How We Were All Misled

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Steffen Kugler/The New York Times/Redux
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Brussels, July 2011

Most people with a special interest in the events of the credit crunch and the Great Recession that followed it have a private benchmark for the excesses that led up to the crash. These benchmarks are a rule of thumb, a rough measure of how far out of control things got; they are phenomena that at the time seemed normal but that in retrospect were a brightly flashing warning light. I came across mine in Iceland, talking to a waitress in a café in the summer of 2009, about eight months after the króna collapsed and the whole country effectively went bankrupt under the debts incurred by its overextended banks. I asked her what had changed about her life since the crash.

“Well,” she said, “if I’m going to spend some time with friends at the weekend we go camping in the countryside.”

“How is that different from what you did before?” I asked.

“We used to take a plane to Milan and go shopping on the via Linate.”

Since that conversation, I’ve privately graded transparently absurd pre-crunch phenomena on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 being complete financial prudence, and 10 being a Reykjavik waitress thinking it normal to be able to afford weekend shopping trips to Milan.

Many people all over the world went nuts on cheap credit in the years of the boom—a boom that was in large part built on an unsustainable spike in personal and governmental debt. Michael Lewis has already written a very good book, The Big Short, about the mechanics of the crash, by casting around for people who didn’t just foresee it, but who made huge bets that it would happen, and profited vastly when it did.1

Boomerang is about what he has come to see as the larger phenomenon behind the credit crunch: the increase in total worldwide debt from $84 trillion in 2002 to $195 trillion now. The thesis is that “the subprime mortgage crisis was more symptom than cause. The deeper social and economic problems that gave rise to it remained.” It is these deeper problems that are dominating economic news at the moment, and led to the desperate measures announced at the European summit on October 27 and to the aborted Greek plan to hold a referendum that followed. The G20 Economic Summit of November 3–4 was dominated by discussion of the Eurozone crisis, but ended with no coherent plan in view, and none has emerged since. Boomerang tells the story of how we got here, and in the course of doing so gathers together an extensive arsenal of data at the top end of my 0–10 Reykjavik waitress scale: the fact that Greek railways have €300 million in…


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