Friday, September 19, 2008

Dear Secretary Paulson . . .

Dear Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke:

I know you are extremely busy right now trying to salvage the nation's financial, insurance, banking, real estate and investment markets and the companies that operate them. I appreciate the hard work you are putting into finding solutions to what is without a doubt the greatest threat to our political economy since the Great Depression. Sometimes, I think the American public demands problem-solving skills more akin to a superhero than tireless public servants like yourselves, who can only do what they can do and hope it works for the best. I have tried to get my head around the current crisis, which a friend of mine, who attempted to explain all this to me at pick-up time at our children's school yesterday, calls "a perfect economic storm."Imagine, he said, natural disasters occurring simultaneously in five different parts of the country that all managed to come together at once. I tried to imagine that, gentlemen, I really did. But I'm not one of those guys who rides out the storm, stocks up the pantry, buys duct tape or nails board to his windows when bad weather or a potential terrorist threat is on the horizon. I clean out my gutters, grab my iPod and head to the nearest hotel until my cable and Internet access are restored. I take my cell phone so that I can call and check on my family, which, unless I can find a hotel that has a family special or free guest program, I leave behind just to make sure that no one steals anything and to clean out the basement should it flood.

My friend corrected me, saying he wasn't trying to explain how to survive a perfect storm. "Markets this, capital formation that, housing value this, liquidity that," he said, gesturing his hands like the excited finance professor that he isn't. "And, when you take into account short calls and long calls, this regulation and that regulation, and the lack of this regulation or that one, plus the absence of a leap year, it all comes together like that . . . BAM!"

"BAM!" I said. "I haven't watched Emeril Live! since my daughter lost interest in cooking shows. But maybe I'll tune in so I can attempt to talk the bank out of taking my house, car, iPod or my prize Pork Pie snare drums."

"You're still not getting !" he said, growing impatient with me. I knew the look he was giving me, since it was nearly identical to the look I give my students when they look at me like, "WTF?" when I attempt to explain the intracies of the nationalization of the First Amendment to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment. "I need to get going," he said. "Just pay attention. You'll get it."

Concerned that I might lose my hockey sticks, CD collection, or Tom Glavine autographed 1991 World Series baseball, which he signed, free of charge, before Game 1 in Minneapolis, I asked my wife to explain your plan to save our nation's Masters of the Universe from themselves. There was an upside to this. My wife is a financial and accounting wizard, and has degrees from one of the nation's most elite business schools and years of receipts in shoe boxes all over our house to prove it. She also has thousands of shoes in shoe boxes all over our house, including my old home office and bedroom closets that converted long ago to her storage facilities. When we run tight on space, I suggest to her that perhaps we throw some stuff out or have a yard sale. "Think about it," I'll say. "We could have a mall in our front yard. We could establish a directory, just like at Montgomery Mall. Women's accessories, women's shoes, women's casual clothing, women's formal wear, children's toys, books, men's sporting goods, unopened birthday presents, used wrapping paper, expired coupons, unread Sunday newspaper inserts, yard signs endorsing politicians no longer eligible to hold public office, broken lawn maintenance equipment, more women's shoes, scarves, belts, jewelry, tops, bottoms, swimwear . . ."

Her response? "Are you using the top shelf in your closet? That space is just going to waste."

And before you know it, the top shelf in my closet has been converted into a climate-controlled storage facility for the thousands of crayons obtained from cereal companies that my children will never use. But, because there is an ever so slender chance that a grandchild might one day want to draw on the floor in what used to be my office, we need to keep them. I'll question this decision, to no avail.

"Just in case," she'll say.

Those three words rank just behind, for most men, the four most dreaded words in relationship-maintenance -- "We need to talk."

Waddaya gonna do?

So, my wife started to explain the current crisis to me. "Market this, bond issue that, capital dissolution this, credit devalulation this," she explained, not waving her arms but talking out of one side of her mouth while she watched "The Daily Show." "It's really not that complicated to figure out."

