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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Michael Lewis”

Pitching Into the Crazy Calgary Wind

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Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (2003)

As this is a book about baseball — or perhaps I should say a book about exploiting inefficiencies in the market that takes place in the world of baseball — there are a number of passing references to Canada, and particularly to the Toronto Blue Jays, that aren’t of much interest. But this passage, about the pitcher Chad Bradford, seems worth noting, at least for the way it ties in to other ideas about Canada we’ve come across:

In late June, the Chicago White Sox promoted Chad from Double-A to its Triple-A team in Calgary. When he arrived, he found out why: his new home field was high in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, wind blowing out. The place was famously hellish on pitching careers: the guy he’d come to replace had simply quit and skipped town…. What should have been ordinary fly balls rocketed through the thin mountain air every which way out of the park.  (230)

The way the thin air and wild mountain wind turn ordinary fly balls into home runs suggests the natural elements of Canada have a power unexpected by the American author and the American pitcher he’s writing about. Again we glimpse the (typically American) notion that Canada is a wilderness nation, where civilization has done less to tame the natural world than it has in the U.S.

(Fact break: Calgary is actually the third-largest city in Canada, though you wouldn’t think so from reading this; it sounds like a collection of shacks precariously perched on the edge of a mountain, trembling at every gust and waiting to be swept away by the next strong wind.)

There are sports fields in the U.S. where wind and thinner air are factors that can influence the outcome of plays, and occasionally even the outcome of games (the Denver Broncos stadium is maybe the most obvious example). But when these conditions arise in the U.S., they tend to be treated as something players have to deal with; in the case of this Calgary ballpark, the natural elements are made to seem like forces too powerful to be overcome. There is a sense that in Canada, human agency is too weak to counteract nature (though Bradford does figure out a way to pitch successfully in Calgary). We could almost see a kind of geographical or climatic determinism at work here: cities in the U.S. are what people have made them, but cities in Canada remain at the mercy of nature, which surrounds them and impinges upon them basically at will.

On the plus side, it’s sort of flattering to think that Chicago’s Triple-A club is based in Canada.

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The Humble Canadian Takes On Wall Street

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Michael Lewis, “The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street” (NYT Magazine, April 6, 2014)

I hadn’t really planned on spending any more time on Brad Katsuyama, but then the NYT Magazine landed on my doorstep on Sunday morning. The copy under the “Meet Brad” headline reads:

He’s a humble Canadian trader who happened to figure out exactly how the stock market was rigged. Now Wall Street may never be the same.

We learned from 60 Minutes that Katsuyama was a conformist even by Canada’s rigorous standards for conformity; now we discover that he’s also “humble.” I understand that Michael Lewis probably didn’t write the copy on the cover of the magazine; I also understand that it’s trying to set up a “David and Goliath” type narrative that is intriguing enough to make you open the magazine and read the article; but “humble”? Really? This is the man who may revolutionize Wall Street, and the best adjective they can apply to him is “humble”? Not “clever”? Not “brilliant”? Not “bold”? Not “crusading” – I like crusading. The Crusading Canadian – it even alliterates. But no – he’s a Canadian being featured in an American publication, and so he must conform to the pre-existing American stereotypes about Canadians: he must be polite, he must be quiet, he must be conformist, he must be humble.

And then there’s that phrase, “happened to figure out.” My recollection from watching the 60 Minutes report was that Katsuyama and his team actually put a significant amount of time and effort into figuring out how other people were managing to front run their trades. It required doggedness, ingenuity, creative thinking, a refusal to give up or to accept being told that was just how the system worked – in short, it took the opposite of humility and conformity. But here, on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, all that effort is elided, and we’re told Katsuyama “happened to figure it out,” as if by some happy accident.

Now that I’ve finished complaining about the cover, the article itself is actually quite fascinating. It goes over some of the same ground as the 60 Minutes report, and also reveals some new aspects of the story. Most of all, Lewis paints a very compelling picture of Brad Katsuyama as a person who felt forced by circumstance to take action for something that, for lack of a better word, could be called “principle”.

