I apologize to Michael Lewis.
In June, I faulted Michael Lewis - to a fault - for shortcomings in bestselling Lewis tomes I felt over-rated. I won't revisit that opinion here. The key thing is that since 2009 Lewis has published four brilliant articles in Vanity Fair on the global debt crisis as it affects Europe. They are the kind of long-form journalism that the MSM increasingly shuns in favor of superficial "analysis" and junk food. (VF itself is one of the worst offenders). It's the kind of in-depth journalism with an eye for telling detail that requires months to research and a mastery of organization to present cogently - skills Lewis has in rare abundance.
Clockwise from upper left: A "capitalist" is hung in effigy in Reykjavik; violent demonstrations in Athens; protests against harsh government austerity measures in London; an anti-austerity protest in Madrid that attracted 100,000 demonstrators; one of the abandoned subdivisions that mar the post-housing-boom Irish countryside; German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a divine-intervention-seeking pose, with the flags of Germany and the nascent eurozone, which her nation alone can rescue. (Reuters, Getty Images)
I write this mainly to assert that you can't understand the almost unthinkable, rapid decline into utter dysfunctionality of the eurozone, which as you know takes in most of Europe (Britain conspicuously excepted) without reading Lewis' on the ground reporting.
It's plain from Lewis' latest report, on Germany, that the architects of the 12-year-old eurozone committed to this mostly noble project of creating the world's largest economy (about $16 trillion in GDP to America's $14 trillion or so) without anticipating worst-case scenarios - among them, that a member nation of the new currency union might someday face default, and then what?
In his current Germany piece, as in earlier reports on Iceland, Greece and Ireland, only by talking with everyday folks as well as a few of the usual suspects in charge whom the MSM also has canvassed has Lewis been able to, for instance, explain the Germans' gullibility in lending to every kind of future deadbeat globally, despite their world-class prudence at home. To describe an Irish government's insanity in making good on Irish bank losses - forcing everyday Irish to pay for the mistakes of feckless, greedhead capitalists - in a manner likely to set back Irish economic prospects for a generation. To chronicle Iceland's opposite approach, a populist groundswell lethal to the government, insisting that British and other punters seduced by Iceland's now defunct banks should pay for their cupidity rather than be made good by Icelanders. And to assay the Greeks' quite stunning insistence on a free lunch - lavish public services coexisting with a the national sport of tax evasion (by no means limited to weathy loophole exploiters).
Lewis' piece on Germany reads like the kind of travelogue Mark Twain made famous with Innocents Abroad, as do Lewis's sojourns in the other eurozone hotspots. Here Lewis asserts credibly that Germany now effectively "owns Europe." Berlin alone has the resources to bail out the deadbeats. And the quandary for Berlin is that it must do so, given that the balance sheets of German banks - most of them co-ops or outright state-owned - are weighed down with the largest share of dubious euro-denominated debt by far of any eurozone member.
But German popular resentment toward Greek spendthrifts and Germany's own leadership class, struggling to keep the eurozone intact, might scupper the rescue mission. And that might not be such a bad thing. Sorry to be patronizing, but the likes of Greece, which lied about its books to earn its eurozone membership, don't belong at the adults' table in a two-tier eurozone that might emerge from this historic debacle.
Germans are also remarkably scatalogical. Lewis might be stretching a point to see a connection between the pristine conditions Germans insist upon at home while craving a roll in the mud elsewhere. But the phenomenon makes an memorable impression. So does the sadness and sense of betrayal of the Irish, finally prosperous in the 2000s, but only briefly, after more than a century of relative deprivation. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said of his ancestral heritage, the whole point of being Irish is knowing your heart will be broken.
I apologize to Michael Lewis for not taking into account the remarkable insights he has brought to this topic of preoccupying importance when I wrote of his work earlier. And I urge you to immerse yourself in these stories. They go far beyond numbers to the enduring character of people with whom we share the planet:
It's the Economy, Dummkopf!", VF, Septmber 2011 (Germany)
"When Irish Eyes Are Crying," VF, March 2011
"Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds," VF, October 2010
"Wall Street on the Tundra," VF, April 2009 (Iceland)