Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A non-review

I rarely fail to finish a book I've started. I've read people and know people who say that, with all the things there are to read and do in the world, it's practically irresponsible to finish every book one begins, but, perhaps due to some innate stubbornness, I usually plow through pretty much everything I've begun.

But not in the case of David M. Smick's The World Is Curved: Hidden Dangers to the Global Economy (2008). I got to page 64, said "no more," and put it away in favor of other books. This book is by no means a disaster; Smick, a longtime investment and political consultant, clearly knows his stuff, and the book gushes with erudition and history from one who has, apparently, been on the front lines of the global financial situation for quite a while.

What put me off were two things: the tone of the text, which lurches between "the sky is falling" and "the U.S. better not change anything if it wants to remain dominant"; and the inapplicability of anything here given the meltdown that has occurred since the book was published. If you read this book, you will become convinced that the world financial system is on such a thin edge at all times, that the embedded risk is so high that there is almost no way we'll get through, but all of that has already happened, and I don't need to be convinced.

As you might guess from the title, Smick has written this book as a response to Tom "I love globalization in the morning" Friedman, as he points out that the financial world is not flat (like the goods and services world), but curved. He writes some very dismissive things about the effects of globalization, but seems content to leave that to Tom, as he needs to get on with his non-flat world of finance.

And that fundamental mistake colors the whole thing. We become convinced that finance lies under every other business activity, is the subfloor for all intents and purposes, so how can one be curved and the other flat? Clearly it cannot work, the positioning of a flat world on a curved underworld (I use the term in both senses of the word); all that happens is that the flat world cracks and warps, which is a pretty good description of what is actually happening.

Smick, as well, ignores matters of national interest. Almost every horror-filled scenario he can think up closes with, "The U.S. had better not do anything in the way of taxation or regulation to look unfriendly, or the whole house of cards will come down." In other words, if America fails to keep the highway clear for business to do whatever it feels like doing, the ruination of the world will be on our heads. This is an extreme philosophy to be sure, that we must not impede the right of multinational corporations and other central banks to do whatever they like - in effect, it argues that worldwide financial efficiency must trump all other considerations.

There are other, more minor irritations here. The idea that there was no innovation before 1979, until world financial flows matured enough to fund new technologies, is patently wrong. That the confidence of financial executives somehow inevitably trumps the confidence of "regular people" is insulting in a democracy. That confidence is the driving force of financial markets is frightening if true, misleading if false.

I may go back to this book one day (yes, the old stubbornness again), but I'm in no hurry. I can't recommend you not read it just because I had my fill of it fairly early - it's a readable summary of the last 20 years or so of international finance. But I found it an unpleasant read, wondering as I did how any rational person could believe that the system wasn't cruisin' for a bruisin'. The probability that we could have avoided the problems we're having now seems asymptotically close to 0; if Smick saw it so clearly, so should everyone else, which indicates someone needs to fix it.

No comments:

Clicky Web Analytics