Principal Yang’s Barbershop

Xiao Zhou is crying. Big tears. The kind of tears reserved for upside down goldfish, and rooms full of finger-wagging adults. Twelve-year-old Xiao (pronounced: She-Oww but like ‘e’ and ‘o’ are one vowel) Zhou (pronounced: Joe) is dripping with blubbering, mournful, sorrowful upside down goldfish tears. To his right is a line of boys, faces splashed with increasingly frightened looks. In front of Xiao Zhou is a courtyard full of students and teachers, all curiously eyeing the spectacle. The bell rings and the teachers and students disperse, saving the other boys—momentarily—from self-imposed humiliation. Xiao Zhou, of course was not so lucky. Behind him is the happiest face a human being can make, I’m sure of it. Under the auspices of this ear-to-ear grin, Xiao Zhou makes a half-hearted attempt to depart for class. Locks of black hair slide off his body-shrouding apron.

“Are you insane? I’m not through with you yet, Xiao Zhou.” Principal Yang beams and gives me a wink before setting his shears back to work.

It’s the end to the monthly ill-fated game of cat and mouse for Xiao Zhou and most of the sixth grade boys at Sanzhuang Elementary School. A game they play relentlessly, over and over again, despite the sure-fire result that their incipient hairstyles modeled after Korean pop stars and Taiwanese kung fu heroes will be destroyed. Their adversary: Sanzhuang’s resolute Principal Yang, who waits anxiously, clippers and shears at the ready, for the day when hair becomes long enough to violate school code. He trots out tiny wannabe Jay Chous, bangs falling far short of their goal of visual impairment, and slices and dices their lettuce until they’re returned fully to awkwardly clumsy adolescence. Each time they knock on the door of teenagehood, Principal Yang mows them down with delight. And each time, they lament their elusive privilege to resemble a human mop with a whole bunch of tears.

o-BABY-MOP-facebookActual human mop

Principal Yang, for his part, is not only a despotic beautician determined to crush the follicle aspirations of China’s youth. He says if he weren’t a principal, he’d open up his own barbershop. But, I can only imagine the present arrangement to fuse cold, hard discipline with haircuts is about as close to cloud nine as Principal Yang will ever be.

“OK. Let’s take a look.” He pulls out a mirror and gives Xiao Zhou an extended look at his new haircut, providing the student a chance to confirm that he hates his new haircut. “ Wa! How about that? In like a bum out like an emperor. The guy looks sharp.”

Xiao Zhou nods, defeated. Principal Yang removes the apron and instructs the student to return to class. I move into the barber’s chair: a rickety wooden bench. He shakes out the apron and fastens it around my neck.

“You sure do look like an idiot.”

“I’m usually more accurate.”

I’d tried to cut my own hair—something I’ve been doing for years after reasoning that barbershops and hair salons are full of cheats and thieves. But, I’d really fucked it up this time, and, according to Principal Yang, the back of head looks like a mutated leopard.

“Let’s see. I’m going to give you the number one, best head in China.” (It sounds better in Chinese).

“Alright. I trust you, Principal Yang.”

“A man should trust the barber over all others.” It’s a profound statement, and perhaps partly the reason for my suspicions of hairdressers. They can strike at any moment, after all. He goes to work, seeming to express mild surprise (discontent?) that his subject isn’t crying.

Barber

It’s just he and I now, and the faint creek of his scissors against my mutated leopard head. The rest of the school is sitting in class. I look onto the courtyard and beyond it, the deep blue sky consumed by undulating mountain chains in each and every direction. Living in the constant midst of such hulking green-black barriers, it’s hard not to view them metaphorically. You’re perpetually in a world with no horizon. I don’t mean that necessarily in the bleak, hopeless way it can be construed. I just mean, you simply can’t ever see anything else from where you sit. Your view isn’t constricted by the limited capabilities of your eyes. No, it’s external, something you can’t control—something nearly impossible to blast away—and certainly, without a great deal of imagination, impossible to see through. It’s not as though some days, weather-permitting, you can see far, far, far. No, your perspective always screeches to a halt at the peak of a mountain and a few China Mobile cell towers. It’s hard to really make sense of a world that’s looking at the mountain’s opposing face. It’s hard to imagine looking at that opposing face. It’s hard not to feel frozen in space.

