Saturday, February 4, 2012

Michael Lewis' Boomerang and another Burning Question

Michael Lewis' latest

I have enjoyed many of Michael Lewis's books.  The former Salomon brothers Bond trader has turned into a terrific investigative reporter and author.  While he is pretty clearly no Conservative, many of his books illustrate a fundamentally Conservative viewpoint.  The Blindside makes a powerful case for the redemptive power of love and family.  What could possibly be more Pro-life than successful adoption?  An adoptive mother, who happens to be an member of Emily's list, is Pro-life where it counts in my book.  Lewis' baseball book, Moneyball, shows how reason and empirical observation can provide strategic advantages within the of hidebound world of American baseball--Aristotle would approve!  The recent film with Brad Pitt was surprisingly affecting.  Baseball is, of course, the Conservative sport, par excellence.

Lewis' most recent book, Boomerang, is collection of his reportage much of which appeared in various magazines.  In Boomerang he enumerates many of the financial cataclysms that have rocked the world during the financial crisis of the past few years.  He presents in colourful detail the follies of the Icelandic banking meltdown, the collapse of the Celtic Tiger (Ireland), and the intractable problems at the epicentre of Europe these days--the Greek crisis (the Greeks are suffering from a "moral collapse" where they cheat on their taxes but they want to maintain a very expensive welfare state with early retirement).  He then turns his attention to the US and interviews the well-known analyst Meredith Whitney who identifies the US municipal bond market as the ticking financial bomb that has yet to explode.  She views the state of California as the "scariest" Muni bond market in the US.  Lewis has a hysterically funny interview with ex-governor Schwarzenegger while riding a bike round Venice beach.  Here is one of my favorite passages...

"A woman pushing a baby stroller and talking on a cell phone crosses the street right in front of him (Schwarzenegger), and does a double take. ',' she gasps into her phone.  'It's Bill Clinton!'  She's not ten feet away but she keeps talking to the phone, as if the man is unreal.  'I'm here with Bill Clinton.'
Michael Lewis

'It's one of those guys who has had a sex scandal, ' says Arnold, smiling.

'Wait...wait,' says the woman to her phone.  'Maybe it's not Bill Clinton."

Before she can make a positive identification the light is green and we're off."

Boomerang, Michael Lewis, 2011.

Lewis meets Chuck Reed, the Mayor of San Jose, who identifies Vallejo as the California city that he pities most.  In 2008, unable to come to terms with its many creditors Vallejo had declared bankruptcy.  Eighty percent of the city's budget--and the lion's share of the claims that had thrown it into bankruptcy--were wrapped up in the pay and benefits of public safety workers.  Relations between the police and firefighters, on the one hand, and the citizens, on the other were at historic lows."

Now, in the books' final pages, after a litany of financial follies and horrors that span the globe a hero finally emerges!  He is a Vallejo firefighter named Paige Meyer.  Lewis writes...

"He was forty-one years old.  He had short salt-and-pepper hair and olive skin, with traces of burn marks on his cheeks His natural expression was a smile.  He wasn't particularly either religious or political.  ('I'm not necessarily a God guy.')  The closest thing he had to a religion, apart from his family, was his job.  He was extremely proud of it, and of his colleagues.  'I don't want this to sound arrogant at all,' he said.  'But many departments in nicer communities, they get a serious fire maybe once a year.  We get them all the time.'  The Vallejo population is older and poorer than in many surrounding cities, and older still are the buildings it lives in.  The typical Vallejo house is a charming, highly inflammable wooden Victorian.  In this town we fight fires,' says Meyer.  'This town rips.'

When you take care of something you become attached to it, and he'd become attached to Vallejo.  He was extremely uncomfortable with conflict between his union and the citizens, and had found himself in screaming matches with the union's negator.  Meyer thought firefighters, who tended to be idealistic and trusting were easily duped.  He further thought that the rank-and-file had been deceived both by the city, which lied to them repeatedly in negotiations, and by their own leadership, which harnessed the firefighters' outrage to make unreasonable demands in the union-negotiated contract with the city....

Two months ago, he became Vallejo's new fire chief.  It surprised him: he hadn't even applied for the job...He sat down and made a list of ways to improve the department.  He faced a fresh challenge: how to deliver service that was the same as before, or even better than before, with half the resources.  How to cope with an environment of scarcity...He began to measure things that hadn't been measured.  The number one cause of death in freighting was heart attacks.  Number two was a truck crash.  He was now in charge of a department that would be both overworked and in a hurry.  Fewer people doing twice the work probably meant twice the number of injuries per firefighter.  He'd decided to tailor fitness regimens to fit the job.  With fewer fire stations and fewer firefighters in them, the response times were going to be slower.  He'd need to find new ways to speed things up.  A longer response time meant less room for error; a longer response time meant the fires they'd be fighting would be bigger.  He had some thought about the most efficient way to fight these bigger fires.  He began, in short, to rethink firefighting...

As idiotic as optimism can some items seem, it has a weird habit of paying off."

Boomerang, Michael Lewis 2011

As as Conservative, I find this story truly inspiring.  Free market forces are finding an equilibrium even through the most trying circumstances.  The ultimate result of the credit crisis in the US could be a reinvention of the proper role of government.  Local government is, in some instances, finding ways to do more with less.  Conservatives, coming from an Aristotelian epistemology, believe that local firefighters know more about fighting fires than politicians in Sacramento or Washington.  Paige Meyer will know how many bakeries there are in Vallejo's "Pudding Lane," so to speak.  (See "A Burning Question" posted on January 19th).  Quite often it is not a question of the lack of resources but rather a lack of resourcefulness.  Vallejo, CA has rediscovered this.

Benjamin Franklin of the Union Fire Company would be heartened by Paige Meyer's pragmatic, roll-up-your-sleeves attitude!


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