Lawrence: Songs of time and change

Now at the end of my time at Yale, I’ve thought back to a lunch in Venice I enjoyed with friends in the Yale Glee Club while we were on concert tour after my sophomore year. As we talked, our conversation came to childhood. One friend observed that in childhood, gifts were things, like toys; but now, gifts are experiences, like a dinner or concert with friends. The difference: An experience is more meaningful, and brings a deeper joy. But a thing exists forever. An experience ends, irretrievably.

We didn’t realize at the time that our lunch in Venice was itself irretrievable. Soon, we seniors will find even college irretrievable.

Why are experiences temporary?

One answer would be raw science. Each second passes. That’s what seconds do best. The only way to stop time would be to make the earth move at light-speed (a pretty hard feat for a humanities major like me).

But I propose another explanation: Through experiences, we learn more about what life is like, what people are like, and what we stand for — and thus, though we stay ourselves, we become new versions of ourselves. We become people who are ready for that experience to be past. Times change because we change.

This is not exclusively bad news. The capacity to change is a blessing. Seniors, can you imagine being a freshman again? Freshmen, can you imagine going back to high school? All that we learned through doing the things we did in those years means we could never do those things again — and would not want to. Furthermore, we are glad to have new convictions. Even with our oldest convictions, we have new reasons for them, and new ways to act on them, after seeing them challenged, and after applying them to new situations.

We are caught in a poignant paradox. We are ready to revel in the benefits of time’s passage: new adventures, our changing. But how can we heal its greatest pain: leaving a place we call home?

Thankfully, we have advice, from a source that is deeply ours: the Yale songs.

Open the Yale songbook, and you will find lines like: “Welcome the time, my friends / We meet again”; or, “Time and change shall naught avail / To break the friendships formed at Yale”; or, in cheekily describing graduation, “And then into the world we’ll come / We’ve made good friends, and studied … some.”

Yale songs reveal two things that are immune to time’s passage: love, and memories of it.

But these values, though easy to name, are hard to live by.

Our culture too often subordinates love to achievement. Achievement can be beautiful, if it is for the sake of enriching each other’s minds and improving our world. But as pressure mounts to appear perpetually high-achieving, something perverse happens: What becomes rewarded is achievement for the sake of looking impressive. Society’s incentives too often lure us into thinking that if an experience cannot win us credit — if we cannot explain it easily on our résumés, and at parties — it is inefficient.

As time passes, these incentives and allures double-cross us. If the past year’s economic collapse has taught us anything, it is that self-aggrandizement disguised as self-fulfillment does not even secure wealth and career — let alone relationships and memories that mean something. Our culture sold us a fantasy of success built on falseness. Wall Street trumped up prestigiously abstruse yet worthless financial instruments, rather than less-flashy things of genuine worth. So too, the culture encouraged us to seek prestigious résumés, rather than small, genuine moments and acts of worthwhile living. (Often, the reward was lucrative jobs managing those very securities.)

Now, this culture has shattered. As our class becomes the first to graduate into the world amid this wreckage, and as our generation is called on to repair it, our challenge is to do not what makes us look good, but what is, in fact, good.

We know what these things are: staying up late with a friend, enjoying each other’s company, or helping one another through trauma, even when the timing is inconvenient; listening to music; making friends with the neighboring stranger on an airplane; making room, amid prestigious jobs, for public interest work; accepting pay cuts before letting a colleague get fired; the simple gladness of making someone happy.

If we live this way, we both enjoy the benefits of time’s passage and defy its pains. We still have the capacity to change — indeed, more so. Only subtle, deeply good experiences help us decide what we stand for. We revel in true friendships — the kind that, as Yale’s songs say, “time and change shall naught avail / to break.”

Lastly, living this way fills our lives with sublime moments, whose memories will last through time, and testify that we spent our time the way we want to remember spending it.

Noah Lawrence is a senior in Saybrook College and a former staff columnist for the News.


  • etoohey1

    part 2:

    But now any yale hipster interested in taking time away from not actually reading Elliot or Pound or Ginsberg or even Kerouac (at least the last generation of elite bohemians actually did the reading) has lost interest and is not even sure whether this explanation agrees with their argument about complexity. But they are sure that Wall Street is a greed-driven, intentionally manipulative, unethical, yet clueless, overwhelmed and unaware of the actual nature of the products they created.

