Okay Dad, Hand Over The Credit Card!

English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U....
English: Federal Debt Held by the Public by U.S. Presidents and party control of Senate and House, 1901 to 2010; source for debt data is Congressional Budget Office, “Federal Debt and the Risk of a Fiscal Crisis”, July 27 2010, http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/116xx/doc11659/07-27_Debt_FiscalCrisis_Brief.pdf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The front door slams and a man with graying hair looks up from his book over rimmed glasses as he sits in an adjacent room. A young woman in her early twenties drops a duffel bag on the wood floor of a well-lit foyer.

Father: You’re home! How’s grad school?

(The girl looks irritated and says nothing)

Father: What’s wrong, baby?

Daughter: (The girl hesitates and then holds her hand out in front of him) Okay. Hand it over!

Father: What are you talking about?

Daughter: The credit card. You and your kick-the-can-down-the-road generation have bankrupted my future. (The girl drops a NY Times on the coffee table and becomes sarcastic) It says in here that the Fiscal Cliff has been averted. Ha! They might as well have announced that the Easter bunny is real. I just finished Michael Lewis’ Boomerang and Strauss and Howe’s The Fourth Turning and I’m depressed.

Father: Haven’t got to those books yet. Since November, I have turned to Merlot and escapism. I’m reading a bestseller about the 16th century. (Pointing to the newspaper, smirking) Cheer up! The Paper reports that the fiscal cliff is a bunny hill and Paul Krugman says spending our way out of the deficit is the only path back to prosperity. I hear Barney Frank may come out of retirement.

Daughter (looking incredulous): Are you kidding me? They only agreed to delay the debt ceiling discussion for 60 more days. Then they are going to ask Congress to raise my credit card limit. Even if the president got all the taxes he wanted, he’d have raised what, $80B of revenues? Where’s the other $15.92 Trillion going to come from? Government made a bunch of promises back in the 1960s in the form of Medicare that they no longer can keep. We’ve known it for a while, but we are hiding it like Enron. If the US government was a public company, the executives would be in jail for accounting fraud and the country would be in receivership. In the real world, you don’t pay as you go! There is bi-partisan dishonesty about the budgets and how dire our situation is. There is a deficit, all right. It’s a deficit of honesty, vision and courage in our public officials and it’s a deficit of public willingness to accept responsibility for managing a problem that has landed in their laps. Winter has arrived and you jerks keep spending the next few generations’ money to avoid a few cold nights.”

Father: It’s not us. It’s that damn Obama. He has created more debt in the last four years than all the Presidents that preceded him. He passed socialized medicine and now he wants to raid Medicare to pay for it. He’s added at least $7B of public debt and he wants to raise the debt ceiling and spend more money. He’s never worked a day in the private sector and can’t balance a lemonade stand.

Daughter: Dad, get real. The guy inherited a nightmare and a constituency that can’t face reality. This is about facing the fact that our healthcare system is broken and literally sinking the country. At some point, no one will lend you money. Congress and the White House have never shown fiscal discipline. We have recorded a budget surplus just five times in the last fifty years. Four of the surplus years came together from 1998-2001, President Bill Clinton’s last three years in office, and President George W. Bush’s first year in office. By the way, our publicly stated debt counts only current cash obligations. The real debt we are facing is more like $75 trillion dollars because we’re not adding in $45T in underfunding for Medicare. Every politician knows this but it is a radioactive secret. Both sides keep up their “Medi-Scare” rhetoric because they want support from retirees who fear they will lose benefits. Face it, Medicare is the biggest single drain on our budget and we have to deal with it.

Father (getting mad): There’s no damn way I’m going to let them raid Medicare to pay for nationalized Obamacare.

Daughter (smiling condescendingly): Dad, Medicare is unmanaged, fee for service, nationalized healthcare. The government controls Medicare costs by rationing reimbursement to doctors and cost shifting to the private sector. It’s the greatest generational rip-off from young to old in the history of the country. Medicare was established when there were 16 workers for every retiree and the average life expectancy was age 68. In 2030, we will have only two workers for every retiree and will have 80 million retirees, four times as many as today. The math does not work. Social Security is not the problem. We have to cut Medicare and make some tough decisions about how we deliver care in the last few months of life.

Father ( getting angry): Oh, now you want to euthanize me and your mother? This is not about Medicare. It’s about a socialist President who wants to redistribute wealth. We need to elect some fiscal conservatives. The Dems won’t make tough decisions. They are give-away artists who pander to Unions, illegal immigrants and anyone who feels they have gotten a raw deal. The GOP needs to win back the White House.

Daughter: Dad, don’t hold your breath. Try running on a platform of fiscal austerity when the new majority is being told that there was a big party from 1998-2008 that they did not attend but that they must now pay for. The demographics in America are changing and a large enough percentage of the GOP’s base has seen their standard of living decline that they have begun to identify with moderate Democrats joining an increasingly heterogeneous group of pro-Democratic voters. The GOP has not been able to convince non-Caucasian voters that they would benefit under their leadership.

Father: Jesus, you’re depressing. Do you have any good news to share?

Daughter: I’m taking Mandarin and I have a summer internship with an Indian microfinance firm that is trying to expand into China and Africa.

Father (trying to appear encouraged): Well, that’s great. Although it sounds like you are going to have a hard time finding a good cheese burger. (Looking bemused) My kid’s going to have to immigrate to another country to find a decent management job.

Daughter (hugging her father and laughing): Not necessarily. We just have to show the resolve to confront healthcare spending and the weight of our entitlement obligations. If we do that, we can be competitive as a country. The way I see it, we have four choices: default on our debt, raise taxes that only delay the day of reckoning and slow down our economy, create a centralized rationing regime in the form of a single payer healthcare system or migrate to a defined contribution premium support model where people receive help buying public or private insurance. I don’t think we want number one or two. So that leaves three or four. We’ve got to get honest – fast and (looking stern at her father), we have to cut up your credit cards.