IMG_0152

“Cutting hair is a wonderful thing. You can talk to the people. You can make them happy,” (An unusual result for this particular barber) “you provide and create and, of course, you socialize.”

“If you enjoy it so much, why don’t you open your barbershop?”

“I can’t do that, now. Don’t you see, no one wants an old man for a barber. They want a sharp, young guy or a slick, pretty girl.”

“You’ve got style, Principal Yang. No doubt about that.”

“Yes, yes. That’s true. I do have style. Much more than these young boys. A fact. But, besides, there’s no money in the hair world.” He says, as though repeating something he heard someone else say once. He shakes his head in lament and whirls around to tackle the stray scraps hanging over my forehead. “Ahh, being a principal is so tiring at times. So troublesome. If there’s a problem who do they call? They call me. Everyday, something. Always something. A barber—when the kids smoke in the dorm, when the education bureau comes to town, when that kid fell in the damn toilet, do they call the barber? I doubt it. They call the barber when their hair is too long.”

“Barbers have no influence, Principal Yang. They have no place in society—not like principals. No money, no influence—like you said.”

“Wa! Money and influence. All that stuff. You know, Mr. Luo, those are things so many people always want.”

“I would say you have that. Don’t you think you have that?” Being a school principal here, he definitely has that.

“Those are things everyone always wants: Why? Because no one ever has them.”

“What do you mean?” He squinted and snipped at the top of my head.

“Well… you can measure those things—and things you can measure can always be more. You’ll never be able to have all of it. Those are the things you have to get somewhere else. The only way you’ll ever get it all is if you take it from everyone else. But, what about the things you can make by yourself, without doing anything but sitting and talking to your friend or looking at those beautiful flowers about to burst—happiness, pleasant times?”

He held my head fixed and I gazed at the courtyard and out to the mountain faces.

“That’s the good stuff.”

He put down the scissors and replaced my view with a mirror. I looked at myself and the new cut.

“Wa! How about that? Now, that’s how you give a haircut.” He said, beaming.

Advertisements

Inequality: Trickle Down Economics and Classroom 6-2

A few months ago, I began implementing a money system in my sixth grade class. I did this principally because I was a fledgling (read: awful) teacher and my students went absolutely bonkers each time I set foot in the classroom. It was as if the very sight of me awakened their collective deepest, darkest fantasies of how to break someone. So, I elected to unleash on them a system where they were tangibly rewarded for doing good things and tangibly rewarded less for doing bad things. In short, I figured I’d buy them off. Underlying my desperate measure, though, was a passive economic and psychological curiosity. I wasn’t so much interested in how my kids would respond to shifted incentives, but more what they would do once they had cash in their hands. The result of my accidental experiment in a tiny sixth grade classroom in the middle of the middle of nowhere (not a typo) held deep illuminative power for me and hopefully anyone who reads this. My point, as you will see, is that inequality is the fault of the system, not the citizens fortunate or unfortunate enough to be a product of the system.

 

Naturally, I scaled the rewards. Students could buy things like ping-pong balls, pens, chocolate, or stickers for under $10. On the other hand, big-ticket items like basketball jerseys, dinner with me, or the opportunity to shave my head, could be priced as high as $250. For those, they would need the better part of an entire semester’s worth of savings. Of course, there were mid-range items like American post cards, foreign coins, and the privilege to choose a song before class, that were much more feasibly attainable. Note: I valued the “shave Mr. Luo’s head” prize at what I imagined was a comfortably-out-of-reach but not altogether absurd rate of $250. Next year, I’ll be doubling that figure.

