Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Mirage

Some 17 years ago, while on a massive post-college roadtrip out West during the summer of 1991, my friends and I stopped in front of the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. We would have to drive through Nevada that day, but we couldn't avoid stopping to do a little gambling--because we wanted to be able to say that we did.

I locked my wallet in the glove compartment and took in with me exactly one quarter.

Once inside, I turned down the three drinks placed under my nose within the first 10 minutes (not because I was a prude; I just didn't realize that they were free). I dropped my quarter into a slot machine and promptly won 50 cents. I inserted another quarter and won another 50 cents. Then I lost it all, taking comfort in the fact that "all" was 25 cents. I had rigged it that way, because something told me I might need to.

Fast forward to 2008. While we slide down the abyss into what might well become the worst economic meltdown in American history, I've come to a stark realization. We are not capitalists; we are gamblers. Our nation's capital should not be Washington, D.C.; it should be Las Vegas. The Capitol building itself should not be the immaculate Grecian building we all know; it should be The Mirage.

A liberal arts-level understanding (all that I am capable of) of the financial services practices and products that have contributed to our demise, such as "naked short selling" and "credit default swaps," reveals a common element: gambling. Suffice it to say, what our economy became over the last three decades was a blackjack table. The smart bad guys created products that allowed greedy bad guys to make money on assets they didn't actually own. The good guys were unknowingly complicit, also making money by seeing their IRAs and 401 (k)s rise at a steady clip.

We financed it all on the First Bank of China credit card, and then the casino said "enough."

But it's not just financial services that reveal our true nature. Our health care and insurance system is a gamble: We'd rather gamble that we can afford the insurance that gives us stellar health care than have less shiny facilities and open the doors of access more equitably. We gamble on borrowing money for the best education, assuming that law school, med school and that MBA will pay off relatively quickly. We have generally practiced what might be called "consumption without consequence" on nearly every front, and it's crumbling before our eyes.

The thing I remember about that summer trip better than the sunny depression of Las Vegas in the daytime was something just outside the city: the Hoover Dam. It's an apt metaphor if one replaces the image of the water on one side with stacks of bills representing our nation's gambling debts. The question is, now that the dam has broken, and we know that our gambles will no longer pay off, what do we do?

2 comments:

Kevin Sawyer said...

Actually, most of regulatory efforts w/r/t insurance, investments etc... Is intended to discourage the gambling element.

The housing market evaded those regulations (and common investment principles) by virtue of the fact that it had never faltered. As such, the cardinal sin of investing (borrowing to invest) became commonplace advice.

The mere fact that markets rise and fall does not mean that investing is the equivalent of gambling.

Marc Conklin said...

This situation went far beyond the idea of markets rising and falling. Naked short selling (not a huge part of the problem, but still) involves investing in the idea that a stock will fall. No big deal, right? Except for one thing: You don't have to actually own the stock. Credit default swaps are the equivalent of taking an insurance policy on something you don't even own. That's either gambling or insanity. BTW, I just purchased on insurance policy on your house.