Father (grabbing his daughter’s bag): How in the hell did you get so smart?

Daughter (smiling and putting her arm around her father): Four years of economics. I have your ear for BS and Mom’s ability to balance a checkbook.

Father (nudging daughter with shoulder): So, you going to tell me who you voted for in the elections?

Daughter (grinning): Ron Paul, I wrote in

Father (making a face) : That was a wasted vote

Daughter (pretending to look offended): Hey, last time I checked, this was still a Democracy.

Return of the Reptile

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Obstacles are like wild animals.  They are cowards but they will bluff you if they can.  If they see you are afraid of them… they are liable to spring upon you; but if you look them squarely in the eye, they will slink out of sight.  ~O.S. Marden

I grew up watching Japanese monster movies.  I always felt sorry for Godzilla. The mutant aquatic invertebrate was hatched out of the ebony depths by a radioactive blast on some distant Pacific atoll and then dragged into a modern world where his might no longer made right.  He would be betrayed by ignorant public officials, stung by toy tanks, blasted by model airplanes flying on silk threads and battered by automatic weapons spitting sparks.

Godzilla was misunderstood.  He would try to make nice with the humans but regress devouring army men like California Rolls and trashing buildings and karaoke bars with his atomic breath.  Godzilla hated change. He just wanted it to be the way it used to be where he was on top of the food chain – superior to all comers — fire-breathing turtles, gigantic moths or monsters that looked like something you might encounter in a public restroom at a bran muffin festival.

Godzilla was, first and foremost, a reptile. He was genetically predisposed to the most basic needs – eating, sleeping, fighting and cruising Tokyo looking for a female lizard. Paleontologists believed he was the dinosaur equivalent of a teenager – which makes sense.  He had a big mouth, bad attitude and an inability to compromise.  Life was a veritable buffet of visceral pleasures and he was preprogrammed to get his share.  He wanted to do the right thing but his reptilian brain kept getting in the way.

After years of Godzilla movies and parenting, I am able to recognize a reptilian brain from a kilometer away.  The neurology of how we make decisions is driven by three distinct areas of our brain– the stem or “reptilian” section is the ground floor of our intelligence. It is our most basic analog personality. Reptilians like reality TV and pizza.  The limbic or “mammalian” mid-sections of our noggins are characterized by memory, emotion and reflective decision making. Mammalians tend to watch American Idol and cry during “Old Yeller”.  If you are really evolved, your cerebral elevator reaches the penthouse of thinking – – the largest and most evolved area known as the Neo-Cortex.  The crown of our brain is a less inhabited penthouse of higher intelligence that allows us to make our best decisions and is decorated with really cool art-deco furniture.  It is underutilized and as such, feels more like a second home.  Those who rely on their neo-cortex can complete the Saturday NY Times Crossword, understand why people watch “The Bachelor” and write Haiku poetry with their left hand.

These three portions combine into something that neurologists refer to as the “triune brain”.  Interestingly, most people spend time on the first and second floors – moving between the stem and limbic portions of the brains.  Climbing up to the neo-cortex is a hassle for most.  There are brief episodes of enlightened thinking usually following a triple latte, yoga or a vegan meal.  With the advent of cable television and the internet, many of our mental elevators have essentially stopped running to the penthouse.  In fact, in times of geopolitical uncertainty and economic angst, reptilian thinking is making a comeback.

Signs of reptilian thinking are everywhere.  When my roof started leaking last winter due to ice damming, the water dripped down the inside of my living room walls and pooled on the roof of the basement where myopic teens played X-Box in between meals and belching.  As the water began to seep through the dry wall ceiling and on to the sofa where they were sitting, the boys merely shifted out of the way of the nascent waterfall and continued to play COD – Black Ops while our sofa began to swell like a wet diaper.  An hour later, one calmly informed me that the sofa was wet and theorized that the water leeching from the ceiling might be the source.

Reptilian brains are very binary.  Any stimulus is typically processed through a single series of highly self serving filters.  The reptile asks, “Does this represent a threat to me?  Can I crush the source of anxiety or should I flee from it?  Should I stay here on the couch playing video games or do I get up and deal with a problem that really has nothing to do with me?”

We seem to be regressing as a society into highly self-centered thinking.  Many are reaching the frightening conclusion that the world is a life boat and there are simply not enough supplies to go around.  Michael Lewis acknowledges this phenomena in his recent book,  Boomerang -Travels in the New Third World, where he describes society at a tipping point where we will either demonstrate greater emotional intelligence and learn to defer our own need for instant gratification or we will continue to on a path toward bankrupting our future. It will come down to character — as a person, community and as a nation.

Reptilian thinkers live for today.  They are afraid if they don’t grab something while they can, it won’t be there for them when they need it.  The reptile does not want to hear inconvenient facts or engage in a mammalian debate about consequences and moral obligations.  Let tomorrow take care of itself.  Now is not the time to be German and plan for the bridge 500 kilometers ahead.  It is better to be Greek and cross that bridge when we come to it.

The reptile is rustling in the leaves of my brain. I am all that I think about.  I cannot wait for people to stop talking so we can discuss my favorite subject – me.  I find it harder to reflect on a solution to a problem when I am hobbled by the nagging need to know what’s in it for me.  I am afraid.  I don’t want to end up on “Hoarders”.

I am not rational but the media keeps telling me that something wicked is coming. I rise from my couch and stagger like a giant monster toward the kitchen – seeking solace in sugar and simple carbohydrates.   I am suddenly scolded out of my self-pity.  I am reminded by my partner – who relies on her evolved neo-cortex – that fear and faith cannot occupy the same place.  She tells me all reptiles can evolve – if they learn to adapt.  Eventually, they become mammals – embracing the inevitability of change.  The first step towards becoming mammalian is to acknowledge the needs of others.