Actually, for people like me, as you probably have guessed Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke, it is that complicated to figure out. After a few minutes of more "debt-equity ratio this, secondary markets that," I started to fade, sort of like the time I fell asleep during a meeting with our attorney to refinance the interest rate on our mortgage. One minute, I'm enjoying a chocolate covered cream filled donut and coffee; the next minute I'm getting elbowed in the ribs and being asked to initial some sort of legal documents. Personally, I wasn't offended at all by my nap. There wasn't anything I could really add to the meeting, and there's nothing I hate more than someone who just goes on and on and one about topics they know nothing about. But, just to make nice and move things along, I signed the papers and grabbed a second donut, a peanut covered one that was really good and the kind I don't get to eat often because my son is allergic to peanuts.

"You really don't get this?" my wife asked, mystified, it appeared, by my inability to grasp complex financial arrangements. "Were you even awake while I was explaining this to you?"

"Yes, I was awake and, no, I don't get it," I answered. I then told her that my response to her mini-lecture on cost accounting and complex capital formation was no different than hers when I tried to explain to her how to turn on the oven, use the washing machine, close a cereal box and return it to the pantry or how to use the cleaning products that I keep under the kitchen sink (after I Mapquested for her how to find the kitchen sink. How many husbands are that considerate?).

Secretary Paulson and Chairman Bernanke, you guys know what happened next, right? After all, you've been married a long time. When someone says marriage penalty to you, you think tax code, don't you? When someone says marriage penalty to me, I think of an invitation from the offended party to go have sex with myself, and not in the same ways that the Planned Parenthood literature in our house says is the safe alternative to intercourse or oral sex (Oops, is that okay? We can have the literature in house as long as we don't show it to our children? Am I allowed to say "oral sex" or "intercourse?" Please advise).

As you can probably guess by now -- I was going to say "surmise," but that might come across as elitist, and I definitely don't be lumped in with all the other well-educated professionals who attempt to stay fluent in our nation's currents events and cultural debates, I agree that our government works best when we have the least accomplished people we can possibly find running it. For example, I think you should randomly select an inexperienced small-town mayor who attended four colleges in six years, including such undistinguished institutions as Hawaii Pacific College, Matanuska-Sustina College, North Idaho College and the University of Idaho, with no background in economics, finance or law to develop a plan that will meet the needs of taxpayers, regulators and the private sector that keeps profit private while managing to nationalize losses. That makes good sense to me. Over the summer, our air conditioning went out during a terrible heat wave. As I was packing up for the Hyatt in downtown Bethesda, I told my family, which was staying behind to wait for the HVAC people, that we should find someone from the Westminister, Maryland city council to come fix it. We could call any number of professional tradespeople, but that would simply reinforce the elitism that is endemic in the heating and air conditioning communities. The last time our friend Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration came to repair our hot water heater, he was drinking from a Starbucks cup, a cup which had writing all over it, meaning he had asked for extra shots, no foam, organic cream or some other fu-fu add-in that stunk of elitism. "No way!" I said, as I loaded my 42" plasma television into the rear seat of my non-hybrid car. "Find a damn real American, one that Bill Kristol, David Brooks, George Will and Charles Krauthammer bowl with on Thursday nights. Or are you all too good for that?"

Turns out that Bob Vance of Vance Refrigeration did come and fix the air conditioning. Boy, was I pissed. "Does this make you feel better about living in Bethesda now?" I screamed (and scream I did). "We'll never get this nation on track if we decide to elect well-trained, smart and capable people to address our problems and exert leadership on matters of national and international importance. You might think our nation is ready for a black president, but this financial crisis just demonstrates, all your little "love our Mother Earth" babbling aside, that we're not. Now I know what all those people mean who've been asking and discussing that question. Do any of them remember how long it took the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series after Bob Gibson joined the starting rotation and Lou Brock began hitting lead-off? And what the hell did Curt Flood's hissy-fit accomplish?"