It’s important to point out that Katsuyama lives and works in the United States, and that the story is very much about the American financial system – there’s really not a whole lot about Canada in most of the article. In the introductory paragraphs, however, we are treated to some key ideas about our humble little nation to the north:

Before the collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, Brad Katsuyama could tell himself that he bore no responsibility for that system. He worked for the Royal Bank of Canada, for a start. RBC might have been the fifth-biggest bank in North America, by some measures, but it was on nobody’s mental map of Wall Street. It was stable and relatively virtuous and soon to be known for having resisted the temptation to make bad sub-prime loans to Americans or to peddle them to ignorant investors. But its management didn’t understand just what an afterthought it was – on the rare occasions American financiers thought about it at all.  (28)

Stability, (relative) virtue, resistance to temptation – these are classic merits that Americans associate with dull, conservative old Canada. And I love that phrase, “by some measures,” as if to say RBC likes to call itself the fifth-largest bank, but no one really believes it. The Canadian financial system is being firmly put in its place here. When Katsuyama arrives in New York, Lewis makes him sound rather naive:

It was his first immersive course in the American way of life, and he was instantly struck by how different it was from the Canadian version. “Everything was to excess,” he says. “I met more offensive people in a year than I had in my entire life. People lived beyond their means, and the way they did it was by going into debt. Debt was a foreign concept in Canada. Debt was evil.”  (28)

Canadians sound rather schoolmarmish here, horrified by loud voices and the very concept of borrowing money. But this passage is also funny for the way, in describing a stereotypical Canadian who’s shocked at the freewheeling American way of life, it smuggles in Canadian stereotypes about Americans – that they’re all loud, brash, offensive, and racking up an insane amount of debt to make sure their lifestyle keeps up with their incessant bragging. Canadians, and Canadian banks, need to be insulated from such offensive behaviour:

The RBC trading floor had a no-jerk rule … If someone came in the door looking for a job and sounding like a typical Wall Street jerk, he wouldn’t be hired, no matter how much money he said he could make the firm. There was even an expression used to describe the culture: “RBC nice.” Although Katsuyama found the expression embarrassingly Canadian, he, too, was RBC nice.  (28)

These opening few paragraphs are like a high-speed tour through American ideas of what it means to be Canadian, all building towards this final, central concept of how nice (close cousin to polite) we are. In this telling, even Canada’s largest bank doesn’t care how much money it makes; all it cares about is making sure everyone is nice. Niceness is the archetypal Canadian virtue, the quality from which all our other characteristics spring; everything begins with everyone being nice. We didn’t make bad sub-prime loans – that wouldn’t be nice. We don’t act offensively – it’s not nice. We don’t go into debt – debt’s not nice. And we certainly don’t give jobs to jerks – jerks, after all, aren’t nice.

The table of contents page of the magazine has a photo of Katsuyama and his wife at home playing with their kids; the signs on the wall in the background seem to fit so perfectly with the image of Katsuyama in the story that it’s hard not to wonder whether the photographer hung them there before taking the picture:

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The idea of Canadian virtue that the article trades in is summed up in those five words: “Play Nice.” “Share Your Toys.” Clearly, RBC’s “no-jerk” policy extends all the way to the Katsuyama playroom.

A Canadian Conformist Tries to Reform Wall Street

60 Minutes, March 30, 2014

The March 30, 2014 episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes features a story on Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys, which involves a Canadian trader, Brad Katsuyama. While working at RBC, he figured out how a quirk in the speed at which trades reach different trading centres was allowing high-frequency traders to make significant profits by essentially front-running the orders of regular traders. He ultimately started his own exchange (! – I didn’t even know you could do that) with the goal of making trading more fair and transparent.

The piece is interesting to watch on its own merits, and it ties in nicely with the more “scientific/technological” side of Canada we’ve been noticing lately, but I couldn’t help wondering, as I sat through it, whether it would provide a glimpse into American attitudes towards Canadians. There is a certain tone of condescending surprise that runs throughout the piece, as though it’s remarkable that Canadians have even heard of the stock exchange, never mind figured out how it works. And then there’s this quote from the host, Steve Kroft, at about the 11:50 mark (11:30 in the YouTube version at the top):

That’s when Katsuyama, a conformist even by Canadian standards, decided to do something radical.

“Even” is the key word in that sentence, suggesting that we Canadians are extremely conformist to begin with, and Katsuyama is, if such a thing is possible, an extremist when it comes to conformity. This seems to me a classic American stereotype about Canadians, one in which they define themselves as the bold, entrepreneurial, free-thinking North Americans and us as their polite, boring, status-quo neighbours to the north. Could this perception be rooted all the way back in the phenomenon of United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution and our decision to remain a British colony rather than striking out on our own?

Hard to say, but whatever its source, the attitude clearly persists: Canadians are the human equivalent of a dull grey suit, forever masking ourselves and our true feelings, never stepping out of line, never doing anything unexpected but always plodding steadily along without really going much of anywhere.

On the other hand, according to the 60 Minutes report, it took a Canadian – not to figure out what was going on, since apparently other people had figured that out, at least to some extent, but it took a Canadian to actually make the effort to stand up to the vested interests and try to change an unfair system. This phrase, also from Kroft, sums it up nicely:

You beat speed by slowing down?

I suppose Americans would consider that a very Canadian approach to heroism.

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