Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Few New Books..(for those of you with time!!..)

Just a few words on some of the books I've read over the last month or so - a wide range of genres, from highbrow to lowbrow, you must admit!

Let's start with the low first:

I guess I've read about four or five Harlan Coben novels in my time, mainly on long and boring plane flights. This one, his latest, is only mildly entertaining, although I must admit that Coben is interesting in that he has a real gift for portraying the emptiness and ordinariness of modern American suburban life. His characters are real people in real family situations. He rarely goes underground, with criminals, murderers, serial killers, and other ugly types. This is middle class fiction, and sort of wholesome, and the focus is usually on teenagers and parents in stressful, but still ordinary situations. I guess Coben writes about what he knows.

Lee Child's new Jack Reacher thriller 61 Hours is much, much better than his last one, Gone Tomorrow. Child actually takes time to explore Reacher as a character, his past, what makes him tick, etc. He comes out of this a fully developed and believable human being and therefore a hell of a lot more interesting. The plot is excellent too. Unputdownable, as all good thrillers need to be!

All the literati across the globe are suddenly into English crime writer Philip Kerr, so I had to read his latest And The Dead Rise Not, just to find out what all the fuss was about. Kerr's central character is ex-policeman Bernie Gunther, who plied his craft in Nazi Germany, specifically Berlin, in the 30's and 40's. This is Gunther's sixth outing. While an enjoyable read on many levels, particularly political, I was disappointed overall. Kerr just tries way too hard to get the slick, private-eye, Philip Marlow patter in there, and it's forced and irritating. It's look-at-me-aren't-I-stylish annoying. And the book is full of structural flaws in plotting and character.

OK, now to the hard stuff:

Nobel Prize winner, Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk released his latest novel The Museum of Innocence late last year, and I've sort of been meaning to get around to reading it, you know, but it's sooo long and looks so, like....serious. So when the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club selected it for discussion in May I thought's time.

Now when you read a novel by a Nobel laureate you don't say 'Oh, I didn't like didn't grab me..etc'. Literature at this level judges YOU, you don't judge it! (take note Marieke!). So I feel rather good about exclaiming to all and sundry that The Museum of Innocence is simply superb. It's boring in parts, the central character is a tad annoying, and there's an argument for saying it's 100 pages too long, but when you finish it and you feel that deep level of satisfaction that a good literary experience can bring, these things become trifles.

The novel is set in the fabulously interesting and ancient city of Istanbul in the mid-70's, and it explores the intense and passionate love between a rich young man and an astonishingly beautiful, but poor, young girl. As it turns out her beauty becomes toxic and destructive, and ultimately tragic for both of them. This novel could not have been written in the West. It takes far too seriously some very traditional themes of virginity, fidelity, marriage and family. But that's precisely what makes it so fascinating and powerful. Highly recommended.

The Norseman's Song is a new novel from Melbourne poet and former speechwriter Joel Deane. It is dark and unremitting in its very sure-footed exploration of human cruelty, violence and death. It has echoes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness - 'the horror, the horror' underpinning our fragile social cohesion, and how easily the bonds preventing our descent into hell can be destroyed. Deane's is a mature, rich and powerful vision, and his novel deserves to be widely read. Not for the faint hearted, but I loved it.

Which nicely brings me to On Evil, a new literary-philosophical work from one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Terry Eagleton (I raved about his Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, in May last year in this blog). Unfortunately On Evil is nowhere near as good, and I found myself frequently nodding off while reading it. Eagleton never clearly states his case, but chooses to let it emerge through his subtle engagement with a number of literary classics, philosophical treatises and historical events such as the holocaust. The blurb calls this 'a witty and accessible study'. I'd call it anything but!

If you love Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief (and who doesn't?) you will also love the new English translation of German novelist Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin. First published in 1947, this gut-wrenching novel is a masterpiece in its graphic portrayal of German society under the Nazi regime. Truly invigorating.

Contemporary American writer David Shield's Reality Hunger proclaims itself as a manifesto for writers of non-fiction. It's a call to arms, an attempt to destroy the concept of fiction as a still relevant art form. The book comprises 618 relatively brief but strong and succinct statements, many of which are intriguing, suggestive, resonant and powerful. For example: number 405: 'Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings'; number 529: 'We are adrift, alone in the cosmos, wreaking monstrous violence on one another out of frustration and pain'. Well into the book you start to realise, if you hadn't twigged at the start, that this entire work is a strung-together series of quotations from other writers. This is only acknowledged, reluctantly, and at the insistence of his publisher, at the end. Which proves Shields' major thesis that all art is a re-use and re-cycling of prior works, an exquisitely post-modern statement for our times. Interesting, but pretty uninteresting at the same time. I was not real sold at the end.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Failure of Free Market Economics: Martin Feil

I came to know of Martin Feil when I moved to Melbourne and started to read The Age. Feil was a regular contributor to the business pages and I found him a very strange beast indeed. He seemed like a total throwback to me. I've always been a passionate supporter of free trade, open markets, deregulation - the whole 'economic rationalist' kit and caboodle. Paul Keating, the godfather of this school of economic thinking and policy in Australia, has been my hero for 30 years. Feil, on the other hand, hates Keating with a passion (but to give him his due, hates Howard and Costello too!)

