Tag Archives: Wall Street

Angst in Their Pants

The Futures: A Novel by Anna Pitoniak (Lee Boudreaux Books/Little, Brown, $26.00, 320 pages)

The reign of dreariness…

the-futures

One word kept coming to mind as I read this book – dreary.  This is a dreary novel about over-educated, highly-privileged people who live in New York City.  They hate both their professional and personal lives.  It’s a story about individuals in their twenties – just out of Ivy League colleges – who attempt to live like adults; something at which they are absolute failures.

I had just graduated.  I was trying to become an adult, trying to navigate the real world.  Trying to find an answer to what came next.  Who wouldn’t be made anxious by that?  The problem existed in the present tense.

Do you sense the weariness that pervades these words?  These are twenty-year-olds going on 90.  It’s not pleasant.

It is hardly necessary to describe the characters in The Futures, except that they’re individuals – presumably highly intelligent ones – who wind up working on Wall Street and in not-so-hot careers in the Big Apple.  None of them love their lives as adults, but sometimes pretend to:

I was beginning to understand why people sometimes stayed in jobs they hated.  It wasn’t just about the paycheck.  It was about the structure, contributing to the hum of civilized society.  My own contribution was almost invisible, but I liked the coutrements.  The nameplate on my desk; the security guard in the lobby who knew me by sight.  Even if the job wasn’t much, it was something.

See, these are young people – very spoiled young people – who have just started their working careers.  They are already emotionally and physically gone, burnt out and done with the world.  (All their best days and best times were in college when real life was something off in the non-imagined future.)  So they party a lot and they drink like there’s no tomorrow – which was somewhat accurate during the 2000s financial collapse, and they labor to destroy each other.  Friendship, loyalty – what is that?

As one might guess, these characters are not exactly likeable and their encounters with love, marriage, and relationships are horrific.

I am about to turn twenty-three years old, and I couldn’t even begin to imagine it, real adulthood.

It was hard for me to imagine these people having any basis in reality.

Although Pitoniak’s writing goes on for 311 pages, the story is pretty much over at page 229.  One third remains at that point, but neither the author’s heart nor soul seemed to be in it.  Maybe she was herself burnt out at that point.  I certainly was as a reader.  Nevertheless, I trudged ahead until reaching the unsatisfactory ending of a far less than enjoyable or engaging work.

I went to the Met that afternoon, but I couldn’t focus on the art.  My lack of concentration seemed like a failure, and it gave the museum an oppressive air: another reminder of my inability to engage, to find a passion, to figure it out.

Oh my, so sad.  And so very, very dreary.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on January 17, 2017.

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Shake, Rattle and Roll

Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future by Robert B. Reich (Knopf, $14.95, 192 pages)

Robert Reich’s Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future is sectioned into three parts.   In the first two sections, Reich offers arguments for why America’s growing inequality is bad.   The third offers ideas for fixing it.

Part One argues that growing inequality makes it impossible for America’s middle class to consume as much as they produce without going into debt.   The reason for the 2008 meltdown, he argues, was not that Americans had merely spent beyond their means or that Wall Street speculators had trashed the economy, though these he argues were true.   Rather, “their (middle class Americans) means had not kept up with what the larger economy could and should have been able to provide them.”   This is the reason behind the economic collapse.

Part one is the best section of the book.   Reich’s analysis is concise, though well supported.   The argumentation is spot on.   He makes strong points, develops them and supports them without wandering too far from his central theme.   He doesn’t simplify things, but manages to explain them well.

Part two argues that growing inequality will have dangerous social implications if nothing is done to change the direction.   This section begins with a thought experiment involving a fictional future party of populist radicals.   The argument Reich makes here is that capitalism has to be saved from itself.   If the middle class can’t achieve the things they used to, radicals will harness their populist anger and the end result will be the destruction of the economy and capitalism.

The specifics of the thought experiment are a little silly, though not entirely implausible.   It’s also a drawback that he lumps all of the populist anger together into one category.   That’s a bit insulting to middle class intellligence, but maybe Reich is right.   In any case, his main point – that capitalism needs to be saved from itself – is poignant.

Part three cobbles together a  lot of small possible situations, notably changes to tax codes, getting money out of politics, and a complete expansion of Medicare.

The drawback to section three is that there aren’t a lot of connections among the small solutions he cobbles together.   None of them are politically viable.   Reich ends by suggesting that the only real way forward is if financial corporations and the financial elite heed his warning and save capitalism from itself.

The Good:  Reich’s analysis of the structural problem under-girding the American economy appears to be accurate.   His argument is well supported by short at only 147 pages.

The Bad:  Sections two and three of the book simply aren’t as good as the first section.   Section two is purely speculative.   The argument is valid, but the specifics are impractical.   Section three disappoints in its presentation of solutions, which are not politically feasible.

