Ten years ago this week one of my best friends was dying from terminal gastric cancer. She was all of twenty-eight. The cancer came out of nowhere, a total blitzkrieg, went metastatic in a few weeks. She was diagnosed in February, gone by June. In May, as the blossoms hit the trees, the call went out to all of our friends to head back to Vermont once last time to see our friend while she was still there.
By the time we got to Vermont, our friend who lay dying was surprisingly perky. The notion of her friends coming to see her was enough to keep her lungs from failing, return her appetite to her, and shock the doctors who had recently given her hours to live. It was about the most miraculous thing any of us had witnessed. We had a famous time, consuming my mother’s famous chicken pot pies, gargling cheap red wine, watching bad science-fiction flicks, and laughing.
And then something really strange happened. She started talking about longer-term issues, worrying about where she was going to move next, how she was going to get her credit cards paid off. She was reduced to 90 pounds, hairless, nearly without lung function, but she began sweating her credit cards. Oh, and if any of us had any ridiculous, Shakespearean soliloquy about how its our last time together, you-were-so-special-as-a-friend- can it, she just wasn’t interested in the drama of the whole thing.
I was perplexed. On the train up, I was working up big speeches and such. I had had friends die before, but never with this amount of time for soliliquy-writing! She just seemed not to accept the fact of her death. I consulted my aunt, a hospice social worker, who knew these stories forwards and backwards. “She’s worrying about her credit cards!” I spluttered. “I mean, it’s like she’s not dealing with it, she doesn’t think it’s really happening, even though it is written all over those oxygen tanks she’s tied to!”
“Eric, she’s twenty-eight years old,” my aunt said, “why would she want to believe that she is really dying? What would she gain from believing it? Why would she want to give this tragedy that kind of power by believing it? ”
Hearing this idea and digesting it was a turning point for me. My world was surprisingly linear, so I thought. You believed things because of facts, not because of desires. You couldn’t change the facts, and you shouldn’t change your beliefs just because you don’t want something to be true.
Then I thought about it more. Indeed, what would be the point of being really “real” about something if that only led to unmanageable pain? Wouldn’t a well-constructed fantasy suit someone better than a piercing, horrid reality?
This may be the world’s heaviest set-up for talking about the frenzy over the Facebook IPO, the final phases of European crisis, the obvious failure of leadership in the industrialized world, but these are the connections I make. Sometimes, the world seems to be completely irrational, and it totally bewilders me, but then I remember the phrase from my aunt, “Why would you want to believe it?”
Facebook as a public company is an absurdity, a total distraction from the real work we have to do on city building, healthcare, education, and other vital economic activities. Moreover, its financial dynamics, 100X valuations and such, look entirely like the bubbles of recent years past, specifically America Online and MySpace – yet the usual suspects are setting people up for a fall yet again. It’s another example of real people being taken in by a sweeping scam, a three-card monte game that distracts the mark while the guys running the game hoover out their pockets for remaining loose change. People are looking for the “next Apple,” but they are just stepping into a very expensive casino, one that is all too practiced at taking the money of the less cynical.
But why would they want to believe that? Wouldn’t they want to believe that they are smart, perceptive and shrewd instead? Wouldn’t they want to believe that this time, it’s different? Why would they really want to believe that Wall Street does not offer a positive service, and that they need to pick another investment much closer to home if they want their money to grow without being ripped off?
In Europe right now, people are holding their breath for Frankfurt and Berlin and Paris to make a recovery happen on the old continent. They think that they Euro was and is a fine idea to stitch together incredibly divergent cultures and economies, and that some really smart people can work out the kinks. Why would they want to believe that it is the end?
Jamie Dimon has proven that his firm has learned nothing from the debacle of 2008, and for many, his firm was the last one standing that showed any real competence. But surely a trading loss of between two and five billion, probably growing, is a sign that Wall Street may need to be dismantled before the American economy can manage the danger inherent in having such institutions run important functions of our commercial lives. Obviously, the federal government needs to step in and reinstate Glass Steagal, break up banks to smaller sizes, audit the Fed, mark assets to market, send criminals to prison, and set up a comprehensive system of regulations to make sure that Americans can never be held hostage again.
But why would anybody want to believe that? Millions of Baby Boomers are waiting to retire, and they sure as hell don’t want to have to go risking their hard-earned savings on local businesses and their own commodity speculations – they want brokers to do it for them. They want their 401(k)s to go up in value, they don’t want to rethink everything in American finance. They want their pension funds growing at 8%, no matter what. There is no reason they would want to believe that the financial sector, which was one of the great drivers of American capitalism during our cultural and commercial defeat of Soviet communism, is corrupt beyond repair. It is a sad story.
My friend died soon after our magic weekend together. She was peaceful and blessedly untouched by pain. One day she was doing errands with one of my friends, and as they drove by the hospital she said, “Hey pull in here…I am just really tired, you know.” And she went in, called her mother, and transcended to infinity. She never became embittered by her bad luck. Perhaps she believed some fantastic things at the end, but that is human, after all.