. . . They taste
good to her
You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand
a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her
William Carlos Williams
Reading the Confessions of a Bailout CEO Wife at Portfolio.com without giving in to boiling rage is a good exercise in the sort of sympathy and decency that Carol Bly urges, or maybe in Keatsian negative capability. The anonymous author, spouse of the CEO of a financial firm that has taken TARP money, bemoans the fact that she must now make her daily decisions “according to a complex algorithm: balancing the need to look like your world hasn’t crumbled beneath you . . . with the need to appear duly repentant for your subprime sins.” She has been forced to tone down her husband’s annual birthday party, curtail her shopping, and ship gifts to people so as not “to be spotted climbing into a taxi, laden with Bergdorf Goodman shopping bags.” She recognizes that “people are angry—angry at those they view as responsible for the subprime crisis and the subsequent economic meltdown,” but she deftly shifts the blame “to any number of culprits:”
to Alan Greenspan, who encouraged the loose-money policies that undermined the pricing of risk; to Barney Frank, who cudgeled Fannie Mae into supporting loans to unfit homebuyers; to the rating agencies that were ethically compromised; to the subprime-mortgage brokers who chased fees and ignored any accountability; to the investors who didn’t do their homework and absurdly leveraged up their balance sheets. . . . And yes, I blame those who were in charge of the big banks—including my husband—for not seeing the default tsunami coming. But almost no one did. Everyone knows this, yet financial CEOs have replaced the Mob as the most despised group in the country.
My natural response is anger at her myopia. From her perch, she doesn’t see the ripple effect that the poor decisions made by her husband and his peers have had on the economy, and on the lives of millions of people who have had to make decisions far more dire, far more costly to spirit and soul and heart, than to forgo a new spring wardrobe or fly coach. Swimming in a sea of privilege, she can’t recognize the flood that the collapse of the financial institutions has brought to people who have never had the opportunity to give up the extravagances and indulgences that she and her family enjoyed during the good years. Indeed, she can’t possibly understand that many of those good years came at the expense of other people, and that the check for the “multi-star Michelin hotspots” and “opening night at the Metropolitan Opera” is being picked up by exactly the people who have been damaged.
But anger is too easy, and maybe a little too gratifying. She can’t step out of her own shoes, and that’s a terrible pity; but we can try to slip into her shoes and feel the way they pinch, even if they are a tad more comfortable than our own. Failure is, after all, a relative thing; a fall from a high place can be as devastating as a fall from a low, and sometimes more so.
The Bailout CEO Wife is expressing a “quiet desperation” that Thoreau would certainly have recognized. She admits that “we aren’t facing the prospect of losing our home or having to turn to our families to support us,” but she has worries about money and also has to contend with a public scrutiny that the rest of us who have suffered in the failed economy don’t face. A large part of her role, after all, has been to project an image of success and stability, to support her husband’s reputation as a Wall Street lion, to provide lavish gifts and grants not unlike a Kwakiutl potlatch. And now that role has changed drastically, and the old skills she honed are no longer of value; indeed, the old ways of doing things are certain doom.
She is also suffering on behalf of her husband:
Here is the reality: TARP managers are scared to death. The executives of these companies are desperately trying to hold their businesses together while complying with a slew of damaging bills flooding out of Congress. My husband has battled the shutdown of the credit markets and a deteriorating business environment for two endless years without respite. He’s exhausted, terrified of losing the company, and beaten down by the constant criticism hurled at him.
If her world has frayed a bit, his is in danger of completely unraveling. “For a person whose life has been punctuated mainly by success—from perennial class president and high-school sports star to Ivy League MBA—failure is the worst of all nightmares.” We have to assume that she loves him, though she doesn’t say so, and so suffers with his loss.
I don’t mean to be an apologist for the ancien régime. There’s a fire-breathing anarchist in my heart, after all, a Leveller who rages at the unjust distribution of wealth and the rapacious treatment of the working and middle classes both before and during the fall. The Bailout CEO Wife is still convinced that “the trappings of success were earned and not given,” when indeed those trappings have more often than not been stolen, if not from the present workers (whose real earnings have barely nudged upward in the last several decades while CEO salaries and bonuses have soared), then from the future in the form of massive bailouts to prop up the crumbling monuments to excess. If bringing the wealthy down a peg will bring the poor up, then I have trouble seeing the tragedy in her reduced circumstances.
But, alas, it’s unlikely that there will be a rise from the bottom in proportion to the fall from the top. For all the hand-wringing on the Right about President Obama’s impugned “socialism,” he’s hardly a socialist by any reasonable definition. The means of production remain solidly in the hands of the ownership class, and the sweeping reforms we so badly need in health care, credit, and education are unlikely to be enacted with the same swift necessity as TARP. Instead, the misery felt by the Bailout CEO Wife simply adds to the general pool of misery that has already been moldering for decades.
No, what I’m suggesting is that Schadenfreude, though a deeply satisfying emotion, is not productive. Instead, I would like to imagine that the Bailout CEO Wife’s struggles will have some positive effect on her soul, if not on the national mood. I can identify with her angst, though on a much-reduced level, and I’ve found that there is indeed value in my reduced circumstances. I spend more time at the library and at art museums than I ever did before; I have a better sense of what is truly valuable, and what is mere dross; I find that I can enjoy things like a good loaf of bread, or a long walk with the dog, or getting lost in a novel or story, whether I have a job or not. And when I do have a job again, when the Bailout CEO Wife’s husband’s damage to the economy has finally healed, I’ll still have the things that are valuable.
And most important, through the loss of work and through good teachers like Bill Holm and Carol Bly, I’ve expanded my ability to sympathize with other people. I feel bad for the Bailout CEO Wife, just like I feel bad for people who never received a bailout and never will; I’m angry at the injustice that shields some people from the brunt of the disaster while unleashing its furies on others, regardless of merit, but I recognize that there’s suffering all along the continuum.
And my hope for the Bailout CEO Wife is not that “some other group will come along to absorb all the frustration and anger” and let her return to her previous lifestyle, but that this experience will jar her into feeling sympathy for others and taking pleasure in simple things like bread and books and plums.