    “Wait, but hold on,” the derivatives trader tries again, knowing ironically (as I know) that if they were actually to be able to explain completely what happened it would only strengthen the conviction and substance of the condemnation he receives, “CDOs and modern credit markets can only be evil if we first recognize their profound importance and influence. You say these products ‘don’t do anything,’ but why is China growing at 9% gdp with 75% of its infrastructure funded by foreign capital? Why is brazil able to invest 12 times in annual tax revenue in economic development without defaulting or stagnating as it searches for capital. The bundling, tranching, securitizing and selling of debt products in the reason why the emerging BRIC nations are developing at a rate nearly triple of what their european counterparts experienced during their 1880-1920 growth spurt. Why the phrase ‘chinese middle class exists,’ why India can so damn effectively steal our juicy middle-class tech jobs. Why did no one complain when the US unemployment rate in 2006 was at 5% when real productivity analysis indicated that it should be at 6.7%, or why did no one complain when nearly 20% of middle class household income came from property value appreciation? Why did no one cry out when Clinton announced his initiative to use HUD stimulus and housing credits to lift hispanics and blacks out of poverty through home ownership? Or when Fannie and Freddie told a middle class that was experiencing stagnating wages and skyrocketing education and health costs that it was going to be okay, because 5% down at only 1% above risk-free treasuries in interest payments, and they could own a home, and use that equity to back a college loan for their kid or a car loan for that second car they wanted. Why did no one demand explanations when Greenspan lowered rates to avoid a much-needed slowdown and encouraged risk taking and leverage, not to mention Clinton repealing Glass-Steagall and single-handily assuring that the burgeoning derivatives market would never be regulated.”

  • etoohey1

    part 1 (sorry for the messed up order — the thing had a word limit):

    Thanks for your reply — my thoughts (starting with your second paragraph):

    “Which one is it?” – wonders the vilified derivatives trader. “I know I am evil, you made that very clear. But how can I be both maniacally manipulative — aware of the inherently worthless nature of the intentionally sabotaged CDOs that I thrust upon the innocent derivative-trading hedge funds, lying about the advertised instrument, failing to disclose my short positions, violating the trust of my client — yet simultaneously utterly clueless, irresponsibly overwhelmed by the inscrutable opacity and complexity of this Frankenstein monster I let loose on the American economy.”

    Of course, if we take a minute and stop reading the WSJ news analysis or the dramatized accounts of sensationalist reporters trying to sell books (and by the way, I guess when they make millions misleading the public its a different type of evil — and thus my username), we realize that mortgage-backed securities aren’t complicated or new. They were invented in the 1650s, popularized in the 1970s, and the structure has been critical to why Americans from 1980 to 2008 could buy a 20,000 car with 2k down and 1% apr, or why students could loan 200K of tuition money at an effective rate of -3% below prevailing interest rates for 20 years. But don’t get me wrong, complexity and excess and obscurity was at the crux of the crisis. CDOs, a relatively complex derivative product that bundles MBS and tranches them to offer specific risk profiles for asset managers, sovereign wealth funds, and hedge funds that desire the complexity of products with specific risk to interest rate changes, prepayment risk, and default risk, seem a little excessive. And of course, Wall Street is paid on commission, so product innovation is the name of the game — (kind of like Apple…four types of ipods nowadays? but let’s be fair Ipods never accidently cause the implosion of your neighbors computer).

    And things get worse you’ll find if you read the actual books — here comes synthetic CDOs that allow investors to purchase more of this exposure to the high yield of America’s subprime home buyer even if there aren’t more loans to bundle, and it also lets wall street collect even more fees. And wait you say, that’s exactly my point, Wall Street wasn’t aware of the risks? But hold on, try wikipedia’ing the Gaussian copula formula, or the correlation bundling matrix and you realize that a Nobel prize and a Fields Medal were given out JUST FOR work on quantifying the risks inherent to these products. And then wait it gets worse, there was an entire product created that formalized and commoditized the actual risk from these products — asset-backed credit default swaps.

  • etoohey1

    part 3:
    So now its starting to be clear that nothing is clear, that political greed was at much at fault as economic. Do we blame Blankfein for the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, or for Reaganomics, or for Bush’s Community Reinvestment Act, or Barney Franks tireless fight to make home loan standards looser and securitization less regulated? Do we blame bankers for ‘duping’ other hedge funds (the image I always see involves a fat white guy twisting his mustache) while at the same time blaming the same bankers for tinkering with products they didnt understand?

    None of those authors I recommended suggest that ‘bankers’ were not aware of the risks inherent to their products. They DO suggest that a deeply flawed compensation structure incentivized the pursuit of short term gains and the acceptance of long term risk. They do argue that the political establishment not only allowed but DEMANDED that mortgage originators like Countrywide and insurers like Fannie advertise and offer no money down, floating rate, highly complex products that average day consumers couldnt understand. They do suggest that politics has been corrupted, liberal capitalism contorted and co-opted by the rise of a neoliberal consensus that never seems to make onto the signs of Yale occupy Morgan Stanley protestors who are too busy rubbing dirt on the cardboard they got from the shiny recycling bins in the basement of their residential college. Do you think bankers were behind the ARM loan or the interest only balloon payment? Well if so go read speeches by Paulson (when at GS) or morgan stanley’s mack or warren buffet that decry the existence of a GSE (gov’t sponsored entity) — Fannie/Freddie — in the marketplace b/c they made private mortgage originators unable to compete except by lowering standards, and left investment banks dependent on securitization revenues rather than primary issuance.