Image

Students earned money through three predominant paths:

 

1). Behavior: students received $1 for a day with no warnings. As I teach them four times each week, I added another dollar if they went a full week without any warnings. So, one could earn $5 from behavior per week. A semester has 20 school weeks, which meant $100 was the ceiling for income related to behavior. I should say that, if a student received one warning, he effectively lost $2 for that week; $1 for the day and $1 for failing to go a full five days warning-free. If he repeated this same pattern every single week, he would lose out on $40.

 

2). Test scores: students received varying degrees of money based on actual score, improvement from previous test, and whether or not a score placed in the top 3 of the class. This domain didn’t only favor high-performing students, because improvement was weighted higher than raw score. Needless to say, though, it was highly unlikely that a student would improve each and every time he tested. For the top score in the class, when weighing factors of improvement and raw score, a student could earn around $20. There were five tests during the year, meaning the ceiling here was also around $100. It’s worth noting, that if you scored below 75%, unless you improved, you wouldn’t get anything. So, as far as class money was concerned, the tests were high stakes affairs. If you were a student who never passed a test and alternated between small score increases and decreases, you might earn $10 for the year. The gap was spacious.

 

3). Participation: students received money (usually in $1 increments) for correctly answering a specified question. Not every answer could yield a cash reward, but most could. This domain was the wildcard. Students could theoretically answer a question each class. Throw in some extra tough questions worth $5-$10, and a student could bank over $100 from actively participating.

Image

Upon reading the above information, you can probably guess what type of student stood to benefit in this system: well-behaved, high-scoring, active participators. If a student fit each of those descriptions he or (usually) she could be a veritable fat cat in the fiscal universe of class 6-2. For the (usually) boys or girls that could be described as disruptive, test-incapable, and—surprise, surprise—unable to actively, or at least, productively participate, they’d be getting by on a monthly piece of chocolate or the privilege to get a drink of water during class time.

 

In a nutshell, inequality was inherently vast.

 

Now, let’s get to the good stuff.

 

I’ll break down 6-2 like this: There are 5 or 6 students that would fit the bill for ultra-rich. They are all (save for one) highly motivated girls that too aren’t keen on giving their teachers headaches and take great pride in having the right answer, whether it be on a test or in the classroom. On the flip side, there are 7 or 8 that would qualify for the lower quartile. These are exclusively (save for one) boys that are at least two years behind their classmates. They generally have very little self-control and score below 50 on each test. As a result of all these characteristics, they like to make paper airplanes and flick pretty girls in the back of the head as an alternative to studying. The rest of the 21 students would fall into varying levels of the middle class. These students, as a rule, were neither exceptional nor struggled in all three categories. They may have been, for example, great test takers that acted out in class or shy hard workers that hesitated to raise their hand. There were certainly some upper middle classers, who were decidedly close to cracking the top echelon. On the lower end, students flirted with the disastrous prospect of falling into the bottom 7 or 8. If that were to happen, at this level of schooling, it would be a heartbreakingly cavernous hole to climb out of.

 

My system was predicated on a simple fact: students were going to buy things. I printed a rather sizable amount of money before the semester, and was ardently determined not to print more. I knew what I had should be enough.

Image

It took a few weeks for students to gauge how things were going to shake out. I doubt any of them actually calculated their earning probabilities, but if one was receiving $15 at the end of the week as opposed to $3, they could easily extrapolate—on intuition alone—where their purchasing power lay. During this time, students didn’t buy much of anything. They were trying to make sense this newfangled, slightly mysterious system. After the first student, a quiet, bespectacled boy named Andy came in to buy a ping-pong ball for $5—with no catch to be found—there was a spending rush. Students could hardly believe what they were seeing. I went to town to buy more chocolate.

