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I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay Paperback – September 14, 2010
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Annie Hall is a film with many great moments, and for me the best of them is the movie’s single scene with Annie’s younger brother, Duane Hall, played by Christopher Walken, the first of his long, brilliant career of cinema weirdos. Visiting the Hall family home, Alvy Singer—that’s Woody Allen—bumps into Duane, who immediately shares a fantasy:
“Sometimes when I’m driving . . . on the road at night . . . I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The . . . flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.”
It’s Alvy’s reply which makes the scene: “Right. Well, I have to—I have to go now, Duane, because I, I’m due back on the planet Earth.”
I’ve never shared Duane Hall’s wish to turn across the road into the oncoming headlights. I have to admit, though, that I have sometimes had a not-too-distant thought. It’s a thought which never hits me in town, or in traffic, or when there’s anyone else in the car, but when I’m on my own in the country, zooming down an empty road, with the radio on, and everything is moving free and clear, as it hardly ever is with today’s traffic, but when it is, I sometimes have a fleeting thought, one I’ve never acted on and hope I never will. The thought is this: what would happen if I chose this moment to put the car into reverse?
When you ask car buffs that, the first thing they do is to give you a funny look. Then they give you another funny look. Then they explain that what would happen is that the car’s engine would basically explode: bits of it would burst through other bits, rods would fly through the air, the carburetor would burst into fragments, there would be incredible noise and smell and smoke, and you would swerve off the road and crash with the certainty of serious injury and the high probability of death. These explanations are sufficiently convincing that I find that the thought of putting the car into reverse flits across my mind only very temporarily, for about half a second at a time, say once every two or three years. I’m sure it’s something I’ll never do.
For the first years of the new millennium, the whole planet was zooming along, doing the equivalent of seventy on a clear road on a sunny day. Between 2000 and 2006, public discourse in the Western world was dominated by the election of George W. Bush, the attacks of 9/11, the “global war on terror” and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But while all that was happening, something momentous was taking place, not quite unnoticed but with bizarrely little notice: the world’s wealth was almost doubling. In 2000, the total GDP of Earth—the sum total of all the economic activity on the planet—was $36 trillion.I By the end of 2006, it was $70 trillion. In the developed world, so much attention was given to the bust in dot-com shares in 2000—“the greatest destruction of capital in the history of the world,” as it was called at the time—that no one noticed the way the Western economies bounced back. The stock market was relatively stagnant, for reasons I’ll go into later, but other sectors of the economy were booming. So was the rest of the planet. An editorial in The Economist in 1999 pointed out that the price of oil was now down to $10 a barrel, and issued a solemn warning: it might not stay there: there were reasons for thinking the price of oil might go to $5 a barrel. Ha!
By July 2008 the price of oil had risen to $147.70 a barrel, and as a result the oil-producing countries were awash with cash. From the Arab world to Russia to Venezuela, the treasury departments of all oil-producing countries resembled the scene in The Simpsons in which Monty Burns and his assistant, Smithers, pick up wads of cash and throw them at each other while shouting “Money fight!” The demand for oil was so avid because large sections of the developing world, especially India and China, were undergoing unprecedented levels of economic growth. Both countries suddenly had a hugely expanding, highly consuming new middle class. China’s GDP was averaging growth of 10.8 percent a year, India’s 8.9 percent. In fifteen years, India’s middle class, using a broad definition of the term meaning the section of the population who had escaped from poverty, grew from 147 million to 264 million; China’s went from 174 million to 806 million, arguably the greatest economic achievement anywhere on Earth, ever. Chinese personal income grew by 6.6 percent a year from 1978 to 2004, four times as fast as the world average. Thirty million Chinese children are taking piano lessons. Two-fifths of all Indian secondary school boys have regular after-school tuition. When you have two and a quarter billion people living in countries whose economies are booming in that way, you are living on a planet with a whole new economic outlook. Hundreds of millions of people are measurably richer and have new expectations to match. So oil is up, manufacturing is up, the price of commodities—the stuff which goes to make stuff—is up, the economy of (almost) the entire planet is booming. Who knows, optimists think, with the global economy growing at this rate, we can perhaps begin to think seriously about meeting the United Nations’ Millennium Development goals, such as halving the number of hungry people, and of people whose income is less than $1 a day, by 2015.1 That seemed utopian at the time the goals were set, but with the world $34 trillion richer, it suddenly looked as if this unprecedented target might be achieved.
