The Meltdown Tour
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative TCommons License.
Lewis is a financial journalist. Here he reports his experiences of interviewing people in Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the USA who have been involved in the current financial catastrophe.
We start in Iceland, whose extraordinary landscape Lewis catches well. The Icelandic bankers displayed a degree of over-optimism and consequent recklessness in investment that sets the tone for the rest of the places Lewis visits. In Iceland's case the underlying cause, he thinks, was the machismo that characterised Icelandic society. The future of the country, he suggests, lies with its women.
From Iceland we go to Greece. In this chapter the focus is mostly not on Athens, as one might expect, but on the Vatopaidi monastery on Mount Athos. This is not because Lewis is religious—he isn't—but because the monks, whose shrewdness impressed him considerably, had apparently been involved in a shady-sounding financial deal with the Greek government that had netted them a large profit. They succeeded in exchanging a lake that had no commercial value for government-owned owned properties that had a lot. Lewis spent much of his time in Greece investigating this murky affair.
Next, Ireland, with its acres of unfinished and finished but unlettable properties standing empty. It is difficut to know which is more astonishing: the suddenness of the Irish boom or the equal suddenness of its crash. Lewis does a pretty good job of making this rise and fall comprehensible, but as one who knew Ireland well in the 1950s and early 1960s, I still find the story hard to take in.
And so to Germany, perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book. Two surprising features of German life emerge: an obsession with scatology and a remarkable degree of incompetence in the German banking system that is hard to reconcile with German financial prudence in other respects. But most striking of all is the total inability of Germans and Greeks to understand each other. An official in the German Finance Ministry put it bluntly, saying that "if the Greeks and the Germans were to coexist in a financial union, the Greeks needed to change who they are." Since this is not going to happen, of course, the current loan negotiations with Greece cannot but end in disaster.
The final chapter, set in the USA, I found the least interesting. There is a lengthy interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger and an account of the financial collapse of an American town called Vallejo. All this would probably mean more to an American reader than it does to a European.
The tone of the book is rightly described in the blurb as tragicomic. Voltaire remarked that life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. Lewis manages to straddle the gulf quite well, but for the Greeks the comic aspect of their situation is all but imperceptible.
18 February 2012
S% The Meltdown Tour %A Michael Lewis
%I Allen Lane
%P xxi + 212pp
%K politics, economics