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Jan.18, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 6

A Moment With...

Michael Lewis ’82, on the boomerang economy

By Merrell Noden ’78
Published in the January18, 2012, issue


Steve Jennings/WireImage

“I think broadly it’s true to say that the scandalous aspects of Wall Street are legal. And what’s scandalous is that they are legal. ”

Mid-November found journalist and author Michael Lewis ’82 busier than ever. The movie based on Lewis’ baseball book Moneyball was in theaters, his long profile of Princeton professor and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman just had come out in Vanity Fair, he was about to start writing a screenplay based on his first book, Liar’s Poker, and he was doing countless interviews for his new book, Boomerang, an entertaining but terrifying financial-disaster tour of the Western world. Lewis had started to write that book early in 2009: “I had no idea the timing would be so apt,” he says. Lewis will speak at Baccalaureate in June.

Why Boomerang? What does the title refer to?

I was looking for an image of something that’s thrown out in hope and comes back at you with a vengeance. And that’s the story of the credit event. It starts with such hope and comes back with such anger. And it had “boom” in the title. I guess I could have called it “Busterang.”

In August you were in Germany reporting Boomerang, and the book hit the bestseller list in late October. Isn’t that a very quick turnaround?

I didn’t see any benefit to these things sitting in a drawer for a year. Give me as much time to work on it as I can, and bring it out as soon as you can after I’ve finished the last word. ... [With Boomerang], I didn’t really need to rush, but I did have to make a tactical decision, foolish in retrospect, not to write about Spain and Italy.

Is there a common thread running through Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, Moneyball, and now Boomerang?

My editor at Norton, Starling Lawrence [’65], thinks the thing that links the books is an obsession with markets. I don’t perceive that myself. My own view is that my level of interest links them. I regard it as such a pain to write a book that I just have to be that interested in the subject. It’s seeing a really rich and layered story that could be told. Whether I pull it off is another question.

You write in Boomerang about a hedge-fund manager who made a gazillion dollars betting against subprime mortgages and told you that our economic woes are “atonement for our sins of the past.” What are those sins?

Living beyond our means. That’s what he means, and I think he’s right. It’s not just us. It’s across the world. The credit markets made this opportunity available, and people seized it. So I do think he’s right. And I think the reason he was so dark in his view of what was going to happen — and he remains dark — is that he thinks it’s very deep in human nature, the desire to do this. People, especially in democratic societies, don’t accept pain and suffering very happily. So he thinks it’s not going to correct itself easily, that people who have been financially irresponsible aren’t going to wake up one day and be financially responsible.

You don’t moralize in the early books, at least not overtly. But in Boomerang you do some moralizing.

Maybe I’m growing up, or maybe it’s a subject that demanded I take a point of view. The funny thing about Wall Street crime is that the only thing that ever seems to produce convictions is insider trading. Everything else seems impossible to prove. So the authorities have learned to go after insider trading, and they don’t know how to go after anything else. It’s a good question why there hasn’t been more of an effort to criminalize some of this behavior. ... I think broadly it’s true to say that the scandalous aspects of Wall Street are legal. And what’s scandalous is that they are legal.

Is it different in Europe?

We set the example. Our fingerprints are all over Europe. The Greek government does not talk its way into the euro without the help of Goldman Sachs. And so I think one strand of the European story is the influence of American ideas of finance on them — not the only one, but it’s part of the story. As a people, our national debts aren’t as bad, right now, as the Greek national debt, and the markets are going to indulge us longer than they indulge the Greeks. But the behavior of individual Americans, in this sense, is probably worse: Our taste for individual indebtedness is greater than the Greeks’ taste.

— Interview conducted and condensed by Merrell Noden ’78

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CURRENT ISSUE: Jan.18, 2012