A Review of "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis

“The Big Short” tackles the financial meltdown as seen by four relatively minor, but colorful players. (Minor means running only hundreds of millions, not billions.) All of them were voices in the wilderness. All of them bet heavily against the subprime real estate bubble that, for a while, fueled huge gains.

This book will help nourish the healthy debate that is going on right now about the financial industry, its maladies and possible cures. It can do that because it is such a great read and many people will read it, and because it is replete with interesting, on-the-scene revelations.

Do not, by the way, be dissuaded from reading the book because of the average three-star rating on amazon.com (out of five stars). The torrent of one-star ratings were merely a protest that the book’s digital version wasn’t made available immediately. They have nothing to do with the quality of the book.

But there is a problem

Buried among the negative reviews, though, there is a possibly valid criticism. It is related to, but not the same as, a criticism of my own.

I’ll get to those later. Let me hasten to say that I don’t really believe these to be valid criticisms of the book per se. They complain about what the book didn’t say and perhaps should have said. But for a work to be seminal, it needn’t say everything. It must only trigger a productive debate.

The cast of characters

The protagonists (all men) look like a cross-section of the entire industry to people who know it:

  • a geeky guy with laser focus and Asperger’s syndrome;
  • a guy who is habitually, unconsciously crude, but seems not to realize it and doesn’t care;
  • a guy who says up-front that he intends to screw you, though you might benefit from it;

and for good measure,

  • a group of relatively modest nice guys with ordinary common sense who assume the experts must know better, yet stick with their common sense when not convinced otherwise.

These four protagonists, their personal characteristics aside—whether at a posh dinner in New York or an industry conference in Las Vegas—come off like Alice in Wonderland at her trial: clear-headed, sane people surrounded by raving maniacs.

So of course you root for them. You know they’re going to turn out to be right. Yet you thrill to the fact that while they know they’re surrounded by fools who are there for the taking, there’s always the possibility that something will go wrong.