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Conversant in Commerce
January/February 2012


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.

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