Audacity as a Right: Michael Lewis’ “Boomerang.”

20120812-204521.jpgPartway through Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World, Michael Lewis’ latest book, he quotes Isocrates, the Greek orator:

Democracy destroys itself because it abuses its right to freedom and equality. Because it teaches it citizens to consider audacity as a right, lawlessness as a freedom, abrasive speech as equality, and anarchy as progress.

It is an apt quote for a book that covers the failures of many of the world’s democracies—particularly Iceland, Greece, Ireland, and the United States—and their role in the financial crisis, which, undoubtedly, was caused by an abuse of freedom, a failure to self-restrain. (He also looks at Germany, whose role is less obvious but also important.) In 2011, Lewis published the excellent The Big Short, which more closely chronicled the individuals who foresaw the catastrophe.

This book, which is mostly comprised of recycled magazine pieces, is not nearly as sharply written or focused as his previous effort. Lewis fizzles frequently, and too often falls into generalization—at least by his own standards. But in other parts, it shines, such as during his visit to a Greek monastery, which passes for fairly good travel writing. Of the foci of this book, Lewis seems the clearest on Iceland (if, again, somewhat simplistic), who mortgaged their entire country ten times over, in what has to be one of the most astoundingly awful financial decisions of all time. His insightful summaries of Greek and American government spending are equally hard to fathom—and do give some credence to a push for lower government spending, at least at the local levels. The best may be the chapter on Germany, which carries an unlikely scatological theme. Ultimately, Lewis says, the state of the world economy is up to the people involved: “A banking system is an act of faith: it survives only for as long as people believe it will.” Let’s hope the credulousness continues.

It is the collective insanity that Lewis is after—what he is charting. I’m not sure he quite reaches it. But he and Isocrates are right: democracy does destroy itself. But it is democracy that also rebuilds.

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