 

 

 

Here’s where it starts to fall apart:

 

 

After students realized where they stood, they adjusted their buying patterns. This reaction was almost inherent. Sixth graders the world over have very little purchasing power in real life terms. They were learning on the fly. I don’t know exactly what happened next—if a pact was made or if it was just a collective savvy—but the girls at the top essentially altogether stopped coming to the shop in my room. I suppose one can only buy so many chocolate soccer balls and packs of gum, before one simply does not need any more of those things. They were saving their money for bigger and better things.

 

As the semester carried on, a very clear picture began to emerge. The students at the top were accumulating more and more and letting go of very little. The students at the bottom basically spent their money the day they got it. Even the mid-range items fell out of their reach. The wide range of students in the middle had diverse spending patterns. A few of them were saving for the big-ticket items, but generally they saved a little and spent the rest. It was, pretty much, in a word: wow.

Image

Because the system was such that the high level performers so vastly out-earned the lower end, every time the bottom quartile spent money, a massive percentage of it went into the folders of the top few. The same can be said for the middle portion of students, but the percentage was less severe. The problem was that the top-level kids weren’t spending their money. They were making the most and spending the least, proportionally. Another important fact to note: The prices were scaled so that students had to save for an entire semester to buy the big things. Therefore, when they did finally unload their riches onto our classroom society, it would be too late for anyone else to use them with any consequence. There was no carry over. At the end of the semester, the students were gone and the money was dead. So, holding money, at such severe degrees, only served to stall the whole system. But, of course, the students doing the saving had every right to do that.

 

Now, you may be able to see where I’m going and you’re probably asking this question: How do the spending and saving patterns of the top level kids have any effect on the lower level kids? First, in this system the two probably should not have been related. I should have planned for various scenarios and printed a ton of money. But I didn’t, and the supply couldn’t expand.

 

Toward the end of the semester, I noticed the stacks of money in my bank getting considerably shorter. It got to the point where I had to go print more just to be able to give out money for rewards. However, the process repeated. All the money spent by the lower and middle level students simply ended up at the top. And the top wasn’t putting nearly enough money back in. I could print money forever, and the same thing would happen. In an exasperated outburst I finally told my students, “Look, this only works if you spend your money. I can’t keep making more money. If you don’t spend it, I’m not going to give anymore out.” So, the kids in the middle and bottom spent what little they had while the ones at the top stopped in to buy a few small items and retained the lion’s share of their money. And, of course, the majority of what was spent went back into their hands. Then I stopped giving out money.

Image

At that point, everyone was a loser. The students at the bottom had nothing. The students in the middle were pretty much broke. The ones at the tippy-top had money, but couldn’t make any more of it, because there was no one else feeding the system. I lost too, of course, because my students had their incentive system taken away. The ultra-rich had a choice: they could either keep their money and see if I would somehow crack and print a bunch more or they could spend a bunch of it and cash in on the big ticket items. They all had enough money to buy at least one large prize. They chose the latter, thankfully. But, sadly, it was already June and there was little time left for further accumulation.

 

 

I was inspired to write about my classroom from a Politico article a friend shared with me called The Pitchforks are Coming by Nick Hanauer. The piece sought to debunk trickle-down economics by proving that rich people can’t make money if the middle and lower classes don’t have any money to spend. While I was reading it, a “holy shit” light bulb went off in my head. Hanauer was describing my classroom as though he’d been in it.

Image

There are obviously differences between a 36-student classroom economy and a large-scale global machine. There were no taxes, no inheritances, no creation of wealth, no mortgages, vital sustenance, or car leases. But, there are many fundamental similarities. The crucial caveat is that the supply was not infinite. In the end, one had to spend money for others to make money. The students that made the least money spent their money quickly, the students in the middle saved and spent (they were the model of the whole system), while the students at the top, though probably spending at a similar clip (in actual physical dollar terms) as the students at the bottom, proportionally sat on the greater sums. It’s easy to see how, given the above information, their accounts would continue to expand while the others contracted: The money always went back to them, because the system was so prodigiously in their favor.

