Adam Tooze, “Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World” (2018) (narrated by Simon Vance) – I graduated from college in 2008, straight into my first grad school program at the New School, so I was insulated (somewhat) from the big financial crash that happened right as my cohort was entering the world. I remember being mostly bemused. A finance guy I am not. I can just about see the sense in commodity futures, which, perhaps not coincidentally, is the most financially complex I’ve seen science fiction get. But anything beyond that strikes me as so much confidence gamesmanship, somewhere between a busybox for people who like really boring games and a black box idol that we occasionally make sacrifices to as though Target wouldn’t have flaming hot cheetos if we didn’t. Adam Tooze, an economic historian, does his best to make things clear as he discusses the crash and its attendant fall-outs, but there’s limits to how much it penetrated my thick, hairy skull.
As far as I can tell from both this book and other sources, at some point in the nineteen-seventies the powers that be gave financial institutions permission to go even more hog wild in terms of making up various money-magic techniques than they had previously been. This resulted in things like mortgage-backed securities and credit default swaps and whatever the fuck else. The credit rating agencies colluded in making these seem sounder than they were. It seemed to me like a big game of musical chairs, except the governments of the world and especially the US made sure everyone who paid enough money got a seat no matter how badly they bungled whilst the music played. The big losers appeared to be countries like Greece and Ireland, caught up in the game without the resources to back it up, but punished by hypocritical countries like Germany and the US, who encouraged them to this model of capitalism in the first place. If you ever thought Europe was so much more enlightened than the US, their treatment of the financial crash really gives the lie to that point. China comes out looking relatively sane.
Insecurity, opacity, and a clear bias in favor of the already rich and powerful helped produce the various backlashes we’ve seen in the last few years, from Syriza on the left to Trump and Brexit on the right. How much is this just capitalism doing what capitalism does? I tend to think that’s exactly what it is, though Tooze, a self-described “left-liberal,” is as such a little more cagey. This book doesn’t come to any mind-blowing conclusions (unless it does in the bits describing the actual financial shenanigans I don’t find easy to follow), but it’s a worthwhile sally into the history of the near past. I also enjoyed the reading by Simon Vance, whose accent (which sounded vaguely Scottish to me but apparently he was born in England? Who knows) put fun spins names like Angela Merkel. ****