Michael Lewis explains the Irish econopocalypse

Michael "Liar's Poker" Lewis has a fantastic, captivating piece on the Irish econopocalypse in the new Vanity Fair. Lewis ranges freely from slice-of-life observations about Dublin as a city occupied by foreign management consultants trying to figure out what to do with the disastrous worst-of-the-worst banks, to the history of the Celtic Tiger economy, to the ebb and tide of Polish workers in Ireland as an economic indicator, to the incredible and bizarre housing boom that, inevitably, turned into a world-class bust. It's vintage Lewis, gripping, savage, illuminating:
Even in an era when capitalists went out of their way to destroy capitalism, the Irish bankers set some kind of record for destruction. Theo Phanos, a London hedge-fund manager with interests in Ireland, says that "Anglo Irish was probably the world's worst bank. Even worse than the Icelandic banks."

Ireland's financial disaster shared some things with Iceland's. It was created by the sort of men who ignore their wives' suggestions that maybe they should stop and ask for directions, for instance. But while Icelandic males used foreign money to conquer foreign places--trophy companies in Britain, chunks of Scandinavia--the Irish male used foreign money to conquer Ireland. Left alone in a dark room with a pile of money, the Irish decided what they really wanted to do with it was to buy Ireland. From one another. An Irish economist named Morgan Kelly, whose estimates of Irish bank losses have been the most prescient, made a back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.) At the rate money currently flows into the Irish treasury, Irish bank losses alone would absorb every penny of Irish taxes for at least the next three years.

When Irish Eyes Are Crying (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

(Image: Budget Day In Dublin - Useless Gobshites, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from infomatique's photostream)



  1. back-of-the-envelope calculation that puts the losses of all Irish banks at roughly 106 billion euros. (Think $10 trillion.)

    Am I missing a joke, or the devastation of the US Dollar, or anything else? So confised.

    1. In the USA a ‘billion’ is a million times a thousand: 1,000,000,000.
      In other places (such as Europe), a billion is a million times a million: 1,000,000,000,000.

        1. Same here. It’s really weird to me hearing Europeans tossing out numbers like “three thousand million”, and leaving me sitting there trying to do conversions in my head. Makes me real glad I don’t work in international banking.

      1. That still doesn’t make any sense, since that would make it 106,000,000,000,000 euro, which is an impossibly huge amount.

        I think it must mean 106 billion (as in thousand millions), which proportional to their economy would be like $10 trillion in America.


        1. Yep, in the article (a little bit before the snippet posted here) you will see:

          “To get some sense of how “34 billion euros” sounds to Irish ears, an American thinking in dollars needs to multiply it by roughly one hundred: $3.4 trillion.”

      2. In the USA a ‘billion’ is a million times a thousand: 1,000,000,000.
        In other places (such as Europe), a billion is a million times a million: 1,000,000,000,000.

        You know, I remembered hearing that when I was at Primary School, and it came up recently and I just assumed I’d gotten it wrong. Because, you know, it seems unnecessarily complicated and likely to cause massive confusion, and surely we’ve all standardised on naming large numbers.

        1. Historically there have been, and are, people who want everything confusing, and as much cultural separation as possible between “us” and “them.”

  2. “What happened was that everyone in Ireland had the idea that somewhere in Ireland there was a little wise old man who was in charge of the money, and this was the first time they’d ever seen this little man,” says McCarthy. “And then they saw him and said, Who the fuck was that??? Is that the fucking guy who is in charge of the money??? That’s when everyone panicked.”

    That might be the single greatest quote to come out of the economic collapse. It’s also why the people who are in charge of the money are usually so paranoid about remaining the voice behind the curtain instead of seeing the light of day.

  3. I’ll miss all those rightwing/libertarian articles heaping endless praise on the “Celtic Tiger”.

  4. My father’s people hail from rural and old Ireland. So rural and so old that my Uncle has an outhouse and a wood-burning stove and the main family house is nearly 200 years old and is still called “the new house”.

    Visiting them in recent years as this whole “Celtic Tiger” nonsense was going on was like stepping into an alternate reality. Dublin was boiling over with money and yet my family wanted none of it. When “city people” started sniffing for properties, my family all but chased them off with pitchforks. Now, they have a neighbor who sold off to some “city person” who in turn half-built some ugly McManse before running out of money.

