A parody of banking crisis that absolves the culprits

Book Review: The Apology of Arthur Tresbit by Robert Thayer

Arthur Tresbit has been a very naughty boy. He has triggered another global financial meltdown; far worse than any that has gone before. Now living in hiding from a vengeful mob, he starts to pen a 

half-hearted apology; part memoir, part mea culpa.

As a student of physics the young Arthur dossed around at Oxford and bluffed his way through a PhD. After a few months of honest and fulfilling, if not exactly challenging work as a cleaner, by some apparent fluke he lands a high-flying trader position at financial industry giant, Goldsacks & Lynchmen (wink-wink).

Before he realises it, Arthur’s in charge of a subsidiary of G&L, Twenty-Two Dimension-or 22-D which derives its name from his sham doctoral thesis.

In reality, it’s a front for the Ponzi scheme devised by his Mephistophelean boss, Sir Richard Grambling. Shiftless Arthur, whose consistent trading successes are a mystery to all including him, is just the right pawn for the diabolical but ‘perfectly legal’ plan. Arthur could always walk away but he’s already bought the ridiculously expensive house and is accustomed to the champagne lifestyle; mostly at the behest of his aspirational wife, Carol. If he’s going down, then Tresbit will take the whole financial system with him.

With the recent publication of his first novel The Apology of Arthur Tresbit, real life ex-physicist turned banker Robert Thayer has added author to his list of accomplishments. Thayer’s debut has rightly been praised for its entertainment value. Ignoring the troubling typos and spellcheck oversights, Arthur’s banter and arch appraisals of his peers are guffaw-inducing. The author has a good sense of pace and a mischievously self-deprecating humour. He's quite happy to take several merciless swipes at British Middle Class entitlement, for instance…

..Many of us who entered the bubble of academia immediately after leaving the bubble of middle class childhood hoped we’d never be confronted with the harsh realities of life, and could live out our days safely inside. From there we’d only have to peer out the real-world occasionally. And then, with the pity of a liberal and bleeding heart, shed a tear for the suffering masses...(page 46)

Determined to demystify the mechanisms of the financial industry, Thayer also weaves in elements of fourth-wall breaking economic theory (not to mention quite a few of the author’s own). Basic tenets of Marxism are explained in fairy tale format. Whole chapters are dedicated to accessible explications of the internal workings of the sector, almost to excess. There’s insightful commentary on modern western civilisation’s emphasis on instant gratification at the cost of quality and durability...

The author’s efforts would be wholly admirable but for one too many missteps.

Thayer’s female characters are insultingly under-developed. It’s as if the author drew his references from a parallel reality where third wave feminism never happened and stereotypes pass unnoticed.

True, there's a fair bit of caricaturing all round. Nevertheless, there are more gender-based generalisations and ‘you know what women are like...’ comments than any self-respecting modern novel should contain. Irony as an excuse can only take you so far.

For the vast majority of the novel, despite Tresbit’s insistence on her niceness, Carol is portrayed as a Lady MacBeth-style social climber, albeit with better people skills. Much of the blame for Arthur’s poor career decisions can be traced to her. He was just trying to keep his woman happy, after all. Strange, as Arthur is not nearly as beholden to his wife’s contentment when it comes to ogling other women; or far worse. Amy, wife of best mate Jeff, is your garden variety shrew. Arthur's dazzlingly attractive colleague Miss Hayes has no need of a personality or to know how to conduct a decent conversation.  When she does speak, her voice is compared to a ‘heavenly choir of prostitutes’ (Really?!). Arthur's summary description of underling Margaret, is a single woman over-30 preoccupied with settling down. Of course. This fixation naturally hampers her ability to interact with unattached members of the male species.

Then there are Tresbit/Thayer’s self-justifying analyses of the financial sector and why reform is, he claims, a worthy but futile endeavour. Risk, he says, is an inherent part of any successful business and the banking industry is no exception. For example, when a bank authorises a mortgage, they surely can’t predict all the misfortunes that might befall a customer and lead to default. 

Hmm. It’s not as easy to get away with such over-simplifications when knowledge to the contrary is so fresh in the collective memory. The most recent economic crisis wasn’t caused by a comedy of errors en masse, where millions of mortgage customers were all blighted by the most far-fetched turn of events. Banking institutions routinely agreed to loans that were greatly disproportionate to what customers’ could comfortably afford on their incomes.

Tresbit is also given to a certain resignation to financial crises, justified with seemingly reasonable arguments that border on sophistry. These economic earthquakes are inevitable, he postulates. Regulation can do little to prevent them.

Is that so? It appears to this layperson that there are plenty of actions that governments could take to mitigate, or even avoid wide-scale damage. It’s a question of political will. 

Let’s start with diversification; something of which the financial industry itself is quite fond, as Arthur points out. Rather than neglect other sectors (much the way successive British governments have done over the past 40 years), they could have been greater investment in manufacturing or helping those who once worked in dying industries develop new, valuable skills. Investment banking became the enfant terrible under Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown’s watch, engendering an over-dependence on an industry that was also tacitly encouraged to act with impunity. Under Cameron/Osborne and now May/Hammond, it's pretty much business as usual.

Economic meltdown could have also been averted if heads-of-state didn’t severely undermine regulation that was designed to protect the ordinary citizen from the cavalier antics of the Industry. Bill Clinton’s repeal of the Glass Steagall Act in the early 90s is a classic example. Ratified by Republican president Franklin D Roosevelt, it’s aim was to separate commercial and investment banking. It was to address the lack of such checks and balances that precipitated the financial chaos of the late 20s/30s and more recently the 2007/8 crash.

If the political classes really wanted to make amends and ensure the industry paid its fair share, they could implement more creative tax schemes; ones that benefit the general public rather than just the 1percent. There’s plenty that could be done with the money the banks find to pay bonuses -despite reported losses-yet is somehow never available for additional taxation.  Or, in the UK at least, the government could simply not pamper Big Business (including tax-avoiding banks) by further cutting Corporation Tax.

Tougher legislation could be introduced to help make sure that much of the dubious trading activity would no longer be ‘perfectly legal’ (as Arthur is wont to remind the reader) and relevant bodies given the teeth to enforce it.

There have been no UK government efforts to break up banks "too big to fail"nor bring them into public ownership by way of local or regional banks; the same institutions bailed out using billions of tax-payer money-effectively nationalising them. It’s no coincidence that Europe’s most successful economy, Germany, has a long history of regional banks. This, alongside other factors such as its strong manufacturing tradition, fortified the country against some of the worst effects of the global crisis.

Then there’s the culture of 'financialisation' and its impact on society as a whole. Cheap credit implicated every Joe and Jane Bloggs who took advantage of it. Ostensibly noble initiatives like Right-to-Buy didn’t just help social housing tenants own their homes. Without adequate government investment in replacement state housing, it made them complicit in the current accommodation crisis and over-inflated property prices.

By his own admission, Arthur is a disillusioned idealist who sacrificed what little integrity he had without putting up much of a fight. He conflates having principles with self-righteousness; as if one can’t exist without the other. Having failed to change the status quo themselves, disillusioned idealists have a habit of discouraging others from attempting to do the same. Thankfully, anyone who has ever made a useful contribution to humanity learned to block out the naysayers. Vive la revolution.

"The Apology..." should be read as an amusing and at times informative parody. However, for anyone who still believes this isn’t as good as it gets, it is best taken with a heaped teaspoon of salt.