If you had to pick someone to write the autopsy report on the Wall Street financial collapse 18 months ago, you couldn't do any better than Michael Lewis. He is one of the country's preeminent non-fiction writers with a knack for turning complicated, mind numbing material into fascinating yarns.
He wrote his first bestseller, "Liar's Poker," about his experiences as a young Wall Street bond trader when he was still in his 20s and has since followed up with seven more bestsellers on subjects ranging from Silicon Valley in "The New New Thing" to big time sports in "Money Ball" and "The Blind Side."
His new book, called "The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine," comes out later this week and it explains how some of Wall Street's finest minds managed to destroy $1.75 trillion of wealth in the subprime mortgage markets.
"60 Minutes" and correspondent Steve Kroft spent two days debriefing Lewis at his home in California.
Full Segment, Part 1: Inside The Collapse
Full Segment, Part 2: Inside The Collapse
Web Extra: Is Wall Street Overpaid?
Web Extra: Bailout Blues
Web Extra: The $8.4 Billion Bet
Web Extra: Wall Street Misfit
Web Extra: "The Blind Side"
"This was an episode where capitalism was almost destroyed, just by the capitalists. And, in the most sensational way, they were sort of destroyed by their own folly," Lewis told Kroft.
Asked what happened, Lewis said, "The incentives for people on Wall Street got so screwed up, that the people who worked there became blinded to their own long term interests. And because the short term interests were so overpowering. And so they behaved in ways that were antithetical to their own long term interests."
Lewis, a one-time wonder boy on Wall Street, is about to turn 50 now, ensconced in a hillside compound in Berkeley, Calif. The property has a main house and three cottages and he is much happier writing about business than actually conducting it.
Asked which book produced the money to buy the home, Lewis said, "This would've been 'The New, New Thing,' that bought this place."
Lewis estimates he has sold "some millions" of books. "I don't know how many millions. Not John Grisham millions, but millions," he said.
He lives in Berkeley with his wife, former MTV News correspondent Tabitha Soren and their three children - a three-year-old son and two young daughters who he takes to all of Cal Berkley women's basketball games.
It's one of the few breaks that Lewis allowed himself over the past 18-months as he dug into the idiocy and negligence that produced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
"I'm afraid that our culture will come to the conclusion, 'cause it's always the easy conclusion, that everybody was just a bunch of criminals. I think the story is much more interesting than that. I think it's a story of mass delusion," Lewis said.
Lewis' forte has always been discovering little-known facts and characters that change people's perception about a story. So when he finally sat down at his computer with sacks full of research to write about this calamity, he had no interest in Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, or Ben Bernanke, or the CEOs of Wall Street's big investment banks, who he believes had no clue what was going on while it was going on.
He wanted to tell the story through the eyes of people who were paying attention and who knew that a financial disaster was inevitable.
"There are a handful of characters who actually had seen it coming and made a fortune off of it. And there were so few of them, and there were so many people who had been on the other side that I thought that I kind of wondered who they were and why they got themselves into that position," Lewis said. "What they saw. Almost more how they saw."
Asked how many people he thinks were in the world who understood what was going on, Lewis told Kroft, "Between 10 and 20 investors at most and this is from the universe of tens of thousands of people who could have conceivably made that bet."