Panel Nerds: Michael Lewis Is On The Money


Who: Michael Lewis, interviewed by Ira Glass
What: “Michael Lewis in Conversation with Ira Glass
Where: 92nd St. Y
When: February 3, 2011
: Up

It’s a subject some of us choose not to discuss or think about anymore. Not because it makes us uncomfortable, but because it’s been exhausted over the past few years. And because it’s difficult to fully understand. If there were a time to bring up the financial crisis, however, Michael Lewis and Ira Glass are the ones to lead the discussion.

Glass, one of the best interviewers out there, can make a heavy topic like finance come alive. He clearly has an affinity for Lewis, who he declares is one of the few journalists who does fact-based reporting while clearly having a good time doing it. Glass was at the top of his game, engaging with Lewis, reacting to both his answers and his implications, as he sought closure and a villain to blame for the economic downturn. But what Glass said he found in Lewis’ book, The Big Short, were “heroes” in the form of bankers.

How’d Lewis pull that off? He made the characters likable. Lewis said that was easy because he genuinely did like the characters he covered in the book, and simply outlined their positive attributes. While impressed with Lewis’ achievement, Glass couldn’t held but be a bit disappointed that Lewis wouldn’t identify the “bastards” who caused the economic decline. When he admitted he wanted to “hate somebody,” Glass got a round of applause from the approving audience. Once pushed, Lewis said that the ratings agencies are at least partially at fault, arguing that they were “foolish, if not a bit crooked.”

Contrary to what we might hope, Lewis doesn’t think that many people willingly knew that the entire mortgage-backed security operation was a “scam.” He was able to get inside some of the biggest and most well-known banks thanks to contacts he made as a result of of his first Wall Street book, Liar’s Poker. A generation of young, ambitious students fell in love with the Wall Street that Lewis had depicted and chronicled, and they rewarded Lewis with access to interviews and information for his book. Lewis injected life into what might seem to be a complicated, boring business story in a way few others can.

What They Said
“I’m always attracted to the idea that there’s value in the things people aren’t looking at.”
– Michael Lewis looks for stories that others don’t stop to see

“Ignorance has been seen as an excuse.”
– Michael Lewis believes that someone needs to take responsibility for the crisis

“The most annoying thing about this financial crisis is when people say nobody could have predicted the crisis.”
Ira Glass thinks that it’s possible to understand what bankers were doing wrong

“There’s going to be another financial crisis in a decade. The question is just what it is.”
Michael Lewis hopes that we won’t be as blindsided by the next one

“Where do they pay kids who don’t know anything lots of money? Wall Street!”
– Michael Lewis says that some young people were drawn to banking after they read Lewis’ Liar’s Poker

What We Thought

  • We can’t praise Glass enough. He asks very direct questions without sounding too leading. It’s hard to not give a long-winded response to provocative and probing questions. His many years of experience pay off every time he does an interview.
  • Lewis revealed that he’s at work on a sequel to Moneyball. He said he spent three years following prospects in the minor leagues, to see how Billy Beane’s players turned out. It astounded us how much time Lewis puts into researching and preparing and making his books. There’s a reason he’s at the top of his game.

Some audience behavior seems to repeat itself panel after panel. We’ll be updating a running list of “PANEL RULES!” that will help ensure that you are not the dweeb of the Panel Nerds.

Panel Nerds don’t like…Automatics
At many panels, when the night turns to the Q&A portion, we have noticed that the first two questions are usually quite similar: a) What do you regret/what would you do differently?, and b) What’s next? They’re not bad questions to ask, but they’re predictable. In the case of the first one, it’s a tough thing for people to answer since it requires them to admit they made mistakes with roles, or stories, or how they carried themselves. Odds are that they won’t made those kinds of sizable confessions on a stage in front of a couple hundred people. The second question here is always more interesting and delivers something more substantial. It paid off well in this case because it allowed Lewis to illustrate just how many projects he’s working on at once. It gave us insight into Lewis’ process and personality in much the way the first question so often fails to produce.

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