And then it was as if the global economy went out one day and decided it was zooming along so well, there’d never be a better moment to try that thing of putting the car into reverse. The result . . . well, out of what seemed to most people a clear blue sky, the clearest blue sky ever, there was a colossal wreck. That left an awful lot of people wondering one simple thing: what happened?
I’ve been following the economic crisis for more than two years now. I began working on the subject as part of the background to a novel, and soon realized that I had stumbled across the most interesting story I’ve ever found. While I was beginning to work on it, the British bank Northern Rock blew up, and it became clear that, as I wrote at the time, “If our laws are not extended to control the new kinds of super-powerful, super-complex, and potentially super-risky investment vehicles, they will one day cause a financial disaster of global-systemic proportions.” I also wrote, apropos the obvious bubble in property prices, that “you would be forgiven for thinking that some sort of crash is imminent.” I was both right and too late, because all the groundwork for the crisis had already been done—though the sluggishness of the world’s governments, in not preparing for the great unraveling of autumn 2008, was then and still is stupefying. But this is the first reason why I wrote this book: because what’s happened is extraordinarily interesting. It is an absolutely amazing story, full of human interest and drama, one whose byways of mathematics, economics, and psychology are both central to the story of the last decades and mysteriously unknown to the general public. We have heard a lot about “the two cultures” of science and the arts—we heard a particularly large amount about it in 2009, because it was the fiftieth anniversary of the speech during which C. P. Snow first used the phrase. But I’m not sure the idea of a huge gap between science and the arts is as true as it was half a century ago—it’s certainly true, for instance, that a general reader who wants to pick up an education in the fundamentals of science will find it easier than ever before. It seems to me that there is a much bigger gap between the world of finance and that of the general public and that there is a need to narrow that gap, if the financial industry is not to be a kind of priesthood, administering to its own mysteries and feared and resented by the rest of us. Many bright, literate people have no idea about all sorts of economic basics, of a type that financial insiders take as elementary facts of how the world works. I am an outsider to finance and economics, and my hope is that I can talk across that gulf.
My need to understand is the same as yours, whoever you are. That’s one of the strangest ironies of this story: after decades in which the ideology of the Western world was personally and economically individualistic, we’ve suddenly been hit by a crisis which shows in the starkest terms that whether we like it or not—and there are large parts of it that you would have to be crazy to like—we’re all in this together. The aftermath of the crisis is going to dominate the economics and politics of our societies for at least a decade to come and perhaps longer. It’s important that we try to understand it and begin to think about what’s next.
I. GDP, which will be mentioned quite a few times in this story, sounds complicated but isn’t: it’s nothing more than the value of all the goods and services produced in an economy. GDP per capita, measuring each individual’s piece of the country’s pie, is the standard measure of prosperity.
