We live in interesting times

Two books have hit the bestseller list recently on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, and the MoneyBall author Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code. Picketty focuses upon analysis and data, Lewis uses narrative - but both publications that base themselves within the world of modern capitalism share a common voice. They speak of how the increasingly ruthless world of capital has enabled a deeper gap between the rich and poor, whilst the richest of the rich get even richer.

It’s a reality that seems to slip of the tongue. For myself, a magnitude that is so hard to understand, that my casual phrases satisfy my need for protest, whilst continuing a lifestyle that supports such operations. John Lanchester picked up that thread recently in The London Book Review:

 

 In a New York Times op-ed, Paul Krugman argued that the important point isn’t so much the specifics of Lewis’s story, as the big picture of a dysfunctional and predatory financial sector: ‘Never mind the debate about exactly how much damage high-frequency trading does. It’s the whole financial industry, not just that piece, that’s undermining our economy and our society.’

The story about finance that he began to tell in his first book, Liar’s Poker, the exuberant and uproarious account of his time as a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers, and continued with his credit crunch book, The Big Short, is getting steadily darker. In the prologue to The Big Short, Lewis wrote that when he sat down to write his first book, ‘I hoped that some bright kid at Ohio State University who really wanted to be an oceanographer would read my book, spurn the offer from Goldman Sachs, and set out to sea.’ Instead, and of course, ‘six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State University who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.’ After finishing Flash Boys, I found it hard not to think about those missing oceanographers, the computer geniuses and engineers and physicists and entrepreneurs, all those brilliant minds, all that passion and energy disappearing into the black hole of money, lost to all the more productive and interesting things that we humans can do. It’s hard not to feel a sense of loss when you think of what these people would have done, if they hadn’t been sucked into the enterprise of making money out of money. If we ever get enough distance to look back with some sense of perspective on the delirium of modern finance, I think this is what will stand out clearly: that sense of human and intellectual waste.

You could well see Flash Boys as a case study in the story of Capital in the 21st Century. ‘It is tempting to believe that people who think this way eventually suffer their comeuppance,’ Lewis wrote about Wall Street, in his epilogue to the 2010 reissue of Liar’s Poker. ‘They don’t. They just get richer. I’m sure most of them die fat and happy.’

 

We truly live in interesting times where two financial books critiquing the very system that compensates our lifestyle greed finds such resonation within our purchase choices. I can’t help but think of Zizek’s recent book The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, where he encourages the delicate balance of reading the signs of a New future and the need for our openness to prophetically act it out.