Every weekend, Longform.org shares a collection of great stories from its archive with Slate. For a daily selection of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform.org or follow @longformorg on Twitter.
It's apparently Moneyball week here on the Internet, so we've put together a collection of classic journalism by Moneyball author/ erstwhile Slate columnist Michael Lewis. In keeping with the week's theme, we've picked four stories about economics and four on sports, plus one piece that bridges the two: "The Trading Desk," Lewis' original article on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's..
Stock Manipulator, S.E.C. Nemesis—and 15 Michael Lewis • New York Times Magazine • February 2001
Using different email addresses and a lot of exclamation points, teenager Jonathan Lebed worked finance message boards in the morning before school and made nearly a million bucks. Then he made the head of the S.E.C. look like a fool:
"I finally came clean with a thought: the S.E.C. let Jonathan Lebed walk away with 500 grand in his pocket because it feared that if it didn't, it would wind up in court and it would lose. And if the law ever declared formally that Jonathan Lebed didn't break it, the S.E.C. would be faced with an impossible situation: millions of small investors plugging their portfolios with abandon, becoming in essence professional financial analysts, generating embarrassing little explosions of unreality in every corner of the capital markets. No central authority could sustain the illusion that stock prices were somehow 'real' or that the market wasn't, for most people, a site of not terribly productive leisure activity. The red dog would be off his leash.
"I might as well have strolled into the office of the drug czar and lit up a joint.
" 'The kid himself said he set out to manipulate the market,' Walker virtually shrieked.
"But, of course, that is not all the kid said. The kid said everybody in the market was out to manipulate the market."
Betting on the Blind Side Michael Lewis • Vanity Fair • April 2010
Sitting alone in his San Jose office, Michael Burry saw the subprime bubble before anyone else. So he convinced Wall Street to let him bet on it, even though few were betting on him (a story excerpted from The Big Short):
"The market made no sense, but that didn't stop other Wall Street firms from jumping into it, in part because Mike Burry was pestering them. For weeks he hounded Bank of America until they agreed to sell him $5 million in credit-default swaps. Twenty minutes after they sent their e-mail confirming the trade, they received another back from Burry: 'So can we do another?' In a few weeks Mike Burry bought several hundred million dollars in credit-default swaps from half a dozen banks, in chunks of $5 million. None of the sellers appeared to care very much which bonds they were insuring. He found one mortgage pool that was 100 percent floating-rate negative-amortizing mortgages—where the borrowers could choose the option of not paying any interest at all and simply accumulate a bigger and bigger debt until, presumably, they defaulted on it. Goldman Sachs not only sold him insurance on the pool but sent him a little note congratulating him on being the first person, on Wall Street or off, ever to buy insurance on that particular item. 'I'm educating the experts here,' Burry crowed in an e-mail."
"The United States obviously occupies a strange place in the world. It is the capital of innovation, of material prosperity, of a certain kind of energy, of certain kinds of freedom and of transience. Silicon Valley is to the United States what the United States is to the rest of the world. It is one of those places, unlike the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but like Las Vegas, that is unimaginable anyplace but in the United States. It is distinctively us. Within this unusual place some people have clearly been more unusual than others. Many of those who sought and found fortune in Silicon Valley in the 1990's could just as easily have found it on Wall Street in the 1980's or in London in the 1860's. But a certain type of person who has made it big in Silicon Valley could have made it big at no other time in history. He was built to work on the frontier of economic life when the frontier was once again up for grabs. He was designed for rapid social and technological change. He was the starter of new things."
Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds Michael Lewis • Vanity Fair • October 2010
Riots in Athens, the shadowy Vatopaidi monastery, and a quarter million dollars in debt for every citizen. Welcome to Greece:
"As it turned out, what the Greeks wanted to do, once the lights went out and they were alone in the dark with a pile of borrowed money, was turn their government into a piñata stuffed with fantastic sums and give as many citizens as possible a whack at it. In just the past decade the wage bill of the Greek public sector has doubled, in real terms—and that number doesn't take into account the bribes collected by public officials. The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses. The average state railroad employee earns 65,000 euros a year. Twenty years ago a successful businessman turned minister of finance named Stefanos Manos pointed out that it would be cheaper to put all Greece's rail passengers into taxicabs: it's still true. … The retirement age for Greek jobs classified as 'arduous' is as early as 55 for men and 50 for women. As this is also the moment when the state begins to shovel out generous pensions, more than 600 Greek professions somehow managed to get themselves classified as arduous: hairdressers, radio announcers, waiters, musicians, and on and on and on. The Greek public health-care system spends far more on supplies than the European average—and it is not uncommon, several Greeks tell me, to see nurses and doctors leaving the job with their arms filled with paper towels and diapers and whatever else they can plunder from the supply closets."