On this night, Godzilla is asked to take out the trash.  As I lumber down the stairs toward the outdoor trash bins, I realize that in removing the rubbish, I am being of service to my spouse and getting out of my own head.  Less trash in the house also reduces the probability that I will become a hoarder.

Now if I can just get rid of this radioactive breath….

An Idiot Abroad

Greater Middle East
Image via Wikipedia

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” Winston Churchill

My father recently sent me an on-line geographic quiz that required that I assign the names of countries to over 30 nations that make up the strategic region we broadly refer to as The Middle East.  The area remains a radioactive Jenga stack of oil rich nations stretching from arid Northern Africa, through the Southern and Northern Gulf States into a creche of red-headed newborns known as the ”Stans”.  Despite my time working and travelling across this area, I was surprised how confused I was over where everybody actually lives.

As a young adult, I suffered from the normal provincialism that afflicts many West Coast Americans.  I was disinterested in Europe’s Rubik’s Cube of nations that seemed like aging actresses – temperamental and well past their prime. My orientation to the shifting sands of Middle Eastern geo-politics was ancient maps of Mesopotamia, odd and even days for sitting in line for gasoline during the 70’s oil embargo and a strange production monopoly called OPEC which sounded like CHAOS, the evil organization bent on world anarchy in the TV show, “Get Smart”.  To me, everything beyond North America was a wasteland of sand, bananas and crumbling infrastructure.

The US seemed mired in perpetual Middle Eastern Peace Talks. When the Iran and the Shah fell, I asked my father why we had such a keen interest in what happened to this regime.  It was in our national interests, my father explained, to always have a hand in the Middle East. When my militant older brother scoffed at the notion that US had a right to interfere with the politics of another sovereign nation simply because it coveted its natural resources, my father quickly put him in his place. “Would you rather have the Russians or the Chinese calling the shots?  You’ll be paying $3 for a gallon of gas before you know it, mister.”

It was a time of Cold War, cartels and counter-espionage. The battle for the soul of the modern world was distilled to a point where one could either sip from the West’s grail shining with its thousand points of light or toss back a shot from the community based cup of socialism.

It all seemed so clear.  There were good guys and bad guys. The West extended invitations to enjoy liberty while Communism took away your right to decide. The world was not a colorful mural of elementary school book cultures and happy independent countries but a canvas to be fought over – – and ultimately covered by the brush stokes of red or white ideologies.

In college, I read Hayek’s The Road To Serfdom, published in 1944, which reinforced the notion that any society that mistakenly yields to a vision of collectivism eventually degrades into totalitarianism.  Hayek’s thesis contended that any “vanguard“ form of socialistic or fascist government is eventually corrupted by its own power and never fully yields to society the self-governance it has promised to transition.  When there is a void of social and political power, it is not filled by utopian democracy but instead by absolute control. Hayek warned that citizens willing to cede personal liberties or greater dependence on entitlements provided by a larger, more prescriptive government led to the same end – serfdom.  Democracy was the fragile middle ground between bankrupt liberalism and suffocating fascism.

The danger of equipping an 18 year-old with Hayek is you create a libertarian with anarchist tendencies. In the mid eighties, it was a time of conservatism and I became an opinionated critic of our foreign policy in Central America and Monroe Doctrine unilateralism.  I was armed with a powerful arsenal of convenient academic views that I had gathered in earnest in class rooms, lectures and in left-wing coffee houses.

Years later, while living and working in Europe, I realized that I had become, what comedian Ricky Gervais coined, “an idiot abroad.”  My apologist views were simple on issues that remained highly complex.  I had never visited many of the nations of whom I had such devout opinions.  As I travelled the Middle East, I came to view these nations as ancient ceramics broken by two World Wars – – only to be haphazardly reconstructed across deep tribal fissures and religious fault lines.

In England, I met a post-colonial empire with a richer past than future. British history in the Middle East was embodied in the tumultuous 1800’s when colonialism sewed the seeds for WWI.  A great global land rush began for control of resource rich, weaker nations in strategic locations across the globe.  Britain, Spain, Russia, England, Japan, Austria-Hungary, Germany, Belgium, France and the US, all rationalized that these underdeveloped countries would benefit profoundly from Western culture, infrastructure and oversight.  In 1918, while the Ottoman Empire was receding from Europe, leaving pools of ethnic conflict and seeds of internecine war, the Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist, and an impoverished Germany would witness the slow strangulation of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the national socialist party.

Most historians contend that while the Treaty of Versailles marked the end of the fighting of WWI, it only served as the mid-way point in a political and ideological war that dates back to the Crusades. The ideological war between Islam and the West inflamed with the birth of Israel and was fanned as communism and democracy waged a dozen proxy wars across the globe.  Many still argue that WWII did not really end until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In time, colonialism revealed its ugly underbelly.  In “King Leopold’s Ghost”, the world read about the crushing repression of Belgian colonialism as the tiny European nation raped the Congo of its rubber and respect, plunging the African nation into a darkness from which has still to recover. Many world powers ultimately fashioned the snare that would entrap their own feet. The French were bloodied in Tunisia and Algeria.  The British were driven from India and Palestine.  Russia became ensnared in Afghanistan and across the Balkans.  The US left 55,000 dead in Vietnam.  Western interests in the Middle East, Africa, Central America, South America and the Pacific Rim began to unravel as smaller protectorates sought self governance and strived to drive out their protectors.

As we watch the wild-fire of social protest sweep through the Middle East and North Africa, many of us are filled with a mixture of dread, elation and anticipation.  As each nation’s army serves either as a vanguard for a transitional government or a hammer to shatter rising resistance, many are uncertain how to distinguish between protecting our interests and indulging the drum beat for democracy.

As protesters rush head long into the center of Manama, Bahrain, there is a growing angst building across a world that runs on fossil fuel and has keen interest in a region that has delivered as much stability as the San Andreas Fault. Each day is now filled with inspired Berlin Wall moments and at the same time, trepidation as firebrand clerics and moderates compete for the hearts and minds of a population where 50% are under 20-years-old.