    Of course, my family blames all this on the British, but that’s just how they roll.

  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billion

    Billion may refer to:
    In numbers:
    Long and short scales
    * 1,000,000,000 (number), one thousand million, 10^9, in the short scale (most common meaning)
    * 1,000,000,000,000 (number), one million million, 10^12, in the long scale ***(seldom used in contemporary English)***

    (*** emphasis mine)
    Can we please stop fucking around with what should be universal mathematical terms? Metric vs. Imperial is bad enough already.

  6. So it’s million-billion-trillion-quadrillion-Billion(British).

    Does English have a another word to replace the apparently unlamented British ‘billion’?

    1. Now I’m confused….the British Billion is our ‘trillion’, ie a thousand billions, right?

      So …what I’d really like to know is the term for …oh, skip it, it’s a quintillion, no doubt.

  7. As an Irishman living abroad this article makes me at times extremely sad and Angry,they don’t even know what they have done, nor even if they do realise it would they ever admit culpability, poor little Ireland once again relegated to being the economic arsehole of Europe with the best and brightest destined to leave again to try and find a semblance of a decent life abroad.

  8. …Quintillion, sextillion, septillion, octillion, nanillion, decillion, I think? After that, I’m lost.

  9. This “British billion” stuff is essentially a myth. I’m British, 40 years old, and a professional mathematician. I have never once in my life heard “billion” used to mean anything other than a thousand million — except in misguided conversations such as this.

    Presumably at some point in the past “billion” was used in Britain to mean a million million, but that time must be long, long past.

  10. Long-time BoingBoing readers will recognise that when Cory mentions foreign currency, in particular Pounds Sterling or the Euro, the conversion to US$ is usually less than factually accurate but more poetically accurate.

  11. Wait, what am I talking about? I am auto-commenting on comments before reading the article. There must be a term for that.

  12. I’ve been wild about the work of Michael Lewis ever since, yes, “Liar’s Poker”. He also wrote the book which later became the movie “The Blind Side,” which, I’ll be honest, I enjoyed much more than I expected.

    I’m trying to remember, has BB had a guest blogger for financial topics? An opening, perhaps? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

    (Swish, swish.)

  13. He also wrote an excellent piece on Iceland’s financial mess, called “Wall Street on the Tundra.” It featured this memorable quote:
    “Yet another hedge-fund manager explained Icelandic banking to me this way: You have a dog, and I have a cat. We agree that they are each worth a billion dollars. You sell me the dog for a billion, and I sell you the cat for a billion. Now we are no longer pet owners, but Icelandic banks, with a billion dollars in new assets.”

  14. You guys who are arguing about the meaning of “billion”, please read the ‘current usage’ section of wikipedia’s ‘long and short scales’ article, the US and the every part of the UK except Wales all use the same system (the ‘short scale’ where 1 million = 1000 x 1000 and 1 billion = 1000 x 1 million), as do other English-speaking countries like Australia and the English-speaking parts of Canada. It’s various countries in continental Europe like France, Germany and Italy (along with most countries in South America) that use the “long scale”.

  15. I’m more than a little tired of Lewis’ dramatizations of select snippets of the bubble and bust. Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism blog has a number of entries redressing the errors, “simple” stupid and gross, Lewis commits. Smith’s contributors have also taken note of Lewis’ habit of erring on the side of “muscularity”, such as when he lauds market leeches and quant reprobates who game the brokenness of the system along the same fault lines those at institutions follow – though on a different scale.

    In many ways, Lewis is a sleazier Capote. Lewis is reaping fame and self-enrichment by retelling the tawdry tales of evil doers. Much as Stuart, the protagonist of Wolfe’s “Bonfire…” realizes his own smallness, if only briefly, when describing his role as a “Master of the Universe” to his lover’s child when the child points out Stuart’s imperial nakedness as a “crumb collector” rather than as a Universal Master. Lewis is one or two steps below this fictional crumb-catcher.

  16. Thanks for the link! Michael Lewis up to and including “The Big Short” wasn’t savage, just accurate. He curates econ.

  17. Anonymous,

    No, I’m not going to publish defamatory allegations without some credible evidence to back them up.

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