The Trading Desk Michael Lewis • New York Times Magazine • March 2003
The original article on Billy Beane and the Oakland A's, published a month before the release of Moneyball:
"A leading independent authority on baseball finance, a Manhattan lawyer named Doug Pappas, pointed out a quantifiable distinction between Oakland and the rest of baseball. The least you could spend on a 25-man team, if everyone was paid the minimum salary, was $5 million, plus $2 million more for players on the disabled list and the remainder of the 40-man roster. The huge role of luck in any baseball game, and the relatively small difference in ability between most major leaguers and the rookies who might work for the minimum wage, meant that the fewest games a minimum-wage baseball team would win during a 162-game season was something like 49. The Pappas measure of financial efficiency was this: How many dollars over the minimum $7 million does each team pay for each win over its 49th? How many marginal dollars does a team spend for each marginal win? Over the past three years Oakland has paid about half a million dollars per win. The only other team in six figures has been the Minnesota Twins, at $675,000 per win. The most profligate rich franchises -- the Baltimore Orioles, for instance, or the Texas Rangers -- have paid nearly $3 million for each win, or more than six times what Oakland paid. Oakland seemed to be playing a different game from everyone else."
The Kick Is Up and It's ... a Career Killer Michael Lewis • Play Magazine • October 2007
A look at the precarious existence of NFL place-kickers:
"This is what kickers do to define themselves: choke under pressure. After the Cowboys acquire Vanderjagt the next season to solve their own kicking problems, their coach, Bill Parcells, makes it clear from the start that he considers him damaged goods. He wonders out loud if anyone could ever recover his manhood after missing such a kick. No one asks whether this is the best way to encourage a kicker's performance; no one wonders if it is perhaps even a bit cruel. Even before the season ends, Vanderjagt has himself a new life story: less than a year after being hailed as the most accurate kicker ever to play the game, and being regarded as an extremely valuable commodity, he is working out by himself on an island off the coast of Florida, wondering if a team might offer him a job. 'Next to the quarterback, a coach's confidence wavers so much with who the kicker is,' the executive with the N.F.C. team says. 'If a linebacker or a running back or a wide receiver has a bad game it's 'Keep him in there. He'll be fine.' If a coach loses just a little bit of confidence in a kicker, you're making a change.' "
The No-Stats All-Star Michael Lewis • New York Times Magazine • February 2009
Can Moneyball be adapted to the NBA? The Houston Rockets are trying:
"Having watched [Shane] Battier play for the past two and a half years, Morey has come to think of him as an exception: the most abnormally unselfish basketball player he has ever seen. Or rather, the player who seems one step ahead of the analysts, helping the team in all sorts of subtle, hard-to-measure ways that appear to violate his own personal interests. 'Our last coach dragged him into a meeting and told him he needed to shoot more,' Morey says. 'I'm not sure that that ever happened.' Last season when the Rockets played the San Antonio Spurs Battier was assigned to guard their most dangerous scorer, Manu Ginóbili. Ginóbili comes off the bench, however, and his minutes are not in sync with the minutes of a starter like Battier. Battier privately went to Coach Rick Adelman and told him to bench him and bring him in when Ginóbili entered the game. 'No one in the N.B.A. does that,' Morey says. 'No one says put me on the bench so I can guard their best scorer all the time.' "
Commie Ball: A Journey to the End of a Revolution Michael Lewis • Vanity Fair • July 2008
Guz Dominguez says he was trying to help baseball players from Cuba. The U.S. government says he was smuggling athletes:
"But why had he done it? The more you looked at the numbers, the less sense they made. At the time, Dominguez kept no more than 5 percent of a player's signing bonus and 4 percent of his contract as long as it was above the league minimum. Simply to recoup his investment Dominguez would have needed the players to be worth something more than $5 million to big-league teams. There was never much hope that these players would ever make that kind of money. The U.S. government needed the jury to believe that the American best informed about Cuban ballplayers didn't know which ones were worth stealing; that he'd refinance his house to smuggle the wrong guys; that Cuba was a mysterious black hole, about which this sort of ignorance was plausible. And it did! After listening for seven days the jury quickly reached its verdict: guilty."
The Ballad of Big Mike Michael Lewis • New York Times Magazine • September 2006
On the importance of left tackles and a prodigy in Memphis named Michael Oher (the story that became The Blind Side):
"She turned around in time to see 19 football players running down one side of the field after the Briarcrest running back with the ball. On the other side of the field Briarcrest's No. 74, Big Mike, was racing at full speed in the opposite direction, with a defensive end in his arms.
"From his place on the sideline, Sean watched in amazement. Freeze had called a running play, around the right end, away from Michael's side. Michael's job was simply to take the defender who had been jabbering at him and wall him off. Just keep him away from the ball carrier. Instead, he had fired off the line of scrimmage and gotten fit — which is to say, gotten his hands inside the defender's shoulder pads — and then lifted the Munford player off the ground. It was a perfectly legal block, with unusual consequences. He drove the Munford player straight down the middle of the field for 15 yards, then took a hard left, toward the Munford sidelines. 'The Munford kid's feet were hitting the ground every four steps, like a cartoon character,' Sean says. As the kid strained to get his feet back on the ground, Michael ran him the next 25 or so yards to the Munford bench. When he got there, he didn't stop but piled right through it, knocking over the bench, several more Munford players and scattering the team. He didn't skip a beat. Encircling the football field was a cinder track. He blocked the kid across the track and then across the grass on the other side of the cinder track. And kept going — right to the chain link fence on the far side of the grass.
"Flags flew, grown men cursed and Sean called Michael over to the sidelines.
" 'Michael,' said Sean, 'where were you taking him anyway?'
" 'I was gonna put him on the bus,' Michael said."