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When Michael Lewis came to town

It may be an idea to print off Michael Lewis’ article from Vanity Fair and keep it by the front door for when a canvasser from a government party calls by over the next few weeks. After visits to Iceland …

Thu, Feb 3, 2011, 09:43

   

It may be an idea to print off Michael Lewis’ article from Vanity Fair and keep it by the front door for when a canvasser from a government party calls by over the next few weeks. After visits to Iceland and Greece, Lewis decided to have a look at Ireland. To be honest, there’s probably nothing in the piece you haven’t read already. There are interviews with economists like Morgan Kelly and David McWilliams and politicians like Brian Lenihan and Joan Burton and the obligatory visit to a ghost estate or two. Irish readers may find some of the colour angles in the piece a little too green – the fairy forts, the local driver, Achill Island et al – but remember that this is for a much different audience.

But makes the piece really resonate at the moment is how Lewis clearly and calmly points out the madness of what happened here in September/October 2008 with that bank guarantee scheme. Under the outgoing government’s watch, we, the Irish taxpayer, took the hit for a private gambling spree. There’s one line in particular which really needs to be thrown in the face of every Fianna Fail, Green Party and independent who ever supported the government (yes, that’s you, Messrs Lowry, Healy-Rae, McGrath Tipp South and McGrath Dublin North-Central): “across the financial markets…people who had made a private bet that went bad, and didn’t expect to be repaid in full, were handed their money back—from the Irish taxpayer.” It was the equivalent of going on a gambling spree on the craps and blackjack tables in a Las Vegas casino and getting your losses back as you stumbled out the door.

As it happens, I’m reading Lewis’ The Big Short at the moment and it’s a great yarn. As he showed in Liar’s Poker and The New New Thing (I’ve yet to read Moneyball, but I’m hoping that Kenny Dalglish will give me a lend of his copy soon – can’t wait to see how Moneyball justifies spending £35 million on Andy Carroll), Lewis has a great knack for brilliant narratives which can explain complex things. In The Big Short, he takes us back to where the banking crisis began and how maverick financial outsiders like Michael Burry realised what was going on in the sub-prime housing market long before anyone else. As the bubble grew, Burry and a couple of others realised the lunacy of what was going on and bet against the house, so to speak. When the bubble collapsed and Americans started defaulting, well, we know what happened next.

I’m already looking forward to Lewis’ next book. It’s called Boomerang: Travels In the New Third World and it’s based on his travels in Iceland, Greece and little old Ireland. We’re box-office, baby.