Wall Street, Doug Henwood

Verso, 1997 (1998 revision), 372 pages, C$25.00 tpb, ISBN 0-86091-670-7

The cover illustration really says it all: A Wall Street sign punctured by bullets. This is Doug Henwood’s critique of the financial system, informed by a solid background in economics and years of experience as a journalist. You wouldn’t expect such a book to be fun to read, but it is. And even the increasingly dated statistics in the book don’t make any less of a valuable exposé even today.

I should explain that I’m neither an economist nor a political scientist, but as a layman I don’t do too badly with the stuff. I may not be able to pass Econ 101, but I’m able to follow the financial news to my satisfaction, and I like to spend some time looking at the trends out there. In some way, I’ve got a science-fiction fan’s interest in financial matters: Economics are just another way of explaining how the world works, and it’s just as worthy of consideration as hard science. Perhaps even more so when you take a look at today’s world, in which economic and political power is so closely matched.

I should also add that I harbour some deep doubts about the sustainability of the capitalistic system. While free markets are better than the alternative, they also encourage a winner-takes-all mentality that’s incompatible with a good number of social values. I belabour this point; I’m just mentioning it given how it puts me in the target audience for Wall Street. This book will not convert the unconverted, but it will confirm vague suspicions and provide more arguments to support a sceptical stance.

Structurally, the book moves on from target to target in successive chapters, gradually digging deep into capitalistic systems before a broader conclusion. All the main players of the financial scenes are studied one after the other, from the corporations themselves to the traders and the regulators, as well as the academics playing with their models without regard to reality. Surprising statistics help Henwood present some resonable arguments about the insanity of the market.

Quite technical at times, Henwood’s work is also clearly aimed above my head. I won’t try to claim that I enjoyed every page of the book, because it started to lose me somewhere in the more academic “money market” section. Not being an economist, it became more difficult to associate Henwood’s subject matter with what I already knew as he started chewing on Marxist theory, modern economic models and other more theoretical concepts. On the other hand, you could always rely on one or two zingers per page. (My favourite comes on page 113, as Canadian celebrity father/businessman Frank Stronach is quoted as saying “To be in business, your first mandate is to make money, and money has no heart, soul, conscience, homeland.”)

It’s easy to recognize enthusiasm and audacity even as the actual mechanics of the arguments remain obscure, and Henwood has tremendous energy to pour in this project. Even econ-challenged readers will get some enjoyment out of the anecdotes, quotes and arguments described by Henwood. Wall Street is a seriously funny book, even though I’m willing to concede that my definition of “funny” changed after pages of economic theory. If nothing else, the first three chapters (“Instrument”, “Players” and “Ensemble”) are reasonably accessible, as is the Conclusion.

In hindsight, Wall Street gains a bit and loses a bit. On one hand, its cautious tone was vindicated three years later as the exuberance of the dot-com boom turned into the dot-bomb doom, wiping entire fortunes and making a great number of Wall Streeters look like idiots. On the other hand, the market moves quickly, and so the numbers from 1997 may not reflect today’s environment. Certainly, it’s hard to read Wall Street without wanting to know what Henwood now thinks of the current insanity of American economic policy. (Fortunately, you can alway head over to leftbusinessobserver.com for regular updates about what Henwood’s been up to.)

I’m not sure that the above is meant to be a recommendation for the book. I’m glad I read it, but I’m not sure I understood most of it. I was entertained, but it took me a number of weeks to get through it all. I was fascinated by some facts and anecdotes, but I’m not sure how valid they are nearly a decade later. But then again I can recognize that few people will be able to fully understand Wall Street . You’ll have to decide whether that includes you. (And then you’ll have to find a way to get the book: a quick look at abebooks.com suggests that it’s a collector’s item.)

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