2011 is the year of living dangerously and we are not sure what to make of it. Some credit former President George W Bush with threading the first fragile filament of democracy through Iraq so that it might illuminate a region shadowed by the permanent twilight of autocratic and fundamentalist regimes. Detractors of the war in Iraq draw no comparisons and feel these protests are a natural result of human social evolution.  They argue that any sustainable change – whether personal or collective – arises from within and does not normally come about as a result of outside influences attempting to be a catalyst for change.  Still others argue that certain regions will always need despots ‘lest they fracture into sectarian violence and civil war.  So, how can one tell a good despot from a bad one? Is it the shoes?

Broken nations, like the proverbial fish, rot first from the head. Broken nations begin with broken governments. Most of the world’s 6.9B people want the same thing – peace, economic opportunity, freedom and legal certainty.  For this idiot – now at home, I am uncertain whether one can achieve the underpinnings to support a free society without some form of democratic government.  However, in the process of allowing for majority rule, one must always be prepared for alternative forms of government – coalitions, theocracies and even forms of socialism. The strictly American part of my brain wants the best of all scenarios – democratic allies whose economic and global aspirations mute their more fundamentalist minorities. The social activist part of my brain wants to support the process however it plays out.

Some find it hard to condemn Yemen, Libya and Iran’s violent reactions to protesters while condoning Qatar’s, Bahrain’s and possibly Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia’s future hard-line responses to those who seek to end decades of autocracy, oligopoly, monarchy or theocracy. Does the preservation of national interests afford a nation the justification for interfering with the politics of another nation? Is nation-building only work when the nation is constructed in your own image? Do some of us just need to grow up and face the facts that the oil-addicted West must always have a hand in this part of the world?

After all these years, I remain, faithfully, an idiot.  I am always left with more questions.  While some have come to see the world through a black and white lens,  my sunglasses only see shades of  gray. One can only imagine what it must be like to be our President.  All eyes are watching and the answers are about as clear as a viscous pool of oil.

Survivorman Comes To Wall Street

The corner of Wall Street and Broadway, showin...
Image via Wikipedia

Survivorman Comes To Wall Street

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”- Charles Darwin

In the 1985, Hollywood introduced us to Angus MacGyver, an engineering and applied science genius who could bring down a Russian T30 tank with the most prosaic of jury rigged household items  – chewing gum, a paper clip and a ballpoint pen. Macgyver, hailed from a long line of resourceful improvisationists – all spawned by a Cold War preoccupation that one day in a few violent flashes of light and mushroom clouds, we would be cast back into a Stone Age where physical and intellectual prowess would replace financial and social prowess as linchpins to our survival.

America loved MacGyver. He was the ultimate scavenger.  He did not need people.  People needed him. In an era where ICBMs idled silent in underground silos, hanging over us like the Sword of Damocles, we became fascinated with people who possessed the skills necessary to survive if anyone dropped the big one.  To subsist in a post apocalyptic world, man must learn to catch small animals with a snare, spear fish and move across an urban wasteland perhaps dressed only in a musk ox coat and buffalo moccasins.  If you were really good, you might domesticate a wild dog and call him Lobo.

Fast forward to 2009.  Armageddon has occurred in the form of a nuclear melt down bursting from an overheated reactor with rods fashioned from sub-prime debt, credit swaps, reckless leverage and unhealthy risk taking.  Suddenly, everyone’s worst-case scenario is closer to their reality.  We are in survival mode.

At night we turn on our TVs desperate to escape our new realities – hoping to vicariously live someone else’s life.  Some turn to the empty carbohydrates of reality shows.  Yet, others long for a hero.  Since MacGyver had improvised his last solution in 1992, channel surfers are turning to another set of survivalists – ex SAS instructor Bear Grylls in “Man Versus Wild” and my favorite Canuck toughie, Les Stroud in  Survivorman.

Canadian Stroud uses wits and ingenuity to survive a multitude of survival scenarios.  He must endure psychological isolation, uncertainty and inadequate resources. His ability to control his fear and focus on what is required to confront extraordinary circumstances reassures armchair mountain men who want to believe that a person cannot be so tenderized by prosperity and materialism that he cannot rise to confront and overcome disaster.

Each episode finds Les making bivouacs out of debris found on deserted islands, eating roots in boreal forests, navigating inhospitable mangrove swamps, dodging dehydration in the arid African Kalahari and or enduring the open sea adrift in a leaky raft.  Les films his own experience and survives, albeit uncomfortably, eating native plants, hunting local game, sleeping rough in every conceivable circumstance and occasionally taking drastic steps to survive such as drinking his own urine or consuming indigestible organic matter that the most ambitious contestant on Fear Factor would rebuff.

With the permanent contraction within the financial services community, the world is becoming even more Darwinian and it seems that for every position there are ravenous packs of feral workers fighting over a slave wage job in hopes of living to hunt another day.  I got to thinking, could Les Stroud last a few weeks in the primordial boardrooms and post Armageddon landscapes of Wall Street?

Those already laid off are learning new survivor techniques – – distinguishing between the discretionary and the necessary, separating wants and needs, and appreciating the clear, unobstructed perspective that now fills a field of vision once obscured by country clubs, second homes and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses, serial vacationing.  Those that are still employed, understand the radical climate change in business and face their own weekly survival scenarios dealing with cutthroat last-man-standing politics, heavily leveraged balance sheets, back-lashing regulation and a self consciousness aversion to the general public opinion that anyone who works in finance or banking must be up to no good. I wonder what Les Stroud would do. Could Survivorman endure if he were confronted with the daily challenges of today’s recessionary economy?

