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The Big Ideas: Financial Debates in Surprising Places

Professor Niall Ferguson (L), with writer/host Adrian Pennink (C), and U.S. musician Moby at the 37th Annual International Emmy Awards in New York in 2009.

A weekly roundup - with a less-than-euphonious title - of the week's most interesting mentions of finance in surprising places.

ONE: The London Review of Books has a searing attack on economic historian/soothsayer Niall Ferguson, comparing him to dimwitted, racist sportsman Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. The author, Pankaj Mishra, maintains that Ferguson, with his conveniently punny but intellectually unsound coinages of terms like "Eurabia" and "Chimerica," is merely playing at globalization and in fact is a trivia-peddling neoimperialist who suffers from a terrible case of White Man's Burden:

Still, Ferguson remains defiantly loyal to his neoimperialist vision, scoffing at those who can still 'work themselves up into a state of high moral indignation over the misdeeds of the European empires'.

As the final crushing blow, Mishra uses Fitzgerald's description of Buchanan to describe Ferguson: "'Something,' Nick Carraway says of Tom Buchanan, 'was making him nibble at the edge of stale ideas as if his sturdy physical egotism no longer nourished his peremptory heart.'"

Other highlights of the article include the word "gallimaufry," which, to save you the trouble of looking it up, means "jumble," and the notation that Ferguson has accused both Paul Krugman and Kenneth Clark of "de haut en bas" manner, which is an unnecessarily French way of saying "superior" or "condescending."

An intellectual attack on Ferguson is easy pickings; he is clever, hyperverbal, self-promoting, and, after all, announced "the real point of me is not that I'm good looking...." which set off a million academic alarms screaming that a lightweight had gotten past the academic bodyguards. As for the larger ideas tackled in the article, many of those who are interested in China's financial power and its rise may be interested in thinking about Mishra's rebuttal to Ferguson that China isn't rising any time soon. I keep hearing from doomsayers that China is in for a hard economic landing soon, with its growth slowing and its inflation rising. That is a more worthy issue to consider than the typical bickering of English intellectuals, though they do make for entertaining reading.

TWO: Bloomberg BusinessWeek is a financial publication, but its witty, surprising take on this week's European dramatics takes its cue from non-financial creativity: a flowchart of the insults that European leaders have leveled at each other since the sovereign debt crisis has become tense. Not included is the trendline of poor Sarkozy taking it on the nose: having his height mocked by David Cameron and his looks mocked by Barack Obama, Sarkozy seems to be dropping his statesman's inhibition, allowing himself to dissolve in helpless mirth when asked if Italy would deliver on its promises of austerity. Now, if only they would sharpen their wits on bond negotiations instead of each other.

THREE: Paul Volcker has a lot to say, still, about financial reform, and he takes to the New York Review of Books to do it. Volcker, the author of the Rule that has caused many banks to spin off their trading activities, still has his sights set on the dangers of the "shadow banking system" of "the nondepository banks, hedge funds, insurers, money market funds, and other largely unregulated entities that grew enormously in size after 2000--a system that by June 2008 was roughly the size of the traditional banking system."

Volcker's sensible plea is for someone - anyone - to take responsibility for stepping up regulation to keep track of the vastly expanding financial web of interrelated companies:

Someone, some agency, some group, should be charged with taking a holistic view toward assessing financial markets and institutions, with particular attention to the interconnections among them, whether domestic or international. Potentially dangerous inconsistencies and instabilities--the growth of the housing bubble based partly on securitized subprime mortgages would be a good example--need to be recognized and assessed. Whether that assessment need carry with it specific regulatory responsibilities and enforcement authority (for instance, setting and enforcing capital standards for "nonbanks" such as hedge funds) will likely vary from country to country. But there can't be much doubt that success will require international consultation, exchanges of information, and in some areas coordinated action.

FOUR: New York Magazine's always-wonderful Approval Matrix notes this week that Penn Badgley didn't bother to learn all of the financial terms in the (wonderful) movie Margin Call (highbrow/despicable) which, considering the naive blind greed of his character, may actually have been quite the Method choice (highbrow/brilliant.)

FIVE: The New Yorker is teasing on the homepage its October 2009 article on the accidental and somewhat ignoble beginnings of management consulting, or "ordering people around."

SIX: Behind the New Yorker paywall is Ian Frazier's nice Talk of the Town on the origins of Occupy Wall Street in the activist work of Clayton Patterson. Patterson tells the young protesters that they need more leadership. There is a pleasant digression on the protesters looking for names for their movement: "harmonious revolution" and "Neossance," which might be the kind of branding suggested by the management consultants in (5).

SEVEN: Time Magazine's editor of business and economics, Rana Foroohar, asks if it's impossible to have social mobility in America anymore.

EIGHT: Foreign Policy's What Ails America issue includes articles on What Ails America: The Fed and What Ails America: The Dollar. The article on the Fed - in which the author maintains that there is only a spurious connection between monetary policy and economic growth - starts with a doozy:

"Documentaries like Inside Job and books like Michael Lewis's The Big Short have spun a narrative of America's economic crisis that stars Wall Street bankers and credit-rating agencies as the ultimate villains. But despite popular belief, subprime mortgages with exotic features had little to do with the housing bubble and the current debt overload weighing down U.S. households. They accounted for a mere 5 percent of mortgages at the time. The story line is just wrong."

That's your lucky eight this weekend.

About the author

Heidi N. Moore is The Guardian's U.S. finance and economics editor. She was formerly the New York bureau chief and Wall Street correspondent for Marketplace.

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