They had no answer. How could they? They've never had to live with elitists, much less grow up in that environment.

Henry and Paul -- since I now own shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and probably most of the other companies that sponsor golf tournaments, excluding Pfizer, of course, I feel comfortable calling you both by your first and hopefully Christian names -- I know where John McCain, Sarah Palin and work-a-day stiffs like Rush Limbaugh are coming from when they warn Americans of the "elitist crowd." I grew up in Atlanta, the son of a small retailer and nurse. My sister and I lived in a house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, all of which were inside. We had appliances that worked most of the time and one television in our den. I enjoyed the television, I sure did. My sister, though, developed a strange twitch watching it, as she could never quite keep her head still when the picture began dissolving into fuzz or the frames started "blinking" at us. I tried to help my sister by standing awkwardly next to the TV, with one hand on the antenna and with the the other arm pointing north at a 62 degree angle. We suggested to our parents that they buy a new television. Spoiled, overindulged children that we were, they finally did, three years later. You can only imagine the embarrassment I felt when my friends came over to find a working television. The stories they told their parents about how rich we were, about how my mom wrapped my sandwiches for school lunches in wax paper rather than cram them into too-small sandwich bags . . . it hurts to even think about it. And every time we road our bikes up to Toco Hills to buy candy at the Ben Franklin 5 and 10 store, they expected me to pop for the Pez dispenser replacements because I had a Schwinn 10 speed while most of them had Huffys.

I attended public elementary and high schools, where I tried to compensate for my well-to-do upbringing by doing as little school work as possible. I thought I might fit in with my friends who bragged about getting jobs one day riding on the back of a garbage truck so they could work outside or starting some sort of business, like opening a used record store that doubled as a head shop, so they could stay "connected" all the time and get free albums. Instead, the teachers wrote note after note home to my parents asking them to kick me in the ass so I would stop wasting my "talent." My parents wrote the teachers back, asking to know what exactly this "talent" was that I was so hell-bent on wasting. The teachers didn't cite any specific "talent" in their return volleys (these are now done, from what my concerned-and-involved parent friends tell me, through email and something called "EdLine," a school-sponsored website that allows you to see on-line in real time your childrens' grades and assignments that they were supposed to have turned in). I think they were more concerned that if was going to spend my class time debating the merits of Led Zeppelin vs. Yes, that I do so in a less disruptive manner.

I also played community sports growing up, and for five or six years I played on a "travel" team that had matching uniforms and played on fields with grass infields and dirt base paths, rather than just rock fields with some play sand thrown down when we hosted a team from out of state. I then went to public universities that had dormitories with indoor bathrooms and classrooms with electrical outlets. One university I attended offered multiple foreign languages that you could take for credit and, as much as I hate to admit this, major in, if you so chose.

In college, I never had one of these unpaid office jobs making coffee and fetching sandwiches, jobs that modern universities call "internships" and permit their students to take for credit. I had jobs that you would expect a spoiled little preppy boy like me to have: I worked as a waiter and house cleaner for a sorority house. I worked in restaurant, fraternity and sorority kitchens. I had a job with Division 1 athletic departments "tutoring" "student-athletes," where I was expected to take their tests, not merely minister to them on the importance of a college education or clear up their confusion on the marginal rate of diminishing return or bi-cameralism in state legislatures. "I don't need no degree," one prominent basketball player once told me. "Fuck that shit. I'm going to the pros. Just help me pass. I'll give you $20 to write this paper for me."

I thought about it, I really did. But in the end, that field trip I took with my journalism class to a local prison pretty much scared me off a life of crime. I knew, right then and there, that I could never do the time.

But I did absorb one lesson: What was the point of an education? What did I really need to know about the erotic component of the Socratic dialogues, or how photosynthesis worked in artificially maintained desert gardens? Really, who gave a shit? "Fuck that shit!" was right.