I called David Brady, the show’s producer to discuss my idea.  Mr Brady’s secretary said he was busy and would return my call.  A few weeks later I called again.  He was still in a meeting.  ” That’s one hell of a long meeting,”  I told her.  ”  Would she mind just taking a message.  She agreed and attempted to outline my idea for a new season theme show:  Survivorman Comes To Wall Street.  “It would be the diametric opposite of “Survivor – Samoa” or “I am a Celebrity Get Me The Hell Out of Here”.   We could launch the special shows on the anniversary of last year’s meltdown.  We could then subject Les to the cruelest of corporate conditions and watch him squirm.”  The phone was still connected so I kept talking.  I could hear her scribbling furiously.

Week 1 – Les is hired as a mid-level manager at XYZ, Inc, a financial services firm’s insurance division.  Although, the problems that brought the firm to its knees are all based in the firm’s Financial Products division, XYZ is days from bankruptcy and is taken over by the Feds. Les has just learned that a new EVP will be running his division and that he hates Canadians.  The insurer is crawling with regulators.  The stock is down 75% and rumors are rampant of a massive layoff.  Employees are rapidly jumping ship.  Les decides to refuse to leave his office to avoid a potential pink slip.  At night, he hides from security guards and scavenges for meals, foraging on the most unlikely items in the office including week-old coffee that tastes like burnt popcorn.  Les cleverly uses a coffee filter to strain toilet water when the water supply is cut-off by the authorities trying to get him to vacate the building.  Can Les survive the week?

Week 2 – Les inherits a hedge fund in total free fall – redemption requests are flying in faster than spring swallows to San Juan Capistrano.  The stock market is plummeting and Les’ investment bank is making margin calls on the loans his fund used to make heavily leveraged bets on a range of securities and credit swaps.   Long time clients are bailing out faster than black ship rats as Les is hit with margin calls.  The SEC has decided, post-Madoff scandal that they must find a poster child for reckless investment management and Les fits the profile.  In a soon to be classic scene, Les sprinkles blackened eraser shards throughout the office and then calls the Health Department claiming that the building is infested with rodents.  With the building abandoned, Les uses his Gucci belt and a nail file to start a fire that rages through the main office, destroying incriminating documents and the main server where all the back up emails are stored. Will Les avoid jail time ? Is it too little too late ?

Week 3 – Les becomes former Lehman CEO Dick Fuld’s personal bodyguard. Les must accompany Dick to his favorite health club and help him avoid getting punched by disgruntled ex-employees and angry activists.  At one point, Les fashions jump ropes into trip wires as he cordons off Dick’s bench press area. He also advises Dick to carry a self cooling pouch of his own plasma.  “You never know when you may be stabbed and in need of transfusion.”  Les says to Fuld and the camera. “I’m usually the one that is drawing blood from other people,” chips in an animated Fuld. Can Dick and Les complete an entire circuit of machines without losing a quart of blood.

Week 4 – In this week’s episode, Survivorman is faced with the grim possibility of being made redundant – (the business equivalent of dying in the wilderness ).   Les goes berserk and holds everyone in the lunchroom hostage with a sharpened punji stick.  Les, recalling an old trick he used on Bushmen in the Kalahari, threatens to drink his own urine – a powerful gesture of male dominance.  To Les’ bewilderment, his new boss – a twenty-something private equity, enfant terrible with no personal boundaries – scoffs and tells Les that he drank from a commode several times during fraternity rush at Yale.  Les’s desperate act of defiance draws local media attention and unfortunately the SWAT police.  Les finds an air duct and the game of cat and mouse begins with the local authorities.  Can Les make it to Friday before getting fired?  Will Les be able to keep his backdated stock options?

“Well?” I asked.  ” Do you think he will like it?”

There was a pregnant pause and then an animated sigh.  I could tell she was smiling. “Mr Brady may like this. He can show how the American workplace has become a virtual wilderness where only the strong can survive.  Les can merchandise his survival ideas to corporate executives – Les Stroud’s Guide To Surviving a Bear Attack or A Bear Market.”  Suddenly she was covering the phone and speaking to someone.  I could hear their muffled exchange.

“You know Mr Turpin, perhaps we can get Les to climb a building or throw a chair through a window and fashion shoes out of his leather note pad? Mr Brady just got out of his meeting and wants to know if you think we can get Les to replace Ken Lewis at Bank of America for one week ? He thinks that would be one hell of a survivor episode. We need a job that really puts Les at risk.”

I thought for a minute.

“Why not put him in charge of healthcare reform. That should just about kill him. “

The Nocturnal Misadventures of Mr T.

The Nocturnal Misadventures of Mr T.

 

“So what can I do for you?”

 

“Well doctor, I have been having these really weird nightmares.  The images are pretty disturbing.  It’s gone way past the ‘waking up in high school math class just before my final exams in my underwear’ stuff.

 

“Well lie down and let’s discuss your most recent incubus.”

 

I plopped down on a leather chaise and began to describe my prior evening’s phantasms.  “I dreamed I was lost in a rundown part of New York City. It was cold – really cold – and I could see down by the East River some fires burning in trash cans in a makeshift camp. It looked like a Depression era Hooverville. I saw men shuffling and stomping their feet to keep warm while one man stoked the fire with small scraps of papers. As I got closer, I saw the bum was feeding the fire with hundred dollar bills and when he turned around, I saw it was my financial advisor.  He looked terrible. When he saw me, he shrugged saying, “I know I should have taken you out of equities and into cash but I figured we’d just ride this out.  Here, help me burn the rest of your money, will you?”  Well at this point, I got mad and tried to grab a handful of my retirement dollars but everyone became hostile saying they needed to burn my money to stay warm.  One guy that looked like Hank Greenberg threatened me with an AIG paper weight.  Can you imagine?  So, I ran toward the river and a guy yells, “Hey buddy, get in!” So I jumped into what looked like one of those New York Harbor sightseeing boats. That’s when things started to get really weird.

