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whoops! by John Lanchester
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whoops! (2010)

by John Lanchester

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4021926,569 (4.02)20
Member:TimBookToo
Title:whoops!
Authors:John Lanchester
Info:VIKING ADULT, Hardcover, 240 pages
Collections:Your library, Read but unowned
Rating:****
Tags:money, finance, politics

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I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay by John Lanchester (2010)

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Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
I read this because of Lanchester's essays in the LRB, which were well written, funny and clear-headed; the book's the same. I think I may actually now know what a collateralized debt obligation is. It's particularly useful for big-picture stuff. He traces and explains the financial instruments, and the mathematical research behind them, that reduced/massively increased the instability of the financial system; he traces the attitudes to home-ownership that increased demand for home loans while said financial instruments tremendously increased the demand for borrowers; he somewhat gently traces the growth of the laissez-faire mindset. His solution to all this is a world-wide rejection of the growth-above-all mindset. That would be nice, but how exactly would we pull it off?

Two problems with the book: the last two chapters a repetitive and dull. More importantly though, I worry that some of his translations (from professional/mathematical models to everyday language) might be a bit wonky. Particularly odd is the way he frames 'cognitive illusions'. Say a test for a disease is 95% accurate, and the disease affects on person in a thousand. You test positive. What's probability you have the disease? Lanchester says 2%: "if you test 1000 people, the test will give 50 positives, whereas only one of the population actually has the illness." It's been a long time since I did any statistics. But surely the test won't give 50 positives, but rather, 50 incorrect diagnoses for every 1000 people tested? There's nothing in Lanchester's presentation to say that those incorrect diagnoses *must* be false positives; they might be false negatives. I imagine the actual example is framed to exclude this possibility. On the other hand, maybe my maths is so rusty that I've messed this up. Very readable book in any case. ( )
  stillatim | Dec 29, 2013 |
primer on the financial crisis; skimpy on the details and mostly a ramble of one man's perceptions
  FKarr | Apr 3, 2013 |
Fairly light trot through the recent financial crisis. Clear and explanatory with some good jibes and personal touches here and there, along the "Would you credit it?" lines. Makes clear how the thing got out of control because of the abandonment of personal interaction and the consequent collapse of trust. A striking part is the mathematisation of finance and the unreality it led to, eg the leading financier describing the collapse as a something-sigma event, meaning a i in umpteen trillion chance where the trillions are more than the seconds in the history of the universe, whereas the guy had in fact seen half a dozen fairly major financial fold-ups in his own lifetime. I found this especially interesting after Cox's "e = mc2", where the largeness and smallness of the working parts of the universe are indeed factual but unimaginable. ( )
  vguy | Mar 5, 2013 |
An interesting account of the recession for the non-expert reader. ( )
  TimBookToo | Jan 21, 2013 |
The best book I've read so far on the global financial crisis. He goes through it all with care, humour, and vituperation (where deserved). Despite my congenital disability with all things financial, I came out firmly convinced that I understood some of it. Maybe. ( )
  seabear | Jan 9, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 18 (next | show all)
Wall Street has been so smitten with itself that it lost sight of the purpose—to provide credit and capital to the rest of us, remember?—that society entrusted to it. Lanchester, a British novelist and a banker’s son, excels at recalling, in comprehensible terms, this original—and betrayed—purpose. If his penchant for metaphor occasionally leads him off the rails, more often he spots latent truths that conventional banking reporters miss.
 
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Epigraph
"When the capital development of a country becomes the by-product of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done." -John Manard Keynes, THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST AND MONEY
" It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." -David St. Hubbins, This Is Spinal Tap
Dedication
For Miranda and Finn and Jesse
First words
As a child, I was frightened by ATM's.
Quotations
You’re worse off relying on misleading information than on not having any information at all. If you give a pilot an altimeter that is sometimes defective he will crash the plane. Give him nothing and he will look out the window. Technology is only safe when it is flawless. Nassim Taleb, qted on p 155.
There is a profound anthropological and cultural difference between an industry and a business. An industry is an entity which as its primary purpose makes or does something and makes money as a by-product. The car industry makes cars, the television industry makes TV programs the publishing industry makes books, and with a bit of luck they all make money too, but for the most part the people engaged in them don’t regard money as the ultimate purpose and justification of what they do. Money is a by-product of the business, rather than its fundamental raison d’etre. Who goes to work in the morning thinking that the most important thing he’s going to do that day is to maximize shareholder value? Ideologists of capital sometimes seem to think that that’s what w should be doing – which only goes to show how out of touch they are. Most human enterprises, especially the most worthwhile and meaningful ones, are in that sense industries, focused primarily on doing what they do; health care and education are both, from this anthropological perspective, industries.
At least that’s what they are from the point of view of the people who work in them. But many of these enterprises are increasingly owned by people who view them not as industries but as businesses: and the purpose of a business is, purely and simply, to make money. pp 197-198
And the level of our individual response is just as important. On that level, we have to start thinking about when we have sufficient – sufficient money, sufficient stuff – and whether we really need the things we thing we do, beyond what we already have. In a world running out of resources, the most important ethical, political, and ecological idea can be summed up in one simple word: ‘enough.’ p 232
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Has been published under two different titles:

"Whoops! : why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay" and "I.O.U. : why everyone owes everyone and no one can pay".
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Lanchester's brilliant survey of the current financial crisis explains how the booming global economy collapsed seemingly overnight.

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