Image

In the United States we are supposed to have systems in place to check this kind of thing: marginal tax brackets, estate taxes, minimum wages, unemployment benefits, the list goes on and on. But, those checks are failing miserably. Not only does money not trickle down (because a “trickle” shouldn’t be acceptable in the first place), it trickles up. The inequality gap only gets bigger and bigger over time. More and more people slip from the edge of the middle class into poverty. Less and less people make the forward jump. The reason, as I have said over and over, is simple: the system is too slanted. Jamie Dimon can make tens of millions of dollars a year while the guy that mops his floor may make $40,000. At least my system was designed to motivate students to behave, participate, and improve. Our system barely even does that anymore. But, that’s a discussion for another time.

 

The most telling thing about my classroom was that the students with the most money lost out when they hoarded everything. In a capitalist system, making money is explicitly tied to spending money. If no one is spending, no one is earning. Saving is crucial, yes, but only when necessary, and only when it’s done in anticipation of creating wealth down the road. There is a point where the inequality gap gets so large, that it is no longer possible for the economy to budge. Historically, the greatest instances of American economic growth are almost always in concert with the lowest levels of inequality. United we get richer, divided we stagnate.

Image

The fatal flaw of my system was that the students controlling the largest sums were not compelled to spend it, until the very end. The fatal flaw of our American system is that the checks in place to force the ultra-rich to bequeath some of their fortune to the masses are ineffective and riddled with convenient loopholes.

 

In the end, though, my top-performing sixth grade students came to the realization that not only was using their money good for everyone else, it was good for them. Maybe the best and brightest minds in America can come to that realization someday too.

 

 

Where did our Love go? A Falling Out with Finance

I now have $-4.54 in my Chase bank account. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it looks like I have less money than I had in there before, considering banks usually frown upon opening checking accounts with negative money. It also appears that I am in debt to Chase for $4.54. Being in debt to Chase would imply that they gave me money at an earlier date to buy something that I wanted at that earlier date and now I should recompense them $4.54. The funny thing is though, I actually gave them money and now I owe them money. You see, Chase has this rule, somewhere deep in the finest of prints that says that if you have below X amount of money in your account and do not deposit every month (once every 30 days or so), they are entitled to five of your dollars. I live in Heqing, Yunnan, China, and as such use the only bank in town (well, my town doesn’t have a bank, but the only bank in the other town near me that has a bank). This bank is called “The Yunnan Rural Credit Union” and they use abacuses.

Image

I hadn’t taken a peek at my Chase bank account in months, which is probably exactly the kind of thing they’re going for with the $5 rule. In a fit of boredom, I signed in to my Chase online account, only to realize that what was probably a measly $45.46 at one point in the not so distant past, was now $0.46. That seemed a little odd. I checked my statement. All I saw were a series of $5.00 debits taking place on the same day of each month. Either I was dealing with a hacker of superior methodology and inferior greed, or I had been fine-printed out of $45. I was a bit perturbed, naturally, but I figured that was the end of it. They couldn’t very well take money that I didn’t have from me for not giving them money, right? But, they could. Chase overdrafted my account, voluntarily making themselves my creditor, entitled to a whole four dollars and fifty-four cents of my money. Think about it this way: they’ve taken my money and now they’re asking me to pay them back for it. That, dear readers, is thievery with some serious cojones. Theft to the most audacious degree. It’s meta-theft. I don’t even understand it, really. “Give me your lunch money! And now give me tomorrow’s lunch money to pay for the lunch money I just stole!”

Wait. What?

 

I was a finance major in college. I was and still am patently obsessed with the stock market, but I never truly respected the industry. Some people read books by Michael Lewis like The Big Short or Liar’s Poker or Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and say, “I want to be a Master of the Universe, too. Where’s the nearest tailor?” I think I used to be like that, but I’m starting to lose faith, big time. Not only that, I’m starting to not even want to be involved with banks at all, in any way shape or form, which is actually impossible.

