An Interview With Michael Lewis


It didn't have the most auspicious start. When I emailed a couple of weeks to set up an interview, the author of Liar's Poker, Moneyball and The Blind Side said Sure, call me on Tuesday at noon. And so I called at noon -- only to find him still in bed. I was thinking EST. He meant PST. I apologized. We rescheduled.

There might have been something fitting about this. After all, most of what Lewis has been writing about recently has been the migration of geographical power: the end of Wall Street. In magazine articles, op-eds and a new edited volume, he's documented the decline and fall of high finance. So when the Atlantic started to put together a new website about business and finance, he seemed like a good person to talk to.

And, after a few more apologies for waking him up, we did.

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So we're putting together this new business and finance site, and I was hoping to talk about some of what you've written recently.

Michael Lewis: You know it's funny -- I've written nothing about finance for a very long time. I wrote that piece for Portfolio and then I had that piece in the New York Times. And I write a column for Bloomberg, I guess that counts. So I suppose I'm back in the game a bit.

But those two pieces together were probably about 700,000 words. That Times op-ed with David Einhorn must have been the longest op-ed in the history of the newspaper.

I asked [op-ed page editor] David Shipley if we had that distinction and he said no. It was 5,000 words. Originally it was supposed to run in three pieces, and then two, and then he decided to throw it together all at the same time. But Tom Wolfe, I guess, wrote something on Columbus Circle went on even longer. So we didn't get the distinction. But one of the reasons I think we got so much space was that the people who normally occupy that space were on vacation. You know, Maureen Dowd and Thomas Friedman and all those people were gone. So he had all this blank territory.

That's very modest.

Well, they don't bump the regulars.

It seemed like it might have been the longest only because I think the Times only opened the back page only recently to op-ed content. I think before it was all just one page. Now the Sunday paper has three pages for op-eds.

That's right. But anyway, as you know, the longer the piece the fewer the readers. You have this shock and awe effect when you publish something like this. And then you ask people "what did you think of the ending?" and you get a glazed look back.

I can assure you that I read the first two and the last two paragraphs.

But that's only because you had to. It was homework.

Well anyway, I did read your new book [Panic, Norton, November 2008] and I suppose I should ask you some questions about it. So how did it all start? In the afterword you talk about having a conversation with Dave Eggers about the project. But I suppose if I were to rank everyone in the world on the basis of how close they are to finance, Dave Eggers would be pretty near the bottom.

Well it had really impure beginnings. Dave is a friend, and he has this philanthropy that is forever in need of dollars. And he came over here in early 2007 and we were having lunch. And he asked me if I would edit one of these anthologies for McSweeney's. And they've had some very distinguished people do them -- you know, David Sedaris and Michael Chabon and so on. But they never sell. But there's an advance -- you know, ten grand or twenty grand or whatever -- and so we schemed. What could we throw out there that we could fool people into buying that would actually generate real dollars?  And so we weren't thinking, Oh, there's going to be a financial panic and this would be really good for that. Remember, this was February 2007 and we were just thinking, What could we fool people into buying?

So I suggested this, and he said great, and then he gave me a team of interns to dig the stuff up. And the timing of it -- I mean, we sold this to the publisher for a bunch of money, for an anthology, so everybody was very pleased. And I think we thought that would be the end of it. It would go the way of all anthologies and wouldn't be reviewed and there wouldn't be a book tour and anything like that. And then all of a sudden its relevant. All of a sudden I'm being dragged on to the Colbert Report to talk about my book.

And are you on book tour now?

No, no. I did three days of TV and another day on the radio and that was it. But the book came within a millimeter of hitting the New York Times bestseller list. I think it's still on the extended list. So it's going to generate some bucks. It's really kind of great. But on the other hand I get letters from people who are very angry -- who bought this book and it turned out not to be written by me. You know, they bought it because of the way the publisher marketed it, because they thought it was a real book.

It must be said: The words "edited by" are in extremely small print, and the words "Michael Lewis" are in extremely large print.Well the only reason the words Michael Lewis aren't in even bigger print, and "edited by" is there at all, is because I protested to the publisher. I was part of this deceitful project. But the deceitful project was for a good cause. I don't get a nickel.

But I still feel a little badly about it.

[Laughs] Well that's what counts. But on to the contents. One of the interesting things about the book, and I suppose about some of your work more generally, is that there are these recurring characters. And one of them is John Meriwether, who was at Solomon Brothers and then at Long Term Capital Management and I think now he's at another hedge fund.

He's at the same office. They just renamed it JMW, his initials.

But to some extent it seems like this might be in tension with another one of your themes -- you know, "The End of Things." I think the title of both the Portfolio piece and that NY Times piece was something like "The End." But if these same characters keep coming up over and over again, why is this current crisis the end of anything?

Because they're finished now. I think there have been a lot of false endings before this, but this one if different. The character of what's going on now is completely different than in anything that's happened before now.

In what sense?

John Meriwether is not going to be able to raise money for a new hedge fund. In that sense. There's a long list of things that I think are not going to recur, at least for a very, very long time. Like half the graduating classes of Princeton, Harvard and Yale getting jobs on Wall Street, or even wanting to be on Wall Street, because the jobs on Wall Street won't pay anything like they paid in the past. The availability of credit generally has been extinguished.

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Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. More

Conor Clarke is the editor, with Michael Kinsley, of Creative Capitalism, an economics blog that was recently published in book form by Simon and Schuster. He was previously a fellow at The Atlantic and an editor at The Guardian. He is also on Twitter.
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