Paleo Retiree writes:
With “Too Big to Fail,” New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin was obviously inspired by “Barbarians at the Gates,” Burroughs and Helyar’s tale of 1980s financial misbehavior, as well as (perhaps) by the Washington D.C.-based novels of David Baldacci. It’s a moment-by-moment, beyond-the-headlines, NYC-and-D.C.-centric account of the 2008 financial meltdown that’s presented in the breathless, portentous tones of a pop thriller. One by one, huge financial companies approach the breaking point; the world itself teeters on the brink; and officials and regulators race around trying to patch things up before it all topples over.
And that’s it. There’s no overview, little analysis, and zero attempts to explain the significance of much of what we witness. Sorkin’s occasional efforts to explain how exactly these Master of the Universe are making their money, or how the larger system itself works, aren’t a lot more enlightening than what you’d get from a quick glimpse at the Business pages of a decent newspaper. The thriller dimension of the book struck me as a flop — there are only so many ways you can try to extract excitement from a bunch of guys in business suits racing from conference room to conference room. It’s a business-and-finance book for people who are already business-and-finance kinda people.
For a curious outsider, the book’s real value is in the details. Ross seems to be an enthusiastic and scrupulous reporter (even if one does regularly have the impression that the author is dumping the contents of entire shelves of reporter’s notebooks into the book), and the settings, clothing and language seem authentic. What strange lives these people lead, obsessing 24/7/365 about money. How do they sustain their interest year after year? A small bitch even here, though: Sorkin is almost as prone to using bizworld jargon as the finance guys themselves are. Without much contrast between his narrative voice and their style of speaking, their language — which often has a Mamet-like aggression and juiciness — doesn’t stand out as colorfully as it could.
The main thing the book made clear to me that I hadn’t fully realized before was why zero efforts were made by regulators and legislators to take advantage of the crisis to reform or revamp the system. It was evidently less a failure of decency or political will than a failure of imagination. The possibility of reform simply didn’t occur to them. When catastrophe was spotted approaching rapidly, all anyone could think to do was to try to get things Back to Normal as quickly as possible, even if the financial world’s “normal” strikes the rest of us as absurd and corrupt — as the real catastrophe.