Sunday, October 24, 2010

on freedom

The theme of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom is that people are trapped by everything they need to do in order to have it. Trapped by an insistence on being self-sustaining and self contained. Trapped by never settling down. Trapped by having to stay far from their families. Trapped by independence. It reminds me of someone I used to be very close to -- there were so many things he could not do in order to remain "free." It's a type of freedom that means not only shaking off the past, but refusing to build a future. It requires you to say no to a lot of things.

Today I finished Eat the Document, a novel about a Weather Underground-style radical who went underground at the age of 22 and, who, now approaching 50, is living quietly in the suburbs with her teenage son. Her first years as a fugitive, moving every few months, working in restaurant kitchens, changing names and hair colors, are chronicled. She observes, "People with real freedom never do really 'free' things, like reinvent themselves, leave lives behind, change everything. Only trapped, desperate people did that."

Two apartments ago, I kept a postcard on my refrigerator. It pictured an endless traffic jam and the words, "Enjoy the freedom of a car." I have for years felt that way about driving -- it's a fake form of freedom sold to us so we'll consume more. You have to pay for the car, so you have less money to do whatever else you want. You constantly have to worry about where it's parked, whether you're getting a ticket, whether someone hit it, what that strange rattling noise is, etc etc. It's the ultimate possession that people become enslaved to -- except for a house I suppose. And here we were, acting like a car is freeing because you can go anywhere you want, whenever you want. But of course you can't go wherever you want. You have to work tomorrow. What will enable you to "just pick up and go" is time and money, and if you have those things, you don't need a car. You can get a cab to the airport.

There have been a couple of slaves to freedom in my life in recent years, and they really like to drive.

Does all of this mean Big Brother was right, and freedom really is slavery? I don't think so. It means that being an adult isn't about running away, and it certainly isn't about pretending that you could if you wanted to. You have to face who you are and where you came from. Start there.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

In Defense of Pessimism

I went to Greenlight, my beloved local Brooklyn bookstore, this evening to see David Rakoff read and answer questions. His new book, Half Empty, sounds like a more personal answer to Barbra Ehrenreich's Bright Sided, which I read recently and just loved. Ehrenreich writes about how stigmatizing pessimism can often mean stigmatizing foresight and rationality, and how the broad-reaching impact of that is bad for society. I have not yet read Half Empty (didn't even purchase it due to lack of funds, but I will, and I buy a lot of books from Greenlight I'll have you know) but it appears to tackle the same themes, but in essays that are more about the author's life and less about, say, the financial crisis.

Like Ehrenreich does/did (not sure of her current health status), Rakoff has cancer. He had it as a young adult and recovered, and the new tumor is a result of the old treatment. This did not come up tonight; I heard it on Fresh Air. I admire both of them so much for facing down sickness and mortality, and coming out of it with their worldview perhaps deepened, but essentially unchanged. Perhaps there are plenty of atheists in foxholes after all.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Liar's Poker

Michael Lewis moved several steps up my must-read list when both Ira Glass and Jonathan Franzen raved about his work in recent interviews. Since I was all psyched for the Wall Street sequel, and since I'm a huge fan of Bonfire of the Vanities, I picked up Liar's Poker. It's Lewis's first book, written in the late 80s after he worked at Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street investment bank.
Liar's Poker is an inside look at the beginnings of mortgage trading (which had a huge part in the most recent economic meltdown), the invention of hostile corporate takeovers and the run-up in the junk bond market. It's incredibly sharp, funny and insightful. I think what I'll remember most about it is the part where a bond salesman Lewis looks up to tells him to "consider the book and the bowl" when estimating the value and predicting the future of the bank's own stock.
To mark some corporate milestone or other, Salomon Brothers gave its employees a silver-plated bowl inscribed with the firm's name and a book about the company's history. "The bowl was good for putting Doritos in," Lewis writes before adding the book was good for nothing at all. I think the phrase "clumsy piece of fascist propaganda" was used.
The other bond salesman, by bringing up the book and the bowl, was saying that Salomon had strayed from its gutsy hard-charging roots, becoming stale and corporate. To its detriment of course. The old Salomon brothers would have just given employees the money it took to produce all the crappy corporate swag. Everyone would rather have the money.
The book was a fantastic parallel to the third season of The Wire, the HBO crime drama that's really about the disasters that are modern politics and government. In The Wire, a group of police officers is investigating a wealthy, powerful and violent drug gang. Over time, the gang loses its edge. Some of its best people end up dead or in jail. The two leaders disagree on whether to cooperate with other gangs and try to stem the violence, or whether to keep trying to be more brutal and fierce than anyone else. They turn on each other, and the gang falls apart.
At Salomon Brothers, the mortgage trading department had an identity all its own, loud, uncouth, overweight men with unpretentious educations in a white-shoe world. When a change in Federal Reserve policy leads to windfalls in mortgage trading and money starts rolling in, they remain loyal to the department rather than the firm at large. Meanwhile bonds, equities and all of the other departments build their own identities as well. The firm leadership becomes consumed in turf battles. And when junk bonds and hostile takeovers come along, they're too busy squabbling to cash in on the next Wall Street windfall. A lot of the top money-makers leave the firm, because there's more money to be made elsewhere. Millions of dollars are lost. Salomon Brothers are no longer, as they say, the masters of the universe.
In both cases, nimbler, hungrier, perhaps more ruthless capitalists surpass the slow, the stubborn, the resistant to change.

Possibly unrelated note: So far as I can tell, the membership of Goodreads is largely female. But when you click on the Liar's Poker page, the first I would say 10-15 members to review it are all men. And the first woman on the list read it because her fiance told her to so she could understand what he does. She just isn't interested in finance, unless it's about figuring out whether she can afford an expensive designer dress.

I wish I was kidding.

Ladies, high finance isn't about boring columns of numbers. It's about the way the world is run and who gets to be in charge. It doesn't matter if you understand how a mortgage security is created and sold. Hardly anyone does, not even, as we have learned, members of Congress. But it does matter who has all the money in this world (hint: not women) and why they have it. It matters a great deal.