Consider this:

Let’s say you want to get your hair cut. You pick a random barber. You ask him for a little snip and he shaves your whole head with great vigor. You’re incredulous. He tells you sorry, but he can’t fix a shaved head and anyways he could have sworn you said you were heading to the Aryan Brotherhood rally. His bad, he laughs. You reluctantly give him your money and walk out. You recommend your non-Nazi friends to stay away from this particular shop. You yourself, don’t go back. You protest with your dollars, or lack thereof. A couple months, maybe years, go by and you’ve ostensibly forgotten about the awful haircut he gave you. You go back to the shop. You ask him for a little snip and he shaves your whole head again and even enjoys it. Now you remember. You’re extremely angry. You tell him to shove his buzzer in all kinds of different orifices—his own and multiple members of his immediate family’s—and say you’re not paying. You go home and check out the reviews of this particularly barbershop and each review is the same. Someone went in expecting a little trim and wound up with their whole head shaved. You type a comparably apoplectic entry. You don’t go back.

Such a scenario would simply never happen. Why? The shop would be out of business in a week. There would be lawsuits filed for occupational negligence or hurt feelings that would immediately put the proprietor underwater financially.

Image

Now consider this:

The barbershop hires a bunch of hurly-burly security guards to force people to pay, even though they’ve been completely fleeced, metaphorically and not. They’ve also got a star PR team, that successfully muddles and downplays both what they do and their effectiveness at doing it. They’ve also hired lawyers specializing in hair salon litigation who are quickly able to convince a jury of not only the legality but the merit of shaving someone’s head completely bald when they don’t want to be bald. Additionally, they pay their low level employees hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to shave heads completely bald even when the customer doesn’t want to be bald, negating moral hazard with money.

Important to mention, every other barbershop does the same thing. So, if you want a new style, the “humpty-dumpty” is option 1, 2, and 3. Oh, and the barbershops have all the scissors, so you can’t DIY unless you’re willing to pull very hard.

The problem with the modern banking industry isn’t that they’re able to rip people off and in turn that they actually do rip people off. Believe it or not, almost anyone can and will take advantage of someone else given the opportunity. Kindergarteners rip each other off. It’s not that banks are greedy. It’s that we let them be. The thing people tend to forget about banks is that they need us so much more than we need them. After all, it’s our money that they use to lend to other people. They become our debtors (at 2% interest) before they can become someone else’s creditor (at 5% interest). Yes, they allegedly keep our money “safe,” but it’s not out of some sense of purpose and grand altruism. They keep our money safe because our money = their money. And, if they lose our money, they lose the ability to lend money and make more money. Feel me? And also, they don’t really keep our money safe anymore, because they like to use it to buy incredibly risky financial instruments so they can make even more money with our money. But it’s ok, if they do lose all of our money buying incredibly risky financial instruments, they can just ask the government to give them more of our money and act like it never happened.

Banking is absolutely necessary to society. No doubt about it. Without it, we couldn’t get loans, of course. If we couldn’t get loans we wouldn’t be able to create profit-generating things that add value to society, because there’d never be any money to actually fund the profit-generating things. Banks allow us to essentially loan money to people that we don’t even know in a more efficient way and allegedly free from the worry that you’ll have no recourse if those people don’t pay you back. Of course you’re not indirectly lending to those people via banks so that you can personally make the interest spread. It’s a different kind of loan. It’s a loan to society. It’s so that a guy down the street can build a house or Mark Zuckerberg can invent Facebook. You can’t have that stuff without creditors. And if you want a loan, micro or gigantic, banks are generally your go-to guy.