    Did traders love that Moodys and S+P were their bitches b/c they paid them and thus could get exposure to the inner workings of rating systems so they could structure the bare bones necessary to get a AAA? Absolutely. And that were especially glad that Clinton signed the bill that made them that way. And they were even happier that there bonuses were year-to-year b/c they knew the risks of these products — the main risk being simply that their value was increasingly dependent on both a 2% minimum yearly increasing in housing prices and a extended period of artifically low Fed interest rates, see its not rocket science — bc at the end of the day they could take their money and run if the worst happened and the US economy contracted, rates rose, defaults skyrocketed, and banks failed. The bankers who created this compensation system was driven by greed, and lacking in ethical compass —- almost identical to the bipartisan politicians who created this system and encouraged its excesses.

  • etoohey1

    part 4:

    But to those who at age 20 without actually reading anything (seriously, be honest and ask yourself, how much do your peers read, how much have you read, why do yalies think they dont need to read anymore…) say “oh it used to be better before Wall Street took over. Damn i remember the days when we had 3% GDP growth and 7% unemployment and a manageable budget” They just have no idea. No idea what is was like to pay effectively $6/hour (in today’s dollars) at the tank, or have 15% annual inflation so that in 3 years, your salary of 50K was LITERALLY WORTH 25K. They have no idea what is was like when only 18% of Americans qualified for a home loan, or 30% (instead of 80%) qualified for a credit card.

    Our modern economic system — with all its imperfections of rising inequalities, unfair compensation, decaying cities, exporting jobs, and many more — is fundamentally dependent of an aggressive, innovative and world-dominant financial sector and a robust and leveraged credit market. Should bankers who misled clients be jailed? sure. Should executives who grasped for bonuses by heaping risk on their balance sheets be fired without golden parachutes? absolutely. Should the mortgage derivative market be regulated, reformed and re-sized? yes, and it has (reuters explains that nearly 70% of wall street employees connected to this division were fired). Should yale students seriously consider the value they would provide if they became bankers? sure, but only in educated way, in which they understand the difference b/w M+A advisory, private wealth management, proprietary hedge fund investing, market making trading and derivative structuring.

    But most importantly, this crisis should lead to a vibrant, informed and opinionated discourse about the function of the financial sector, the compensation structure of banks, the role of government in private industry, the role of regulation and monetary policy in shaping our markets. And none of this can happen unless people actually educate themselves before they speak. In 1963 you didn’t need to ask someone marching with King what year Brown v Board was b/c of course they f—ing knew — it was their struggle. In 1971 you didn’t need to ask a hippie at Berkeley what happened at Tonkin Gulf or at the My Lai Massacre, b/c even if they were high on acid, they were out there protesting and they knew it was their obligation to be informed about the issue they were screaming about.

  • etoohey1

    part 5 (sorry again for long reply, your email was just too good an excuse to procrastinate homework):

    But yet somehow today our generation has taken our commitment to that oh-so-valuable mixture of self-righteous outrage and disillusioned apathy to its unimaginable apotheosis — uninformed protest — indiscriminate rhetoric of often contradictory arguments with no sincere desire to improve our system or interrogate our failures other than to absolve themselves of guilt and to differentiate their bourgeosie desire for upper middle class indulgences form the insidious and evil desire of bankers for money and excess. This is given no better form that the leader of the yale Occupy protests this week, who in a beautiful irony that i thought existed only in novels, is a LEADER of Yale Dems, a fervent advocate of Clinton and Obama, a solipsistic schemer who views this movement as a springboard for economic and professional success in journalism. A person who has gone door-to-door fundraising for political candidates, who has NEVER organized or advocated around issues of private sector risk and financial regulation until they became trendy.

    Its a real world outside of yale where people (who didnt grow up on sparknotes and shameless bulls—ting in class discussions and dining hall conversations) expect that if you want to speak passionately about something, you will commit yourself to learn about it. And that you speak not to be right, but to try and make right what went wrong, for the former lends to counterproductive polemics and the latter to uncomfortably nuanced and inevitably comprised conclusions.

    And just because you mentioned that you thought I was older than you, I am a current undergraduate at Yale who has worked at a dozen different jobs 30+ hours a week every semester while taking full class loads to pay for living expenses and books. I am a liberal arts major who is a self-declared semi-radical liberal. I have never taken Micro and Macroeconomics, never taken calculus or statistics — b/c i prefer to take academic classes on Fanon, Ellison, Eliot and Said. But before I speak about something, I read about it — and so while I agree with 70-80% of the views espoused by the Occupy Movement, and many of the opinions I imagine you hold, I don’t think complacent, petulant, ambitious and immature college kids (who dont make the effort to inform themselves, who dont recognize that spending an hour on Wednesday protesting a job recruiter on campus is an indulgence that would seem utterly absurd to the majority of americans who recognize that political posturing is a privilege of the self-deluded bourgeosie intellectual) deserve any less criticism than passionately engaged yet shamefully irresponsible twenty-something traders who never stopped to ask if that small decision made before lunch today and that other one last night around 9 were a couple of those moments in which one’s moral conscience was chipped away.