 

I plopped into an open seat and the three guys in front of me turned around. They were the CEOs of the Big 3 automakers – Mulally, Nardeau and Wagoner and for some reason, they were giving me a dirty look.  “You drive an Audi, don’t you?” hissed Wagoner.  I could not resist.  “You run a crappy company, don’t you?”  He reached out to grab me but his buddy restrained him.  “Come on, Rick, we don’t need any more negative press.”  Waggoner held two fingers up to his eyes and then pointed at me and mouthed,

“I’m watching you.”

 

To my left was Barney Frank wearing water wings and reading Pravda. The boat’s tour guide got on the PA system, “Welcome to post-apocalypse Wall Street, folks.  The water may get rough up ahead so please put on your life jackets.” Someone threw me a life jacket.  It would only fit a small child.  “That’s all you get,” someone snickered.  Barney Frank thought that was very funny and giggled his Elmer Fudd laugh.  “We’re all screwed,” mumbled the guy behind me.  It was Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Joe The Plumber.  He perked up when our eyes met, “Hey, you want to buy my new book?” 

 

The announcer spoke up, “If you look over there you will see High Yield Towers. As you can see, there is a fire on the top three floors.  Normally there is no more than a 3 percent default rate of junk bonds.  We expect that as many as 10 percent or over $150 billion of junk to default.”   I watched the fire burn.  No one was trying to extinguish it.  “Now this area coming up is dangerous.  Keep your hands and feet in the boat.” The water had started to swirl and pitch.  The boat was picking up momentum.  There were empty homes everywhere.  It was as if suburban America had been picked clean by aliens or some form of the Andromeda Strain. “We have 12 million homes with an average negative equity of $ 40,000.  Unless we find a way to buy out this negative equity, these homeowners will default, sending the market into a free fall.  

 

I looked at Joe and said, “I think I am going to be sick.”  Joe was gone.  I was sitting next to Hank Paulson, lame duck Treasury Secretary.  He just stared ahead like a combat veteran and said, “You don’t know what sick is.”  The boat drifted under the soft light of an illuminated waterside boardwalk. We pulled up to a dock and Ben Bernanke jumped out to run to the bathroom.  “Alan Greenspan had a much bigger bladder than this guy,” Paulson said sardonically. I took the opportunity to also disembark.  I just wanted to wake up.  This was the worst nightmare I had experienced in years.  In the distance, I could still see my financial advisor and his derelict friends, illuminated by the scabrous dancing shadows of the burning money.  My phone rang.  I fumbled for it and dropped it on the ground.  A man wearing a white cowboy hat walked over ,picked it up and handed it to me.  “You dropped this, partner.” I looked up and I was staring into the serene face of Warren Buffett.  “ Thank you, Mr. …” 

 

“Just call me Stranger.”

 

“So Stranger, do you think we will ever recover?”

 

He though for a long time and sighed.  “Oh, we will come back, but not until we as a society learn to live within our means.  Americans want something for nothing.  We have gotten fat, lazy and insulated. We have produced a whole generation of kids who have never experienced hardship, workers who believe a job is an entitlement and mediocre CEOs who are incented to create the very bubbles that always burst. We were harvesting money out of a gold mine propped up by the rotting timbers of easy credit, toxic financial instruments, inept rating agencies and pathetic regulators. When the forces of the free market caused a cave in, we braced the affected area instead of correcting the engineering flaws or allowing nature to run its course. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. My guess is the Dow will drop to 7,000. Businesses will go under while unemployment rates, high-yield bonds and mortgage defaults will soar.  We will go through a deep recession which will shape us into a leaner, tougher nation capable of competing in the century ahead. But it won’t be fun and there will be casualties.  Ultimately, we will prevail as we are a great nation of innovators and creators.” He looked out toward the bum’s camp and started to hum.  “You hear that music, son?  It’s the lonely anthem of a country waking up to its worst financial hangover since 1931.  You seem like a nice guy.  There is a stock you can buy that should allow you to recover your lost savings.  It’s a great company that will surely rise like the Phoenix out of these ashes of failure.  Their stock exchange symbol is…’

 

I looked at the doctor and said, “And that is where I wake up every time. I am going nuts.”  He thought for a moment and left the room.  “Hold that thought,” he quipped as he raised a finger and stuck his head out the door to speak with his assistant. He turned back to me.

 

“Well, it’s clear you have a lot of anxiety. This is all symbolism – a manifestation of unrealized guilt over your failure to take action during the recent economic meltdown as well as your ambivalence toward the public figures who you feel are culpable for the mess and its remediation.  I would recommend the following: Do not pick up the business section, watch any stock market indices or listen to Jim Cramer for six months.  Consider firing your investment advisor as he should have protected your downside risk and failed. If anyone attempts to engage you or ask your opinion on the economy, just respond, ‘You could be right.’  Then go home and watch old Three Stooges reruns. Get plenty of exercise and do not eat pizza after 5 p.m.”  I thanked him and turned to leave.

 

“Oh and just one other thing, you must try to remember the name of the stock that Warren Buffet told you.  It will help your recovery.  Think…HARD!”

 

A secretary appeared.  “Doctor, your stockbroker is on line two!”

 

“Tell him to wait a moment, Anne.  Now think, Mr Turpin. What was the name of that stock?”

 

 

A New Prosperity

A New Prosperity

 

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

 

The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller.  The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country.  Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit.  Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.

 

Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.

 In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land.  As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value.  Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth.  If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth.  For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships.  The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals.  The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit. 

 

As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy.  Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft.  Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us.  A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface.  We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.

 

My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative.  Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country.  He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world.  He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest.  During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion.  Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome.  “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?

 

This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia.  Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold.  In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India.  However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.

 

“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity.  I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned.  I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members.  In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities.  What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused.  He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world.  “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  (I hate it when he does this to me.  It ruins dessert)

 

But as usual, he gets me thinking.  Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity?  This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want.  This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.

 

 A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures.  A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”.  It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us.  It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances.  A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments.   In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures.  We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions. 