But. You can’t drive a car without car companies. You can’t eat food without farmers. You can’t get a haircut without barbershops. But, if your Ford sucks you can buy a Chevy. If you don’t like the oranges from California, you can eat the ones from Florida. If you don’t like getting your head shaved, you can go to a barbershop that doesn’t do that. But, generally, the banking industry is doing the same thing across the board and it’s pretty easy to see why they can get away with outrageous things like the $5 rule. When you drive, eat, or get your haircut it’s transparently obvious to see what you are getting in relation to your other options. Not so when you put your money in the Chase vault. Those other industries make money by pleasing their customer. If a bank wants to outdo its competitors, it has to screw the customer. Has to. Because, the bank’s fundamental asset is your money and once it’s in their hands they can do whatever they want with it. And what they want, I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt, is usually not what you want. And there is nothing you can do about it because they are prepared at every turn to tell you why you’re wrong and don’t get it. The guy at the counter might be nice sometimes, but the guy who’s allocating your capital probably isn’t.

When TARP was passed in 2008, I didn’t really get it. I was a freshman in college and a film studies major at that point. But, over the last couple years, I’ve read countless articles and books about the 2007 crisis and the banking industry in general. And it’s made me sick to my stomach; actually angry in the pit of my stomach. I should note that I understand that my small checking account and the instruments of exotic finance are not exactly presided over by the same forces. Commercial and investment banking are–at least theoretically–different animals. But, for the purposes of this discussion, that fact has no bearing on the effectiveness of either.

It’s not unpopular to criticize financial institutions. Have you ever seen someone with an, “I ❤ my reverse mortgage” tattoo? The only non-bankers that ever say anything nice about banks are people in commercials advertising banks. But nothing changes. By declaring banks as too big to fail, we’ve declared that we need them. No, not that we need banks (that is a fact), but that we need the ones we have. But, of course, they need us 7 billion times more.

Image

Has there ever, in the history of the world, been an industry that has screwed its customers so hard and for so long without being told to simply “Stop It!”? OK, maybe some factions of organized religion. But, still. If the banking industry were literally screwing its customers, it would be kind of like this: A guy with incredible stamina who takes hours to finish, gains great, almost sadistic pleasure from the experience, and leaves his partner completely unsatisfied and in pain. But, for some reason, the partner keeps coming back voluntarily and even paying for the experience. He or she may complain to her friends and their friends will in turn complain to them about a similar experience with a similarly terrible lover, but they will always come back.

Yunnan Rural Credit Union doesn’t do this to me. They might use abacuses and have a 70-year-old security guard who wears jorts, but they’re nice enough.

Somewhere along the line the American financial industry morphed into a cataclysm of suit-and-tie armies with profit on their mind and in their heart. As it goes, banks have the money, so banks make the rules about the money. But, again, they don’t have the money. You have the money and I have the money. We just give it to them. Think about the places you voluntarily give money to without receiving much in return: your only child, FEMA, non-profit organizations, and Bank of America. Bank of America may actually appreciate your money less than your hormoned-up 15 year old. The interesting thing is, on paper you would imagine banks to have one of the highest social values of any industry. Banks make it possible for us to give our money to someone with the resources to vet potential projects and ideas and allocate society’s money effectively. If they want to make some money on the interest spread, they absolutely should, because they’re theoretically providing an undeniably vital service.

But, it’s when Chase appropriates $5.00 from my account every month for not giving them more money, or Citi stuffs its balance sheet with putrid CDOs masquerading as investment grade mortgage bonds, or when Howie Hubler loses $9 billion for JP Morgan(read: The shareholders of JP Morgan) and still gets and feels entitled to his $25 million a year salary, or when the former CEO of Goldman Sachs is the Secretary of the Treasury for The United States of America and makes all of that stuff possible, that you have to stop and think about what’s really going on. They’ve shaved our heads, we’re looking in the mirror, and they’re telling us that no one can do it better. And we believe them.

Image

“Too big to fail” is a green light to keep on screwing. It’s like the crappy lover. Until someone actually says, “Wait a second, I should be able to get this somewhere else for better and cheaper,” they’ll keep being dissatisfied. Maybe they’ll even start doing it themselves. Chase, I hope the $4.54 that I owe you will go to funding some NGO that wants to help kids in Swaziland learn about AIDS prevention, but I’m not actually stupid. You only think I am.