Since I rarely travel, I don't have much experience planning ahead for my trips. Such was the case last Sunday evening, because as I headed toward the entrance of the airplane, I realized I didn't have a single bit of reading material.
I don't do well without something to read. I'm not going to watch a movie, and God knows I'm not going to spend four hours reading the in-flight magazine. My panic subsided when I saw the "Wi-Fi On Board" sticker on the outside of the jet. I was saved by Go-Go Wireless.
When heading home the next evening, as I headed toward my gate, I stopped myself and turned around to go to the book shop, because I wanted to make sure I had something interesting to read if the plane didn't have WiFi (which, it turned out, it did not).
Most airport book stores are crammed with the very latest business books which promise to make you a better worker at whatever job you've got, guaranteeing you a much bigger salary. ("Good to Great", "Emotional Equations", "Entreleadership", "Switch", and a myriad of other worthless drivel). I was heartened to see Michael Lewis' Boomerang, which is something I knew would interest me. So that's what I bought.
The book is essential a layman's overview of the sovereign debt crisis. As with Lewis' other books, Boomerang was a pleasure to read.
Having now finished the book, I can tell you the thing which stood out the most for me was that most of the descriptions about the Euro crisis could easily be slipped into today's newswire. In other words, even though the situation being described represented very old news from nearly a year ago, it still comes off as absolutely timely, because nothing has changed! The chapter on Greece in particular reads like it was just "ripped from the headlines" of ZeroHedge.com
The chief angle that the book takes is the characterization – – generalization, some would say – – of countries that had some part in past or present debt crises. The countries in question are Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and Germany. The portraits Lewis paints are fascinating. Many would describe these characterizations as two-dimensional, but so be it………..it made the pieces of the puzzle fit together much more nicely for me, and frankly, it makes the situation with the Euro a lot easier to comprehend.
Bluntly stated, Lewis portrays:
+ Iceland as a miniscule country of 300,000 seriously inbred people that should have really stuck to fishing;
+ Greece as a country of cheats and crooks whom absolutely detest one another;
+ Germany as the fastidious overlord of all of Europe (and the Germans themselves as having a deep and abiding interest in their own feces. We're talking really interested, people);
+ Ireland as a depressing bog where it never stops raining, full of heavy drinkers that went insane building up vast real estate developments that will never benefit from actually being occupied.
I probably make the book sound nastier than it really is, although most of the 1-star reviews on Amazon (which are in the minority – – the book is very highly-rated) do make a stink about an "ugly American" approach to viewing these other nations and their people.
Reviewers were also none-too-thrilled that the book isn't really original, but is instead a compendium of articles that Lewis wrote for Vanity Fair. That doesn't really bother me. The book hangs together pretty well, although I've got to say that – – as with Malcolm Gladwell's books – – things do seem to peter out near the end.
Another takeaway for me – – and I don't think he had a name for it in the book, but I'll just to capture it here – – is the notion that once a certain level of debt is reached, it simply doesn't matter to anyone anymore. If you loaned a kid in college $100, you'd be a little worried. If you loaned him twice as much, you'd be twice as worried. But if for some reason he owed you ten million dollars (and he wasn't rich), the doubling his debt to you wouldn't really mean anything, because you're never going to get it back anyway. He might as well owe you a trillion.
Something very similar right now is going on with sovereign debt. Just this week, the payroll tax cut was extended, and I read it put an average of $40 extra for each worker "per paycheck" (whatever that means – they never state the timespan) and that it would add $100 billion to the debt. By most standards, $100 billion is a lot of money (for context, that's the optimistic value of Facebook), but no one seems to give any notice, mainly because intuitively I don't think anyone believes any of this money will ever be paid back.
On the whole, I'd recommend the book. It was a breezy, engaging read, and I believe I can view the situation with the Euro with more clarity and understanding now. I'd suggest you pick up a copy.