Book Reviews | May 03 2016
By Rudi Filapek-Vandyck
Former banker Satyajit Das has captured many a headline in years past, having published two best sellers "Traders, Guns & Money: Knowns and Unknowns in the Dazzling World of Derivatives" and "Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk".
In recent times, his eloquent appearances on local media carry a somewhat dark undertone, which is not surprising because Das is concerned about the world's addiction to debt. An addiction he believes will come home to roost, at some point. The same sombre undertone is on display throughout his latest publication, "A Banquet of Consequences. Have we consumed our own future?"
Even though the question in the second part of the title is meant to be rhetorical, the reader is early on left with no misunderstanding Das' answer is affirmative. The world is doomed. It's only a matter of time. Clock is ticking. Better not get too complacent about it.
The opening paragraph to the book's prologue immediately sets out the framework for the following ten chapters + epilogue:
"The world is entering a period of stagnation, the new mediocre. The end of growth and fragile, volatile economic conditions are now the sometimes silent background to all social and political debates. For individuals, this is about the destruction of human hopes and dreams."
I think we can all agree on this: many a book opens with a far more upbeat introduction. What follows is re-connection with global financial history, starting after WW II and leading into the Global Financial Crisis. At which point Das refers to billionaire investor George Soros who agrees with him the "GFC" was not part of the normal boom and bust cycles that have characterised the past. It's the end of the super boom. The world has become too reliant on taking on ever more debt in order to create economic activity. This is not going to end well.
One of the enjoyable features of Das' writing is the incorporation of quotes and insights from a grand battalion of writers, thinkers, politicians and philosophers. "Everybody, it seemed, agreed with Oscar Wilde that living within one's income merely showed a lack of imagination."
"To paraphrase Voltaire's observation on doctors, they [central bankers] now prescribed medicines of which they knew little, to cure diseases of which they knew less, in economic systems of which they knew nothing."
"Fyodor Dostoyevski knew that 'the man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to such a pass that he cannot distinguish the truth within him or around him'."
The problems Das identifies are real, and they do seem flawed and scary, no doubt about it. But do they inevitably spell doom & gloom, bust & disaster, crisis and implosion? Not one single hesitation is on the author's mind. The world has already moved too far down the road of too much credit and debt, is the conclusion. No central banker or politician who chooses otherwise than postponing the inevitable pain until "later".
And thus we've entered an era of slow growth, with no solution to our structural problems, other than taking on more debt. Das proves a firm non-believer in the potential of new technologies and innovation, or, for that matter, human invention and resilience. The world is doomed. It is by now, alas, inescapable.
"Debt hangs like the sword of Damocles over the global economy."
A Banquet of Consequences. Have we consumed our own future? By Satyajit Das. Viking (Penguin Books). 335 pages. ISBN 9780670079056 (paperback)
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