Tuesday, January 15, 2013

STL #104: Come back to us, Michael Lewis

In this upcoming series of posts on my last year of reading, I'm going to attempt something that makes me a little uncomfortable. That is, I'm going to be talking about books that I haven't read for quite a while. According to my records, I read Michael Lewis's Money Ball last May; I read his Blind Side last January; and The Big Short some time before that. I don't own any of these books (ah, the library--even the poor ones in this crumbling city) and in interest of actually writing this year I am not going to do any research or rereading for these next several posts. I'll be going off my memory, which is my weakest quality as a writer (even in the midst of reading a novel, I'm often uncertain of a character or event.)

I'll begin then with what I remember about Lewis's work that led me to read three of his books in about six months. Foremost is, as with any journalist, the subject matter. I have been very interested in the subject of economics since the Meltdown (a term that I think has taken the journey from a generic description to the solidity of an historical event akin to "the Depression"). I wrote several years ago about my appreciation of "The Giant Pool of Money'" the Planet Money podcast. I actually find those audio sources more useful to understanding the big picture than Lewis's book, though his focus on individuals gives some more context and understanding of the human dimension. I don't think The Big Short is as good at explaining the dynamics of what happened on a large scale as those two NPR productions.  So economics of general interest of me, but the other two books are about sports, which I watch sometime and occasionally read about.

What's really fascinating about this trio of books is the bigger topic they all share, which is the question of economic value. That's fairly obvious in The Big Short, but in fact in that book it is maybe a less salient feature than in the sports books. The Big Short is comprised of the stories of the "players"--the creators of the fraudulent instruments and those who first recognized their worthlessness. In The Blind Side, Lewis begins by pointing out the value of the left tackle, the right-handed quarterback's personal bodyguard. This value of this position was recognized within the institution of football (and rewarded by the second highest average salary) before it was more generally known. That is just the starting point to what is a largely the personal story of Michael Ohrer--a prodigious physical talent--and those who recognized, cultivated, and I would say exploited his value. Of course this narrative begs the question of economic vs. true value. Ohrer was basically a lost boy, without the protection of a stable family. Where would he be today if he was of typical, unremarkable physical stature?

While pro football did recognize and reward the talent of an unheralded position, the institution of baseball did not until recently recognize what a really valuable player is. Contrary to the intuitions of scouts and other baseball lifers, statistical analysis shows that all you really want is players who walk and hit for power--footspeed and glove work be damned. Money Ball's human story is the story of the men who recognized that value, and transformed the underfunded Oakland A's from also-rans to contenders. I liked Money Ball most of these three, probably because the focus was more on the system than the individuals. While Lewis is an effective story-teller, I did not come to these books looking for what fiction amply provides. Instead I was looking for analysis of how institutions, working as a system, define and transform the question value. As a group, these books provide some inroads into this concept, but Money Ball probably does this most pointedly.

(A note on the title: It is a (pointless) allusion to John Prine's song that has the chorus"Come back to us, Barbara Lewis Hare Krishna Beauregard." I kept this title for the final post because a.)I couldn't think of anything better and b.) the post turned out to be a mental summoning of what I found interesting about these half-remembered books, bringing them back to me.)