Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Jim is observing the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. His recent reading has included The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, Michael Lewis's 2010 account of the how reckless behavior in the mortgage business wrecked the U.S. economy. The Big Short is an emperor has no clothes tale, in which a small groups of attentive people pay enough attention to opaque financial documents most people are too lazy or ignorant to understand. When they do so, they realize that the economic foundation of the nation is actually built on sand. Their challenge is to maintain their confidence in the face of apparently intelligent people who work for investment banks and pretend -- or, worse, actually seem to believe -- that the business they're in is actually sound.

Though the information Michael Lewis provides becomes increasingly more arcane, the narrative arc of the book is such that you have a growing sense of suspense as these people steel themselves to maintain their nerve as pressure on them grows on the very cusp of success. And yet there's an unreality about their story, in that the catastrophe they predict both finally arrives and yet doesn't quite prove catastrophic enough to fundamentally change the way financial speculation continues to work in this country. Though the consequences would probably be bad for everyone, you find yourself wishing that the financial titans at places like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs paid a higher price. Alas, we still seem addicted to an economy predicated on making money on nothing rather than producing real things that improve the lives of ordinary people.

For the moment, however, we can be thankful that an experiment that began 391 years ago in Plymouth, Massachusetts continues to bear fruit. A happy Turkey Day-- and Turkey Day leftovers -- to all.