A summer in a cushy internship, where I drove and drove around town in a car without air conditioning after picking up my boss's drycleaning before getting his lunch and washing his girlfriend's car, persuaded me that I should pursue a graduate degree so I wouldn't have to work in an air-conditioned office in a job with benefits after I graduated. "Fuck that shit," I kept hearing my former tutoree, who, I gathered, ended up playing in the NBA under an assumed name because I never heard another word about or from him again, say to me.

So I went to graduate school for a Ph.D., since I figured this would take longer than a law degree or MBA to complete. After nine years of higher education, I racked up a $12,500 debt, which I paid back, to the penny, over a ten year period, after being told by my graduate advisor that Emory had invoked a little-known codicil in its charter to prohibit me from doing another Ph.D. Of course it did. Emory is a wealthy, private school that is steeped in the culture of elitism. Many of their professors are nationally and internationally recognized scholars and practitioners. Its students are drawn from some of the most elite high schools in the country. Libraries, fresh flowers and marble benches adorn the campus. The preferred soft drink is Coca-Cola, because a substantial part of its wealth has come from the Woodruff family, which owns our nation's oldest and most stuck-up beverage company.

"Give me a fucking R.C. Cola and Moonpie," I yelled one night, after being dragged from the main library after attempting to organize a book burning. "Fucking bunch of snobs, you all are. Get out and get a real fucking job, like running a multi-billion dollar company into the ground and then successfully demanding that taxpayers subsidize your losses while privatizing the profits. Let's see if you can call that "justifiable intervention" and then convince Americans without health insurance or access to your fucking elite schools that redistributing health care and education more equitably is socialism. Arrest me, you bastards! Oh, and let me guess, you'll probably have a "Hope and Change" or "Obama 08" sign in your yard 2o years from now. Yeah, well fuck you!"

I haven't heard from Emory since and have not once seen my name mentioned in its magazine's "Notable Alumni Accomplishments" section. Right back at you. I supposed my fine graduate school is just soooooooooo ashamed of having one of its Ph.D's teach at a university that only ranks 67 places behind them in the US News survey, even though everyone at my university knows that American is probably the best school in the world. Why else would those who run it have so little interest in the opinions of the people who teach there? Huh? That's right.

Henry and Ben (did I say Paul before? My bad), I think you guys are doing great. The next time someones gasps "$85 billion for AIG," you tell them, "Hey, that's just two months and change for the Iraq War. Who's winning that one?"

You know, I could worry myself about this one, but, as a college friend once told me, "Fuck that shit." I'm going to write an angry letter to the referee who botched a call in an NFL game that, unless you're a big gambler, probably won't result in anyone losing their job or having their house foreclosed or watching their life savings disappear. Better yet, I'm going to travel around the country warning elitists about the consequences of having an educated leadership accountable to the public, when the real answer is to find a successful street vendor, fly him or her to New York or Washington or Baghdad and turn his or her "average American-ness" loose on the world. Or go buy some Keno tickets, something I've never done but believe now might be a good idea.

Here's my advice: stop all this talk about "capital formation this, debt-to-equity ratio that," and call up some Republican celebrities and musicians, like Dennis Miller, Pat Boone and Mike Huckabee, and stage a telethon for Wall Street. We did that for Katrina victims, and that worked out well. We have private groups raising funds for displaced and maimed war veterans and their families, and that's a program that just isn't getting the credit it deserves. All I ask in exchange for this help is a $3,000 check to offset the cost of my son's upcoming hockey season, my daughter's dance and art classes and my wife's shoe collection. A small bailout considering the importance that I have, as a recovering elitist, in our political economy.

Gregg Ivers

P.S. I don't tell people I'm a professor. I tell them I'm in the education trades.

1 comment:

tryinagain06 said...

YOU ROCK!!!!!!!!!!!!!! From one doctoral candidate to one who's been there, "Rock on!" Keep speaking the truth Dr. Gregg. Someone might just hear you.