“Warning to bankers everywhere in the world. You better buy every single copy of I.O.U. because Lanchester’s painted the target on you that the rest of us so desperately wanted to see." —James J. Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money
“Few if any [finance] books will be as pleasurable—and by that I mean as literate or as wickedly funny—as John Lanchester's…Before you begin to cry, pick up a copy of I.O.U. Good humor and good company will be the things that’ll get us through.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Lanchester's gift is to see the big picture in new ways.” —Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post Book World
“[T]his elegantly crafted little book…manages to be, by turns, acidic, frightening, and sharply funny. What it is not is boring….it all makes perfect sense. A.” —Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly
"Lanchester understands perfectly that the man behind the curtain was no wizard–that markets, far from being God-given instruments of perfection, were human constructs. ...[He] is adept at explicating financial complexities with street level analogies."–Roger Lowenstein, NewRepublic.com
“Witty, lucid, solicitous of the average person's difficulty in grasping the conceptual underpinnings of international finance....Lanchester manages to know enough to explain the terrain clearly and yet he never loses his perspective…Lanchester had me in the palm of his hand…” —Laura Miller, Salon.com
“[A] writer with literary bona fides…[Lanchester] has the intellectual heft and the chops, as a jazz musician might say, to deliver a resounding book about the crisis….An elegant and wonderfully witty writer, Mr. Lanchester approaches his subject with a newcomer’s verve. It’s infectious….frame[s] the Great Recession in startlingly original terms.” —Devin Leonard, The New York Times, Sunday Business
“[Lanchester] brings his mischievous wit to bear on the Great Credit Crackup in his boisterous primer….His method: to boil complex instruments and linkages down to anecdotes, outlandish images and acerbic asides that strip away those layers of bank jargon. The result is the perfect read for anyone still wondering what went wrong and why.” —James Pressley, Bloomberg News
“In I.O.U., the only truly entertaining book I've read on the subject, the British writer John Lanchester theorizes that after the Cold War, capitalism could go wild because Western governments no longer had to worry about competing with communism. This is a fascinating idea…” —Jacob Weisberg, Newsweek
“The novelist John Lanchester’s short book on the finance crisis, I.O.U.,…is literary and profound….But this is not just finance-for-poets. Lanchester…is a master explainer with an excellent grasp of sophisticated finance. His book is a gem.” —Christopher Caldwell, The Daily Beast
"I.O.U. is the map to the crazed world of contemporary finance we have all been waiting for. John Lanchester's superb book is everything its subject, the 2008 crash, was not: namely lucid, beautifully contrived, comprehensible to the reader with no specialist knowledge—and most of all devastatingly funny. I urge you to read it." —Will Self, author of Liver
“Hard to imagine any book giving us a clearer, more concise overview of the global financial crisis. I.O.U. is endlessly witty, for one thing, but the wit is underpinned by a tremendous, unembarrassed anger and moral lucidity. A superb entry-level guide which will turn any reader into an expert within the space of 200 pages.” —Jonathan Coe, author of The Rotter’s Club and The Rain Before It Falls
“I.O.U. is so clear and funny and cleverly written. I love the personal asides and observations and jokes and bits of autobiography that make it seem human and not text-book like. And the more and more improbable analogies for the ups and downs of the markets (a bride's nightie...a gorilla on a pogo stick). But what I like most is that it makes me feel intelligent, because I can now understand all this stuff.” —Marina Lewycka, author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
“From the insane and apparently incomprehensible chaos of the financial meltdown John Lanchester has extracted a compelling narrative, clearly explaining the madness of modern capitalism with razor-sharp insight, brilliant clarity and a refreshing dose of humor. A great book; interesting, accessible and witty.” —John O’Farrell, former columnist for The Independent and The Guardian, and author of An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain: or Sixty Years of Making the Same Stupid Mistakes as Always
"[Lanchester's] ability to explain complex stuff in a down-to-earth and witty style makes his short book, I.O.U., ideal reading for financial novices."–The Economist
"I.O.U. provides a fine introduction to the latest financial frenzy, with a suitable degree of outrage."–Edward Chancellor,Wall Street Journal
"[R]evelatory and insightful."–Claude R. Marx, Washington Times
"Lanchester brings an eye for the ironic and a gently rolling prose style. His dark humor and wit often pop up unexpectedly.... You'll search in vain for a more entertaining guide to this world than Lanchester."–Matthew Craft, Forbes.com
"Rare is the book about modern finance that has me nodding vigorously along with every sentence, pausing at points to muse that someone has finally, really, truly gotten it.... Such was the case with I.O.U."–Moe Tkacik, DailyFinance.com
"Laypeople seeking to understand the crisis, and what it means for their own bank account, will find Lanchester's volume an oasis of understanding in a sea of partisan spin and convoluted financial language."–PublishersWeekly.com (starred review)
Top Customer Reviews
* it's short, but comprehensive - in just over 200 pages, he tells you not just what happened, but how and why
* it's brilliantly written - Lanchester, a novelist and regular contributor to "The New Yorker" and "London Review of Books", hits the ideal combination of explanation and analysis. When he started his research from the book, he did so as a smart, intelligent outsider, with the curiosity and bulls**t-detecting skills of a keen reporter, all of which makes him an ideal guide.
