Tuesday, January 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books February Newsletter - featuring Daniel Levin

In the February edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Swiss-American lawyer, economic advisor and author Daniel Levin about his debut work of non-fiction, Nothing but a Circus: Misadventures among the Powerful. It's a wonderfully entertaining insider's account of what really happens behind the closed doors of global business and politics.

Daniel Levin has worked across the globe, from Washington to the UN, from Russia to China. Levin also has a special interest in Africa, which has seen him working with governments there.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Daniel Levin

North Melbourne Books: Nothing but a Circus takes the reader behind the scenes of high-level global business and political dealmaking. We learn that the elite movers and shakers of the world are often vain, self-obsessed and greedy. Good policy, as a rule, takes a back seat to the personal whims, prejudices and fancies of politicians and businessmen. What made you want to write and publish a book about your experiences?

Daniel Levin: For the past two decades, I have experienced curious patterns of human behavior in and around power, which I tried to show from a humoristic angle in my book. I chose humor because the alternative – preaching – is the fastest way to lose an audience. Writing the book was my therapy, especially in moments of disappointment and frustration, and also my attempt at closing a few doors behind me – particularly doors to certain people and political circles that lack the ability to laugh at themselves and poke holes in the bubbles of their self-importance. Over the years, I started to recognize repeat patterns in the way powerful individuals in the upper echelons of politics and finance behave, and I decided to devote a chapter of the book to each of the main characteristics of power – deceit, greed, arrogance, ignorance (and its celebration), self-aggrandizement, and the like. We are living in strange and wondrous times, where those in power know everything about ruling, and next-to nothing about governing. In light of recent elections, it might be safe to say that we are in a big hole globally, and the first thing we need to do to get out of this hole is to stop digging. Writing this book was my modest contribution to add a voice against the digging of this giant hole.

NMB: While there is much that is entertaining and even funny in your book, it's also frustrating that important decision making is so compromised. Did your experiences make it hard to keep faith in political and business institutions?

DL: With each additional experience that piled up over the years I found it harder and harder to believe in the political and financial institutions as powers for good. The more I learned about those is power, the clearer it became that they were not guided by a commitment to public service or by a sense of duty towards society as a whole, but rather just driven by naked ambition and the preservation of their privilege. This made it difficult to maintain the trust in these institutions and the characters who run them. What has kept me going throughout all the adversity was the kindness and intelligence exhibited by those to whom less was given, those less prominent and visible. Time and again I was humbled by the wisdom and generosity of those who had nothing to gain for themselves, but who had maintained their empathy and their humanity – in stark contrast to many of those in power who cared about little other than their own advancement.

NMB: Many of the elites you describe working with live in a bubble, blind to reality. How did you avoid succumbing to the same mindset? Were you ever tempted to make it easier for yourself by simply following everyone else?

DL: I cannot, in good conscience, answer this question without at least allowing for the possibility that I am deluding myself just like all the contortionists I describe in my book. After all, eighty percent of all drivers believe they are above-average drivers… To the extent I have managed to avoid this bubble, it was thanks to my family and friends, who do not hold back with criticism and ridicule, when warranted. One of the most prevalent common denominators of those living in a bubble is the absence of critical, challenging voices, causing the bubble to become impenetrable (in both directions) and those in it detached from reality. Some people are attracted to power because they are hardwired that way. Others eventually change if they are around power for too long. Was I ever tempted? It would be disingenuous to answer that questions with a categorical “no”. But I was fortunate that in the important moments I had enough candid and critical voices around me, and perhaps also fortunate that the timing of some opportunities did not match my dreams and ambitions at those particular moments.

NMB: You have a terrific gift for dialogue and character. Nothing but a Circus could have been a novel. Were you tempted to write it as fiction, or are there any plans for writing fiction in the future?

DL: I never intended to write this as fiction. My original title was “You Can’t Make This Sh*t Up”, and I continue to believe that reality will always be stranger than fiction. If anything, I had to tone down some of the more outrageous episodes in order to make them appear less fantastic. I have no plans to write fiction. My next book, which I have just completed, deals with the war in Syria and a painful personal experience.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

DL: I just started to read The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. Aside from being a terrific book about a fascinating subject, it is meaningful to me because Daniel Kahneman provided a kind blurb for my own book. At the same time, I am reading The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell and, on the fiction side, Nutshell by Ian McEwan. I just finished reading Notes on the Death of Culture by Mario Vargas Llosa and Dark Money by Jane Mayer, a book as depressing as it is important.

Nothing but a Circus: Misadventures among the Powerful, by Daniel Levin. Published by Allen Lane. $35