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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Why the Sequel to the Fire Is Still Burning

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The Tangled Web We Weave by James Ball.

When friends from different continents met on an English golf course last year, one was reluctant to speak about the conversation. “I had no idea,” she said in a voice thick with hesitation, “that, if I had said yes, it would have taken seven lives to get to this point.”

This is a straightforward anecdote that betrays a deep confusion over the relationship between the world’s men and women, a curiosity about how we may have made a pact among ourselves to murder each other and people we like. The comment encapsulates the message of James Ball’s memoir, The Tangled Web We Weave, which will be published on Monday.

In the book, Mr. Ball, who is now a columnist at The Times of London, recounts his difficult relationship with his father, a Wall Street investment banker who has devoted his career to treating institutional clients in a tawdry way, buying up investments at a breakneck pace, bouncing and cajoling them into following him and eventually betting their life savings on little-known securities. Mr. Ball believes his father is a sexual predator, and is trying to survive while negotiating, it seems, an unbreakable bond.

In many ways, Mr. Ball’s father, Lawrence, embodied the worst kind of hubris: he was a prolific buyer of any idea that he could monetize, and a pretty good trader himself, using the skills he had learned for so long. Mr. Ball would have hated his father. But his father would have hated him, too, for daring to write about him, for having the guts to call him out.

Yet Mr. Ball has more at stake than preserving his title as his father’s literary adversary. He wants to understand why he has done what he has, why he has allowed a $9 billion debt to turn into the largest-ever international failure and a final curtain to fall on a once-noble institution.

The book — which has won The Times’ Henry Luce Prize, among other awards — is explicit in its lament that the global financial crisis, which sparked across-the-board government intervention during the financial crisis, was beyond the control of anyone in authority: “The death of the Wall Street firms that were as much responsible for the global financial crisis as we let them be, we seem unable to turn the pages of history without righting all that has gone wrong.”

On the 20th anniversary of Black Monday, when markets first crashed on Wall Street, Mr. Ball’s piece “The Liar on the Street” was the only Times piece ever published to have been published before print was killed. He has graciously allowed me to excerpt it for review here. The Times’ business reporter, Michael Slackman, was the Timesman who informed Mr. Ball that he would be retiring after Black Monday — one of the most meaningful moments in the journalist’s life. As I write this column, I remember what Mr. Ball told me, in the middle of a jocular conversation.

“It is still,” he said, “the most powerful piece I have ever written, one that persuaded people I wasn’t a con man but at the same time set the stage for, in the words of two former colleagues, ‘the entire austerity era.’”

When Black Monday finally began to recede from the papers, so did Mr. Ball’s investment ideas. The impact of the global meltdown on the richest of the rich was much greater than on the rest of us. As Mr. Ball says in his book, he will never forget his father’s reaction. “He was furious, and he let me know. Not because of what I had written, but because he resented being used as the intellectual whipping boy for a cause that had disastrous results for the financial system as a whole. It is hard to think of a worse lesson to teach someone than that the industry you have been in the game for a lifetime is to blame for all you don’t like about it.”

Read the full New York Times Book Review column

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