 

We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear.  A great society strives for these things for all its citizens.  It is a time of opportunity and transformation.  Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility.  In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Now that’s what I call prosperity.

 

The Budget

The Budget

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship”– Benjamin Franklin

When last October’s Wall Street bombshell tore jagged lacerations in my net worth, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the bleeding had not abated.  There were myriad fiscal punctures in my lifestyle leaving a trail that even a blind hunter could follow. My frugal spouse was pleased when I suddenly expressed interest in our finances.  It seemed I had finally awakened to smell the financial coffee or at least I had started to count the beans.

I freely admit to not grasping the concept of moderation. More is better and better still, is now.  I have never been a profligate spender but I have not balanced a checkbook or kept an ATM receipt in 15 years.  A budget was simply the absence of deficit spending and taking any surplus and burying it like a jar of pennies in the retirement yard.  My discretionary spending vices are confined to collecting antique lead soldiers and roaming the endless stalls of eBay while in a $ 4 triple latte blackout.  Like many Americans, I pay for convenience and for the ability not to wait in a line or on a line.  I am in fact, the ultimate target consumer for the retail industry.  When I need to update my wardrobe, I buy everything I need for the next 24 months in one store in less than 30 minutes.  The first time my wife went shopping with me she became physically ill from what looked to her like a feeding frenzy of a starved hog.

In these recent hard times, I have become disgusted by my lack of fiscal discipline. I find myself muttering the word,” simplify” as I notice for the first time the price tags on everything, It’s like a witch has put a curse on me: “ You will now clearly see the cost of everything!“  “ No, no, please! Anything but that!”

I daydream of living near Walden Pond in a ramshackle, drafty railroad hut penning manifestos against the materialism, corruption and greed in America. In saner moments, I realize that if I actually did go off by myself into the woods, I would probably have to fold my own laundry – a thought that terrifies me.

I dreamed the other night about our first house – a 1200 square foot cottage, three miles from the beach in Southern California.  Air conditioning was achieved by opening a window.  Heat was achieved by shutting the window.  There was no basement engine room filled with heating units and oil tanks that seem to be in perpetual need of a $ 700 refill.   I am not sure the close quarters of that Newport Beach hobbit hole could accommodate our family of five without a domestic dispute consigning us to the police blotter, but I do recall waking up with the nostalgic longing for that low mortgage payment, small garden and a downsized lifestyle.

I became determined to take action against the rising swarm of enervating expenses that swirled around my head like summer midges.  My first target was America Online. To embolden my efforts, I drank an entire pot of coffee and, with my legs twitching like a second grader in church, I grabbed the telephone.

A few days earlier, I realized I had been paying $25 for an AOL Premium Service that I could essentially get for free.  I was outraged that AOL would take advantage of my ignorance and lethargy.  I called the 800-number and immediately got “ Sam”, an outsourced Eastern European service technician, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, grinning through the phone like the Cheshire cat.  At one point in the call, I heard what sounded like automatic gunfire.  I asked Sam if he was in danger of being executed if he did not convince me to keep my premium plan.  Sam laughed and assured me that the staccato hammering was merely construction on his building.  When I explained my situation, Sam was very sympathetic and offered me the $11.99 fee instead of the $ 25.90 fee.  I assured him I just wanted free email.  Sam offered me the $ 9.99 package.  No, Sam, I am.  Green eggs and ham and free email, man.  But Sam was good.  In fact he was hungrier and more determined than this reformed consumer.  After twenty minutes of verbal rope a doping and more information about firewalls and technical support than my over cauliflowered ear could possibly handle, I relented to the $9.99 plan.  I needed to lie down.  Saving ten dollars a month was hard business.

I called the oil company ready to threaten cancellation unless they could offer me the Hugo Chavez super economy rates.  I did not have a back up plan, other than ordering twelve cords of wood to be delivered as soon as possible. The oil company agent was obviously an out of work securitization specialist who detailed a complex algorithm for locking in a rate that involved hedges against Russian wheat and Moroccan olives. The topic shifted uncomfortably to ways that I could cut my utilization costs.  He asked me highly invasive questions about my insulation and energy efficiency.  Was he implying that I was not green?  I have natural insulation but that is not the point.  “I want cheaper rates or else.”  “Or else what?” He asked.  “Or else, …I’ll hang up.”  Just about this time, I felt a 20 degree draft knifing through the living room – coming from the patio door that one of the kids had just left wide open when they got up to take the dog out.  I am quite certain if anyone were to drive by our house with an infrared camera, we would look like Chernobyl as the fuel rods were melting.  Perhaps the price of the oil was not the entire problem.

I graduated to cable, broadband and phone. Between being charged for an Optimum Online voice mail box that is jammed with irretrievable messages dating back to ancient Rome – “ Hail, this is Caesar, please ask Senator Pretorius to send more men and supplies.  I have crossed the Rubicon. (Silence) I hope I am dialing the right numerals” – and 900 activated channels including an entire network dedicated to Latvian folk dancing, I am paying more for cable than I am contributing to my 401k.  However, weaning a couch potato from cable is slow and must be achieved similar to dosage reduction from steroids.  Just moving from hi-definition to non-HDTV makes a person feel as if they have glaucoma.  On second thought, let’s hold off on the cable.

I had my list of other remedies that would help suture my thousand cuts – teenaged I pod charges, gasoline, electricity, vacation expenses, dry cleaning and food.  My scorched earth austerity efforts went on all morning and yielded over $ 300 a month savings.  It was not exactly the greatest return on investment but it felt good.  It was the same feeling you get after cleaning the basement or garage.  Life seemed a little more in equilibrium.

My son walked in with tangled morning hair and stretched his arms, “ Dad, what have you been doing in here?”  I explained my jihad on non-essential spending.  He listened with that bored vacuous expression of a person who is just waiting for an opening to ask for something.  “Dad, all the guys are doing this lacrosse thing and I was hoping I could do it to.”

“ How much does it cost, buddy?”

“I think Teddy and Harry said like $300…”

I laughed out loud.

 

 

The Return of Francois Egalite

The Return of Francois Egalite

As a kid, I had an overactive imagination and a short attention span. I was chastised as a ” daisy gazer” by baseball coaches and as “lacking social responsibility ” by my spinster teacher Miss Austin whose last boyfriend was in the Polk administration which in my opinion, was about as socially irresponsible as a person could get. With regularity, I was marched off to see the principal, Miss Pratt, for infractions ranging from insubordination and inattentiveness to telling whopping half-truths such as my father was an operative for the CIA. He was, after all, in advertising which involved propaganda and the subliminal manipulation of the masses. I was certain he was writing pro bono vignettes for Radio Free America on the side.

I was a junior version of James Thurber’s Walter Mitty. fantasizing and daydreaming my day away. I was the short man dreaming of slam-dunking a basketball – the flat footed Clydesdale gazing into the mud puddle wishing he were Man O War. I invented alter egos and super heroes.  I lived their lives vicariously until my mind and body stretched to afford me my own adventures.  However, I never stopped filling in the empty cracks and dimly lit spaces of my prosaic routine with dashing figures and adventurers.  Over time, life slowly carved its hard lines on my face. My idealistic penchant for undisputed resolution and redemption slowly rusted under the constant corrosive exposure to society’s moral ambiguity and materialism.  My imagination faltered and my adolescent propensity to dream was lost like an old blanket or stuffed toy.

Years later, I find myself once again seeking to escape from a slate gray world where people play by different sets of rules, bad deeds go unpunished and the guy with the most expensive attorney gets off. I long for a black and white corner of the universe where there are distinguishable good and bad guys who wear different color uniforms and work for agencies with names like “Control” and “Chaos”.  We need a hero riding a white horse who is just a second faster on the draw and a system where bad guys always get nailed just before they are boarding their United flight to Buenos Aires with the employee pension funds.

I find myself once again conjuring up an imaginary protagonist – Francois Egalite, a master businessman and international man of intrigue. He is Louis Jourdain, Hercules Poirot and James Bond rolled into one. The French have flair and Egalite is no exception. He races cars in Monaco, seduces starlets like Audrey Tautou and Sophie Marceau, and wears a signature silk cravat.

Egalitie is the perfect cover name for a hero who saves governments, captures evil industrialists and is able to actually spell “vichyssoise.” Egalite has contempt for inequity as it is at its core – the antithesis of his surname. He is a champion of the exploited, the under-represented and the sartorially challenged. He is the ultimate good guy.  After saving yet another magnificent buxom heiress from the harem of a petro-authoritarian sheik or protecting a French farmer with twelve children from losing his land to a corrupt agricultural monopoly, Egalite always melts into the cool shadows simply leaving a calling card with his trademark fleur d’ lis insignia and the rearranged French national motto of – “Liberté, Fraternité and…Egalité!” We need Francois Egalite to come out of retirement from his hillside chateau in Biarritz, where he paints plein air ocean scenes and lives with his Serbian scientist girlfriend Chloe and his Samoyed husky, Ca Va.

In the world of Egalite, guys who bilk investors of $ 50B don’t sit at home under house arrest watching Rachel Ray make Mexican flan, they are kidnapped under the nose of the Feds, fitted with cement tennis shoes and asked where all the loot is stashed.  Once the information is extracted, the evil Ponzi schemer is asked by Egalite to recover a euro that he has just tossed into the East River. (Splash!)  Egalite is last seen leaning over the bridge, yelling at a dissolving swirl of bubbles with his hand to his ear,  “Pardon, Bernard? What is it you say? You cannot swing? Swine?”

I conjure up Egalite as I read another depressing headline. The Metro North jolts noisily across the Harlem River into a restless city of insomniacs and shattered financiers.  New York seems a giant restless leg – twitching and tapping its anxious limb while furtively looking for signs and signals as to what clouds might be next on the horizon line.  I walk up Park Avenue, another cardboard cut out in a London Fog overcoat lugging an ancient, scuffed Tumi handbag.  Steam rises out of grates as workmen wrapped in odd mummy-like mufflers, bark at one another with great plumes of frozen air.

My mind drifts. And I am Francois Egalite, corporate whistle blower and a member of the Free Market League of. Consumer Advocates.  Like Kwai Chang Caine, from the old TV show “Kung Fu”, I am a restless wanderer, moving from company to company, trying to escape my past but inevitably drawn into a web of corruption and malfeasance. With each new position, I think this time it will be different, only to have the dog dirt hit the fan. One week, I discover the nice HR manager with whom I share a lunch bench each day is secretly skimming cash by using child laborers in Romania. Next month, it is a megalomaniacal CEO who is timing his stock options.  Next month, it could be a CFO whose cooked books rival The Barefoot Contessa.

The revelations usually come to me from a frightened middle manager as we graze on left-over C Suite sandwiches abandoned like soup kitchen handouts in our microscopic lunchroom.    My new friend is from accounting and confides her concern over the strike price of the CEOs options.  I get that old sinking feeling that a Pandora’s box is about to be opened. It is my curse and my raison d’être – to root out corruption. I smile as I think about the time Egalite tied the hands of a corrupt inside trading Controller with his own Hermes tie.  How ironic!

In the end, Egalite protects the little guy but always has to move on – a tragic corporate drifter – like Richard Kimball in “The Fugitive” or Dr. David Banner in “The Incredible Hulk”.  In his case, he is not so much running from anything but instead just trying to clean up American business so he might return home to Chloe and Ca Va.  It is now time for Egalite to return.  For now there are white-collar criminals to catch, forensic accounting to find hidden Swiss bank accounts and jobs to save.

A taxi honks at me and I jolt to reality as I loiter in the street.  I look up to realize I have walked past my office by 12 blocks.  I am standing in front of a Hermes store.

Mon Dieu, this must be a sign.