hilarious account of what went wrong in Europe in those countries so badly in debt. Also a pretty solid summary of how things transpird.
A while back, I reviewed a Michael Lewis book called *The Big Short*, all about the personalities and events that built the Great Recession. In the time it took to write and release that book, Lewis stumbled across a few shrewd financiers who were predicting a global crash based on the same kind of accounting principles that shook America. Lewis initially dismissed these characters as people who'd gotten lucky predicting one crash, and now thought they had a talent for predicting crises. But, by the time he was promoting *The Big Short*, Iceland and Greece were deep in trouble, and Lewis knew there was more to the story.<br />
*Boomerang*, then, is all about how the American banking system's creative approach to credit tranching spread round the world. Again, Lewis takes the time to introduce readers to the characters making the big financial decisions. He makes some broad and questionable arguments extending generalized national character traits (Icelandic, Greek, Irish, German) to their money management techniques, but the effect is meant to be humorous and it is. In fact, the whole book's tone is gleefully irreverent – toward the money gods, toward religion, and toward the crisis itself. It's not that the recession hasn’t had dire consequences; Lewis knows it has, and that it may get worse. He's fundamentally optimistic, though, and willing to see the abundant humour in the decision making processes of nations, banks and individuals who inadvertently set up the crisis. Either it gets better or it doesn't – either way, you have to laugh. With its wry approach and clear, approachable style, *Boomerang* is recommended for any readers interested in the factors driving the credit crisis around the world.
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