An accessible and thorough story of a nation’s financial collapse.

ICELAND'S SECRET

THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE WORLD'S BIGGEST CON

Debut author Bibler offers an insider’s account of a banking scandal that roiled the Icelandic economy.

In 2004, the author moved from New York City to Iceland inan attempt to “escape the increasingly oppressive world of mortgage-boom Wall Street.” He found a job at Landsbanki, the country’s oldest financial institution, in portfolio management. Before long, he says, he discovered disturbing trading irregularities that compelled him, as a matter of conscience, to resign from the firm. In 2008, a major Icelandic banking crisis occurred—a catastrophic “earthquake that leveled the financial fortunes of a whole country,” as Bibler puts it. The country’s three major banks collapsed, the national currency followed suit, and many people’s savings were wiped out. After some lean times, Bibler was hired as an investigator by Iceland’s FME, the “financial regulator of the land,” and he writes of how he and his colleagues discovered an astonishing scandal—the three major banks, including his former employer, were buying up their own shares in order to artificially generate demand for them, effectively manipulating their prices. They then used shell companies both to conceal those shares and dispense loans made against their value. In the case of Landsbanki, he says, this unscrupulous practice dated back to 1998. The author captures the unseemliness and audacity of the gambit in memorable, vivid prose: “It would be something like as bad as if a supermarket owner, seeing that nobody is buying his well-rotted tomatoes, hired dozens of actors to queue outside his store, buying up his produce with the store’s own cash.”

Bibler is uniquely positioned to explain the scandal, as he assumes a dual perch as both an insider and an outsider. He not only captures the financial skulduggery in precise detail, moving seamlessly from nuts and bolts to big-picture analysis, but also depicts it as a cautionary tale—a case of “unregulated Wild West capitalism.” In this way, the book goes beyond a mere portrayal of a specific crime and its far-reaching ramifications and becomes a moral tale about the depths of human greed. It shows how, even in a nation as thoroughly egalitarian as Iceland, crimes of avarice are possible—especially when regulatory agencies are less than vigilant. Furthermore, he provides engaging insights into Iceland’s unique culture, including the difficulty of precisely assigning responsibility for wrongdoing: “the Icelandic language offers up a third, middle way of describing the making of a mistake as if it took place in a vacuum and never involved a living soul, the way electrons magically pop into and out of existence in the vastness of space….With it, Icelandic politics and business can seem magical worlds, bereft of human influence.” That said, Bibler’s account isn’t without its longueurs; his descriptions can be redundant, and the pace of the book, as a mixture of financial commentary and personal remembrance, is often languid. Nonetheless, it’s an admirably rigorous account of a complex event of great contemporary importance.

An accessible and thorough story of a nation’s financial collapse.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-85-719899-0

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harriman House

Review Posted Online: July 19, 2021

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Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our...

THINKING, FAST AND SLOW

A psychologist and Nobel Prize winner summarizes and synthesizes the recent decades of research on intuition and systematic thinking.

The author of several scholarly texts, Kahneman (Emeritus Psychology and Public Affairs/Princeton Univ.) now offers general readers not just the findings of psychological research but also a better understanding of how research questions arise and how scholars systematically frame and answer them. He begins with the distinction between System 1 and System 2 mental operations, the former referring to quick, automatic thought, the latter to more effortful, overt thinking. We rely heavily, writes, on System 1, resorting to the higher-energy System 2 only when we need or want to. Kahneman continually refers to System 2 as “lazy”: We don’t want to think rigorously about something. The author then explores the nuances of our two-system minds, showing how they perform in various situations. Psychological experiments have repeatedly revealed that our intuitions are generally wrong, that our assessments are based on biases and that our System 1 hates doubt and despises ambiguity. Kahneman largely avoids jargon; when he does use some (“heuristics,” for example), he argues that such terms really ought to join our everyday vocabulary. He reviews many fundamental concepts in psychology and statistics (regression to the mean, the narrative fallacy, the optimistic bias), showing how they relate to his overall concerns about how we think and why we make the decisions that we do. Some of the later chapters (dealing with risk-taking and statistics and probabilities) are denser than others (some readers may resent such demands on System 2!), but the passages that deal with the economic and political implications of the research are gripping.

Striking research showing the immense complexity of ordinary thought and revealing the identities of the gatekeepers in our minds.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-27563-1

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Sept. 4, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2011

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A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

ECONOMIC DIGNITY

Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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