The Bottom Line:  Aftershock is required reading for any progressive wanting to understand the structural economic problem behind the economic meltdown and the barriers to fixing it.   Well recommended.

Trevor Kidd

You can read more from Trevor Kidd at http://trevorkidd.com/ .

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Darlings: A Novel by Cristina Alger, which will be released on February 20, 2012.   “A page-turning debut novel about a wealthy New York family embroiled in the biggest financial scandal of our time.”

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The Darlings

Imagine if the Bernie Madoff scandal had become public only after his death.   This is one of the key plot elements in The Darlings: A Novel by debut author Cristina Alger.   The Darlings will not be released until February 20, 2012, but you can read the first 33 pages now:

http://cristinaalger.com/about-the-darlings-by-cristina-alger/excerpt-from-the-darlings-by-cristina-alger

Joseph Arellano

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Inside Job

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis (Norton, $15.95, 291 pages)

“The problem wasn’t that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to fail.   The problem was that Lehman Brothers had been allowed to succeed.”

If you read The Blind Side by Michael Lewis, and think this is going to be another warm and fuzzy story, think again.   This is a former insider’s telling of the reasons the American economy was virtually destroyed by greed in the early 2000’s and it will get you angry – or at least it should.   Here’s one example pointed out in the book…

It’s late 2006 and U.S. home values have just suffered their greatest decline in 35 years.   And, so, Goldman Sachs selected this time to give a bonus to each and every one of its employees – a little bonus of $542,000 (not salary, but some extra spending cash for the holidays)…   How does this make you feel?

If you’re a normal human being without any ties – familial or otherwise – to Wall Street, you should be infuriated by the knowledge of these practices; and there are dozens of examples provided by Lewis.   Yes, this is a tale of incredible hubris.  Lewis, who had once worked at Solomon Brothers, notes that Wall Street traders saw themselves as geniuses who were above reproach:  “(They had) the ability to see themselves in their successes and their management in their failures.”   In fact, however, Lewis well makes the case that these same self-proclaimed geniuses simply didn’t grasp the details of the game that they were playing.   And we all paid the price for their failures.

In just a few years, “One trillion dollars in (subprime-related) losses had been created by American financiers…”   Lewis is honest enough to say that if he’d remained on the Street, he might have been part of the problem:  “If only I’d struck around, this is the sort of catastrophe I might have created.”

“This woman (Meredith Whitney) wasn’t saying that Wall Street bankers were corrupt.   She was saying that they were stupid.”

This is also the story of one Dr. Michael Burry, a man who figured out that big money could be made off of the Street’s losses and ignorance – he decided to bet, big-time, against subprime mortgage tranches and won big-time.   Burry was a man who figured out early on (in 2007) that Wall Street’s rating firms were engaging in massive cheating – rating as solid risks mortgage packages that were pure losers.   One single pool of “crappy mortgages” (falsely rated) – based on home loans made between April and July of 2005 – was allegedly worth three-quarters of a trillion dollars, but the entire pool was basically worthless.

The problem with Lewis’ account, which he states began as a policy paper on the roots of the modern-day American fiscal crisis, is that it reads like a dry white paper.   There’s no sense of outrage, no moral center.   Even while Lewis complains that the U.S. government (and, specifically, the White House) transformed Wall Street firms into public corporations, which were then deemed to be “too big to fail,” there’s no sense of anger.   Thus, we’re left with a sense of amorality, instead of immorality, in this presentation.

This is an interesting and easily read account, but it’s quite frustrating and not recommended.   If you want to enjoy something written by Michael Lewis, try The Blind Side.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.  

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side.

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False Profits

Too Good to Be True: The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff by Erin Arvedlund (Penguin Group; $16.00; 336 pages)

In this book, financial journalist and first-time author Erin Arvedlund systematically maps out the intricate network of relationships within the Bernard Madoff investment fiasco.   Arvedlund expended a considerable amount of time and energy in developing this book.   She realized that Madoff was full of double talk and could not be delivering the consistent returns to his investors that they thought they were earning when she interviewed him for Barron’s magazine in 2001.   The interview resulted in an article entitled, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”   In response to Arvedlund’s questions, Madoff was typically evasive; he was off-putting when she asked him how his system for investing worked.

The fact that an immense Ponzi scheme was carried out by Madoff through his near-secret advisory activities escaped all but a few of the most Wall Street-savvy auditors.   This secrecy was coupled with the attitudes of his elitist-minded millionaires – there were enough greedy and willing people to feed the pyramid and maintain its immense demand for money over several years – and how many is anyone’s guess.

This reader sends kudos to Arvedlund for her calm, balanced and well-written narrative.   It delivers facts, figures and helpful insight.   Well recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.   Note:  This trade paperback version contains a new chapter that updates events since the date of the original hardcover release.

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