BUSINESS COLUMN | Aitken: Barbie dolls and Ponzi schemes

During Career Month in kindergarten, our teacher told us to go home, ask our parents what they did for a living and present at show-and-tell the next day.

“Mommy, what do you do at your job?” I asked her that night.

My corporate-banker mother proceeded to give me an inspired — if ambitious — explanation of debt and repossession by analogy: “Well, you know how you get a dollar a week in allowance? Imagine you want to buy a Barbie doll for $5 but don’t want to wait five weeks to get it, so you ask me for an advance but then don’t have enough money to pay me back. I’d have to take away your Barbie doll and sell it to another little girl to make my $5 back, see?”

I ran out of the room sobbing and promptly hid all my Barbies under my bed where my mother could never find them. At show-and-tell the next day, I soberly informed the class that my mother’s career involved stealing Mattel toys from small children and warned them not to bring dolls when they came over to my house on playdates.

Later that week — after receiving a more accurate explanation of what my mother did for a living — I matter-of-factly informed her that she “should have a midlife crisis” so she could “switch jobs and be something cool that actually helps people, like a fireman or an astronaut or a model” (my idea of humanitarian work was flexible). She tried to explain that she was helping people, that her job was a crucial part of the economy, that it paid the mortgage, that beyond that she actually liked her work.

I stared at her blankly. “But you just make lots of money for people who already have lots of money. That’s dumb.”

I may have been only 6 years old, but in the first week of Career Month I hit on two universal truths about finance: 1) No one actually understands what bankers do, and 2) In the absence of actually understanding what bankers do, everyone assumes they must be bad for society.

These episodes come to mind the more I hear people discuss the current financial crisis. People are saying everything from “Bernie Madoff and those greedy AIG bosses prove what all finance guys are really like” to “bankers all get paid in taxpayer money.” Aside from the fact that these statements belie a lack of understanding of economics in particular and human nature in general, it’s dismaying to hear people make sweeping and ill-informed generalizations about an entire industry — especially one whose innermost workings have monopolized headlines for the past year.

Then again, hating on financiers is a cultural legacy. As professor Paul Solman pointed out in a lecture last month, history is full of exhortations to scorn the financial sector. Jesus cast the moneychangers out of the Temple. Plato railed against moneylenders in “The Republic.” Dante reserved the lowest circles of the Inferno for usurers and alchemists. It wasn’t until the relatively recent advent of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand theory that we believed we could each pursue our self-interest in a free market without guilt.

We seem to have regressed. It’s inconsistent to condemn the “nationalization” of banks and death of capitalism while bemoaning the high salaries the free market designates to financiers. In bashing the entire sector and its employees, people forget that the free market also affords the freedom to choose a career path. It makes as little sense to criticize a fund manager for choosing a profitable corporate career as it does to criticize an artist who eschews corporate America to freelance: You may not value their work, but it’s their choice and they are rewarded for their labor in money or satisfaction — if they’re lucky, maybe both.

Plus, jobs that provide credit and investment opportunities are crucial to a healthy economy — they provide capital and take risks, yes, to make a profit, but also to help clients grow their businesses. And while some scandal-mired financiers evidence some of the worst traits in human nature, others evidence some of the best, working long hours at an honest job to put their kids through college or devoting themselves wholeheartedly to a career they enjoy and excel at.

Investors in Madoff’s fund may have been duped, but it would be the ultimate self-deception to assume all money managers are just like Bernie. After all, I still don’t totally understand what my mom does, but I’m pretty sure it’s not a Ponzi scheme.

Kate Aitken is a senior in Silliman College and a former Arts & Living editor for the News.


  • Y09

    So honest and so true.

  • Recent Alum

    Well said. This should be required reading for all Democrats in Congress.

  • yaylie

    Kate, I wonder how you mustered the courage to write again for the YDN after getting smacked down so badly the last time. I must say, compared to that drivel, this piece is a bit of an improvement. But you missed one thing. Jesus cast the moneychangers out of the temple precisely because they were changing money, of all places, in the temple. How did you miss that distinction, Aitken? Is it because money is your god?

  • Anonymous

    There are a few infuriating rhetorical tricks at work here, but this one's my favorite: In condemning us for making generalizations about the banking industry, Kate … makes generalizations about the banking industry.

    Obviously, people who are angry about the collapse of the banking industry aren't angry about the concept of material success or the basic idea of lending. It's great that people like Kate's mommy can leverage their money on behalf of people looking to buy their first house, pay for life-saving medical treatment or help put their kid through college.

    Here's what we’re pissed about: Instead of exercising the kind of professional judgment she displays with the Barbies, people like Kate's mommy started granting loans to people they assumed would default on them. They actively bet against the people to whom they were loaning money. They shifted the risk to other banks, insurers, and ultimately taxpayers and foreign governments, and when the house of cards fell, it brought the global financial system to its knees. But while they were bankrupting the working-class people who took out loans and torching the retirement savings of everybody else, people like Kate's mommy made themselves tremendously wealthy by charging exorbitant fees on all their poisonous transactions. Since it’s a zero-sum system, every bad bet that someone like Kate's mommy made, packaged and resold at a tidy profit cost someone else their home, or their health insurance, or kept them from sending someone like Kate to college. Now they're spending federal money to reward themselves more richly for screwing over the rest of us.

    Banks ostensibly do better when the people they bet on do well. But given the way financial-services compensation has evolved, bankers do better the more money they move around and the more side bets they make with inside knowledge. Of course, there are responsible bankers who chose not to screw over the people who relied on them. Since Kate still has no idea what her mommy does, we have no idea whether or not she is one of the rotten ones. Oversight is a whole other question, though.