I like my banker, Scotty. We are close in age, entering our supposed “prime earning years,” raising young children and living the Long Island dream. He’s Patchogue, I’m Glen Cove. We forgive each other this.
The reason I enjoy talking to Scotty is that I appreciate his take on things. He calls it like it is. Prior to the complete collapse of the banking system last year, he and I were having lunch and lamenting the state of the local economy. While the entire country had not yet gone to hell he pointed out that out of nowhere his morning egg-and-cheese sandwich and cup of coffee were closing in on $10.
“Is this the result of the price manipulation of raw goods such as the grain needed to produce the bagel and feed the chickens that produce this egg sandwich?” I inquired.
Before he could answer I blurted out that perhaps his breakfast was “the coalescence of a vast conspiracy in the commodities market to artificially drive up the price of food to control the third-world population.”
I ignored his eye rolling to sum up my argument that “clearly Monsanto is behind it!”
I had by this time worked myself into quite the lather, undoubtedly quelling his appetite for lunch, never mind the innocuous egg sandwich that started us down this path.
“It means the little guy is getting squeezed” he answered dryly. “Shit rolls downhill and stops when it hits the guy at the deli. At that point there’s nowhere left for it to roll but the customer. It makes me nervous.”
Scotty and I have had our verbal sparring sessions before and since this conversation but no argument has ever rung so true as his egg sandwich analogy. This explanation was far superior to any that I was to receive in the coming months while the economy went into a death spiral. When everything you know is suddenly cast in doubt, common sense is a remarkably calm voice of reason and painfully hard to find.
The nonsensical view of the moment being proffered by economists is that things are looking up. Yet if you look at the Alternative Measure of Labor Underutilization for States, the real unemployment in the nation ending second quarter was 13.7 percent. Of course we only talk about the fake unemployment figure of just below 10 percent because it sounds better. The real figure takes into account people who have stopped looking for a job—therefore sitting down during the unemployment roll call—and those who have taken part-time or temporary positions instead of full-time employment.
The optimistic economist is undaunted, despite yesterday’s UN report that 1 billion people on Earth are now “food insecure,” which is code for “starving.”
They use words like “uptick” and “green shoots.” They talk about the “cyclical nature” of the markets and “trend lines.” I recently attended a luncheon with Scotty to hear an economist do his “aw shucks” best to temper our expectations about the recovery while biting his lip and giving us that “we’re all in this together” face. But based on the “trend lines” and the “cyclical nature” of things he seemed to think it was reasonable to expect an “uptick” and some “green shoots”—that we were over our “irrational exuberance” and looking forward to a “long and steady recovery.” I wondered if he was of the guys 18 months ago humping shares of Lehman and Bear Stearns into the ground like Slim Pickens riding the atomic bomb in Dr. Strangelove, a hoopin’ and a hollerin’ and waving his hat.
When pressed to identify what exactly would bring us out of the recession, he actually offered up “good old fashioned American ingenuity.” Because in America, “where there’s a will there’s a way.” No, he wasn’t kidding. That’s the beautiful thing about being an economist, meteorologist or Mike Francesa—you don’t have to be right to have an audience.
Next Week: Part II—Egg Sandwiches Are All We Make
If you wish to comment on “Off the Reservation,” send your message to email@example.com.