Sunday, February 6, 2011

2-6-11: Michael Lewis - "When Irish Eyes Are Crying"

I finally got around to reading Michael Lewis' piece in Vanity Fair on the Irish Crisis. "When Irish Eyes Are Crying" walks through the cast of characters and moods and trends surrounding the current economic crisis in Ireland. Lewis, of Moneyball fame (though Liar's Poker came first), is an excellent journalist, and I was looking forward to seeing what he'd found during his time investigating the piece.

As usual, Lewis covers a lot of ground while neither boring nor patronizing the reader. The structure of the piece seemed familiar: he starts with a central character (in this case economist Morgan Kelly) and dabbles in with a few side characters who, though not as prominent as the central character, reinforce his point from a different angle. It feels almost like he's writing a play sometimes, but I like the style.

Lewis does well to explain the differences between the Irish, Icelandic, and Greek crises. A lot of people think, due to the timing, that they were all caused by some widespread Eurozone crisis that hit the weakest economies hardest. Lewis explains that the three countries shared similar behaviors leading up to their respective crises, but each had their own style. He paints Ireland as a sort of teenager with money burning a hole in its pocket from a spectacular run of baseless luck. Ireland got caught up in its own hype, and refused to believe it could fail. It was "new money" David trying to distinguish itself in a world of wiser Goliaths.

Ireland suffered, and still suffers, from a case of over-indulgent self-investment. The Irish banks lent out billions of Euros to property developers with the hope that the booming housing market, which even well before the bust showed signs of structural frailty, would keep on going without end. Economists, who should have known better, refused to listen to history, and called for a "soft landing" instead of the inevitable housing crash.

Lewis then goes into the role of the Irish government, which consisted of disbelievers, liars, and drunks. The only political figure for whom he devotes and sort of limited mercy is Brian Lenihan, the finance minister. Lenihan, who had earned the pity of the Irish people through an unfortunate illness (very Irish behavior, as Lewis points out), was, if anything, duped, according to some. He's been made to be the fixer of an irreparable systemic problem, and seems to have the confidence to do the impossible.

As a person of Irish descent, I like what Lewis does with the piece. He doesn't portray the Irish as innocent victims. They got greedy, and invested poorly in a housing market that couldn't house the current population. Sure, there are some innocent victims here and there, but, as Lewis points out, few people have protested. Those who have don't always want the attention. Perhaps it's just that people were still hungering for the pre-boom days, and weren't too distraught when things crashed back down. The economy boomed and fell within a decade - most people in the country vividly remember life beforehand. I strongly doubt any deliberate attempt at sabotage was made - the market itself was just unstable. I just think people might think of it as just a dream - and are still waking up.

No comments: