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.

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
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Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.