Boomerang, by Michael Lewis
Boomerang is a collection of five essays, one each on Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and the United States. The author, Michael Lewis, attempts to find a coherent narrative for each country’s role in the economic recession. Mostly, he finds a national character to be blamed. The Greek are corrupt, Icelanders are feral, the meticulous Germans have a secret fascination with dirt, and Americans are greedy. It’s simplistic but entertaining, and fills the human need for finding order in chaos.
The last chapter, on the United States, provided really great food for thought. The premise there is that like the Greeks, Americans want everything, without having to pay for it, and without taking into account the price we’ll have to pay for it in the future. Public employees want better pay and benefits and pensions, households want houses and cars and health care and vacations, students want education and opportunities — and all without raising taxes on the middle class, or at all.
What I find interesting is that this is the complaint that both the right and the left throw at each other. The left claim that the right are greedy and motivated only by money. They care only about big business and not at all about the little guy. The right claim that the left are lazy and motivated by getting as much money as possible from the government. They spend their energy figuring out better ways for the government to take care of them instead of innovating and working hard.
At its core, it’s the same complaint – you care only about getting what you want, on your terms, preferably right now.
If there’s truth to that, then we share a certain kind of soullessness. But it’s also true that at the root of both complaints are shared values. We all feel that something is missing. Maybe its patriotism or unity, or maybe it’s the caring more about the quantity than the quality of life, maybe it’s a delusional grandiosity that’s taken hold of us– the harmful belief that we deserve to have everything, even youth, forever.
Whatever it is that ails us, it isn’t partisan. It just expresses itself differently on the right and on the left.
Lewis ends the book (the chapter on the U.S.) with the story of Paige Meyer, a firefighter in the city of Vallejo, CA. Meyer moved to Vallejo from a “cushy job in Sunnyvale, CA” because Vallejo homes are mostly wooden and there are a lot more fires to fight. He loves what he does, both the adrenaline and the saving people.
Meyer was appointed fire chief after the city declared bankruptcy and had to drastically reduce the number of public safety employees. Now the city has the same amount of fires to fight, but with fewer stations and fewer engines, and therefore longer response times, and bigger fires. Meyer will have to figure out a more efficient way to use the resources as his disposal to keep the city safe.
The lesson in the story is that when finally faced with the reality of scarcity, Americans do what they do best — innovate.
It’s an optimistic note to end on and even Lewis hedges against it. His last sentence, “As idiotic as optimism can sometimes seem, it has a weird habit of paying off.”