Conversant in Commerce

'Like so many once pig-ignorant artsy types, I'm now conversant with credit default swaps, bundled securities and derivatives'

Lionel Shriver

When younger, I happily declared a blanket indifference to economics. I was interested in literature, painting, rock and roll, dance and ethically thorny political matters like Vietnam. I used my newspaper’s business section to clean my windows. Writing off corporate mergers and budget deficits as other people’s boring problems freed me to concentrate on the finer things: colour and contrast, motion and emotion, Talking Heads.

Yet whenever I seriously mucked into a political issue — say, Northern Ireland — I discovered an economic side to the story that was crucial. In my later adulthood, paying more considerable taxes has provided me with a sense of vested interest in how my earnings are spent. Post-2008, economics has altogether belied its reputation for tedium, displaying all the drama, suspense and tragedy that I once sought in Edith Wharton (who herself had a good grasp of the role of cash in personal relations).

Indeed, economics and the news have become synonymous. Lehman Brothers, Northern Rock, Bernie Madoff. Bank bailouts, bursting property bubbles, soaring unemployment. Paralysis in Congress over raising the debt ceiling. Now the rolling sovereign debt crisis and the imperilling of the euro. For a fourth year in a row, the one consistent theme worldwide has been money.

So I’ve had to get up to speed. Like so many once wilfully pig-ignorant artsy types, I’m now conversant with credit default swaps, bundled securities and derivatives. I titled one of my own short stories “Negative Equity”, and began every chapter of my last novel with the balance of my protagonist’s Merrill Lynch account. I realise that Libor is not a creature from Greek mythology. I’ve learned to decode “structural deficit” (=deficit) and have come to fear the terrible power of bond markets (ergo, I know what a bond market is). I track unemployment and inflation rates, no longer abstractions but numbers that pertain to my life and those of my neighbours. I’ve not only mastered the difference between the CPI and RPI, but I actually have an opinion about which is a more accurate reflection of rising prices (the RPI — of course). I follow currency exchange rates. I’m still a little hazy on what the European Central Bank is exactly, but sooner or later I’ll get there.

True, I can’t say I’ve gone as far as Zoe Williams, who declared in the Guardian in November that she was forswearing fiction for the likes of John Lanchester’s Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, because during unrelenting fiscal catastrophe it feels “frivolous to read about made-up people”, which is tantamount to “watching the telly when you have homework”. I still read novels, even if the last one I dispatched, Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector, was in large part about a giddily appreciating internet start-up preparing for a public offering: more money.

Yet the overwhelming majority of the news I’ve consumed for the last few years has been economic. I can’t be the only one who’s had to take a de facto short course in the gnarly ways of finance in order to have the slightest clue what’s happening in the world, despite an initial prejudice against what used to seem a dreary field. I will often read the business section first. I watch all those documentaries like Your Money and How They Spend It. My head is aswim with credit crunches, child benefits and today’s interest rate on Italian debt. I don’t mind this education, and certainly economics prickles with “ethically thorny” matters, especially competing versions of justice. Maybe you could make a case that there is nothing but money, really; that all of life comes down to bank balances one way or another.

But if so, I’ll not make that case. For I’ve come full circle. Oh, I’m hooked: I’ll read just about any article about the euro. But at once I’m suffocating; I’m claustrophobic. Enough with the money already! I yearn to go through one week without dwelling on cuts to the defence department, some new formula for calculating public pensions, revised rules for qualifying for jobseeker’s allowance, or European bank liquidity. I never thought I’d have to remind myself, but even these days there has to be more to life than dosh.  

So let’s hear it for watching telly while we have homework. Remember the olden days?  We read about love, death and personal betrayal. We watched the sun go down and stayed up late finishing old Sherlock Holmes movies. We talked about Kevin! We tried new recipes for lemon-rosemary squares, finally framed a favourite Francis Bacon print, and played fractious games of Scrabble. So drag out Talking Heads, or better yet, practise the viola. If Rome is going to burn anyway, I can’t think of anything smarter to do than fiddle.

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