So what sort of strange concoction is this man? I had to read this book to find out.

Feil's essential thesis is a quite familiar one:

'We are simply spending too much on imports, and exporting virtually no value-added products'  (p. 157)

'Decades of unremitting tariff-lowering - without the erection or retention of compensating non-tariff barriers - have led to entirely predictable adverse results. Imports have increased their share of virtually every market within Australia for merchandise goods. This has resulted in negative current-account balances for every year since 1973.  In turn, these negative balances have created a known foreign debt of  $700 billion.' (p. 219)

Feil laments the fact that we've destroyed our manufacturing base in the process of dismantling the protectionist regime Australia had built up over the previous century. Thus our industries can't compete with imports, and we have few products to export to help balance our accounts. Minerals, agriculture, education and other services are nowhere near enough.

His enemies are legion: Australian politicians; the whole economics profession; the Productivity Commission; the retail, hospitality and services sectors of the economy ('that produce nothing tangible'); and banks of course.

The global financial crisis, which Feil delights in calling the global financial disaster, is shoehorned into assuming the almost theological role of an Armageddon, an inevitable and justified outcome of the disastrous free market policies the developed world has pursued over the past 30 years. To make this case Feil almost comically exaggerates the magnitude and severity of this event, even its reach into the deepest, unknown and wilfully unmeasured recesses of our economy. He needs such an outcome to bolster his anti free-market thesis. The fact that Australia seems to have escaped comparatively lightly from the GFC is in his view illusory. Just you wait! 'How can anyone argue with a straight face that free-market economics is still some eternal economic truth?' (p.142)

One of Feil's major arguments in this book is that, while Australia was perhaps justified in removing its high tariffs regime, it should have left in place, or created, a legion of 'non-tariff barriers' to replace it in order to continue a good measure of protection for our manufacturing industries, just like every other country on the planet has done. He lists the sorts of barriers he favors, and they include this:

'Simply slowing down the supply chain through technical Customs queries, making demands for additional information, and routinely engaging in the dilatory clearance of goods by the authorities....In the case of perishable products, this may result in the loss of the entire shipment'. (p.212)

In other words Australians should resort to the base level of corruption, inefficiency, malpractice and common trickery of much of the rest of the world. I'm sorry sir, that's not my country.

On the positive side, Feil's book has some marvellous statistics and information in it, and there is much to agree with. It's well-researched, well written and a good read. (Did you know, for instance, that since 9/11 Australia's defense budget has increased from $12.6 billion to $26.7 billion in 2008-9; that Customs has forgotten about trade facilitation and now focuses on our infantile obsession with border security; that its staffing has grown from 3900 to 5450 people, and its budget has almost doubled; that the Australian Federal Police has increased its staff from 4200 to 6000? What a growth industry security is!) 

It's just a pity the basic thesis of this otherwise fascinating book is so seriously flawed and unpersuasive.   

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Michael Lewis' new book on the GFC: The Big Short

'The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him'. (Leo Tolstoy, 1897)

In the late 1980's Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker, an expose of Wall St that became an instant classic. It is one of the great business books of all time. Now he's followed that with The Big Short, an utterly absorbing story of the origins of the Global Financial Crisis, the incompetent and deluded (but very rich) Wall St morons who caused it, and the handful of savvy, smart outsiders who saw it coming but were universally panned, condemned and ignored.

The book is full of some 'compulsively fascinating characters' as the blurb says. But the real joy of the book for me is that it so clearly explains all the complex financial instruments that were at the heart of the sub-prime mortgage problem. By the time you get to page 140 you can immediately comprehend the following sentence and appreciate the real drama behind it:

'Only now did he fully appreciate the central importance of the so-called mezzanine CDO - the CDO composed mainly of triple B rated subprime mortgage bonds - and its synthetic counterpart: the CDO composed entirely of credit default swaps on triple-B-rated subprime mortgage bonds'. 

The Big Short is a must read - in so many ways a fable of our times.