* the author's ability to explain complicated technical material in a way that is succinct, but crystal clear
* even though some of the book's implications are pretty depressing, Lanchester is authoritative, clear-sighted, and extremely funny
* his ability to place events in the relevant historical and cultural perspective is impressive
Before reading "I.O.U.", the only other work by Lanchester that I had read was his debut novel "The Debt to Pleasure" (which won the Whitbread award, among other prizes). That book had a certain appeal, but was also quite disturbing. This latest book is a terrific accomplishment, and I have no reservations about giving it my highest rating.
One of Lanchester's concluding metaphors is borrowed from climate scientist James Lovelock, who observed, about 20 years ago, that what the planet needed was the equivalent of a small heart attack. Such an episode, in an individual's life, is often beneficial, because it forces the person to fact unpleasant facts and to adopt a healthier lifestyle. In Lanchester's view, the recent economic crisis, is the equivalent of laissez-faire capitalism's small heart attack.Read more ›
While this book still occasionally leaves me in the dust, the author has done the best job I've seen in aiding this "non-Streeter's" understanding of the events that caused the "Great Recession." Mr. Lanchester uses ordinary examples to explain what happened, which helped me a great deal.
I'm often told that nobody fully understands what happened or how these extraordinarily complex investment "opportunities" came to exist or what they contain(ed). I believe that, but I'm trying to get to the bottom of the whole pile of delusion: big money investors attempting to "hedge" risk out of existence and creating vehicles that served no useful purchase except to make them rich. And they're still rich.
If you are interested in some basic information on the genesis of this crisis, then turn to John Lanchester and his book "Whoops!" first.
It's also mighty interesting that the book, a 2010 UK copyright, is currently unavailable ANYWHERE in the US--at least it was when I ordered my copy.
And by the way: the book is well written and often (and unexpectedly) humorous.
* A reasonably clear and understandable explanation of financial
derivatives and instruments.
* A short history of the latest boom and bust, how it happened in the
U.K. and the U.S., and some of the devastating effects in Detroit and
* Why and how we (humans) can't judge risk and shouldn't be trusted with
our own money. Also, why risk analysis models and programs help us to
take on even more risk than we should have and to make even worse
decisions than we would have.
* How things that were wrong were not detected by the people that should
have and why.
* A short history of financial deregulation and of regulatory failure in
both the U.K. and the U.S.
* The values, both theirs and ours. After all, many of us were the ones
who maxed our credit cards and took on the mortgages we couldn't repay
and consolidated our loans so we could borrow more and ...
* The system -- It's not just a few bad people in the system (though we
had enough of those, too), it's the people that make up the system and
the power that they have and way the system responds to those people.
* The influence -- Our government responds to pressure (a democracy
should); but increasingly our government, in the U.S. responds to
pressure from those that have money or power or both. We are,
according to Lanchester, like a banana republic, 3rd world country in
* The incentives - The pay and financial rewords for executives and for
those working in the financial industry are misaligned.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
John Lanchester's writings on finance and international banking skulduggery and its effects on the rest of us, both here and in the LRB, are witty, informative and endlessly... Read morePublished 1 month ago by L. Ethell
I am not an economist, I bought the book mainly to look for answers about what the hell really happened in 2008 that led to the U.S. financial crisis. Read morePublished 2 months ago by kelly Groce
Brilliant - a brief history of the financial crisis for dummies, funny and informative. I think this should be compulsory reading for allPublished 14 months ago by Jenny Le Noel
Reasonably good explanation of a complex question from an author with a strong point of view.Published 14 months ago by Misha
A lot of hindsight bias
To the general public/looks like a witch hunting
Worth and easy reading anyway
Very interesting. Makes a difficult topic clear for the layperson and raises some thought provoking ideas about our current society.Published 16 months ago by Alphavis
This book was the best I have read on the Events of the GFC. Simple to understand and very well writtenPublished 16 months ago by Robin