On being ... a useful analogy

By Ingrid Sapona

I generally like analogies and I often find them to be a handy tool for analyzing things. Indeed, a good analogy can be useful when trying to help someone understand something that they don’t seem to be getting.

Late last fall, when the Wall Street bailouts first started happening (or, more accurately, when the first Wall Street bailouts started happening), I was watching NBC’s Today Show and they had on Erin Burnett, a reporter with CNBC. As you now doubt know, CNBC is dedicated to reporting on Wall Street.

I don’t recall the exact event they were talking about that morning, but I think it must have related to some bonus or severance payment that some Wall Street mogul had been paid or had approved -- or maybe it was about John Thain’s (Merrill Lynch’s (then) CEO) $1.2 million office redecoration. In any event, the amount they were talking about was controversial at the time (the recent “fuss” over AIG bonuses is just the latest episode, after all). Ms. Burnett, trying to put the figure in perspective for the lowly viewer like me, commented that to Wall Street types, the amount was akin to a “rounding error”. Ah yes… a mere seven figure rounding error -- anyone who’s ever tried to balance their chequing account can no doubt relate to that!

Not only did I not find Ms. Burnett’s analogy to a rounding error helpful, I was absolutely incensed by it! Though I don’t believe it was just a case of a poor choice of words spoken in haste -- even if it was -- I think it betrays just how out of touch people who work on Wall Street, and those making big bucks at CNBC reporting on Wall Street, are with the economic reality of the vast majority of Americans (not to mention the rest of the world).

Had CNBC been around to report in pre-revolutionary France, I can’t help wonder if, to help the simple-minded peasants understand comments like “Let them eat cake”, Ms. Burnett would have done a remote broadcast from outside a bakery. Imagine all the trouble that could have been avoided if those darned peasants had just grasped the reality of the situation better…

More recently I’ve been angered and insulted by commentators who have said that the public outcry over the AIG bonuses is misplaced anxiety and that the bonuses are just something concrete that the public can grasp. It’s true, there’s more than enough anxiety to go around these days and the clamor about the bonuses is likely a symptom of that. But how dare commentators demean the public and try to gloss over payouts in the hundreds of millions when that’s more than what many people in America will make over the course of their lifetime. (And NO, it’s not that we object to bonuses being paid despite the fact that the companies have lost billions of dollars -- it’s the inequity of such amounts, period.)

Given the depth of the trouble we’re in, I imagine that for some time to come folks will be offering up many more analogies and maybe some good old fashioned sayings to help us come to grips with the economic mess. I’m not sure how many more platitudes I can take, but to prepare, I’ve thought of a few myself that might be helpful.

For example, maybe one way to explain how companies justify paying astronomical salaries to Wall Street managers and execs is simply to see them as having gotten caught up in a corporate version of “monkey see, monkey do”. Of course, boards wouldn’t dare use such a juvenile analogy -- but, as they bought into the compensation consultants’ arguments that such amounts are “the norm in the industry” and that they had to pony up if they hoped to attract the best and brightest -- the resemblance to monkey see, monkey do is striking. (Especially since -- like monkeys -- it’s clear no one questioned the moral scruples of the supposed best and brightest. Hell, no one ever even stopped to objectively assess whether those folks really were the best and the brightest! But why should they -- that’s not how the game is played, after all.)

Actually, it occurs to me that maybe folks like Ms. Burnett should consider switching their focus from trying to make the average person understand things, to trying to make Wall Street types understand how their behaviour got us into this mess. So, in the spirit of being helpful, to those who might find the public outcry over obscene bonuses -- or the idea of a 90% tax on such amounts -- hard to comprehend, perhaps a bit of reflection on one of my favourite sayings might help them understand: pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


On being … my hero

By Ingrid Sapona

As a kid growing up, I never had a hero. Not having one didn’t bother me or anything -- I’m just saying, I never had one. During adolescence I became more aware of the fact that I didn’t have one -- but that’s just because I heard people express concern that girls, in general, were at a disadvantage because they didn’t have as many role models or heroes. As I made my way into adulthood, the topic came up occasionally, but pretty much only as a philosophical question over a second or third drink -- and it always seemed to be men that asked. Given all this, at some point, I guess I just figured heroes are a guy thing.

Well, I’ll be darned. After all these years -- I now have a hero. I’ll be honest -- before I sat down to right this, I did a bit of gut checking, soul searching and, of course, I looked up the word to make sure I’m not fooling myself about this. I’m not.

So, I say without hesitation or reservation: Jon Stewart is my hero. I know some women may feel I’m letting down the sisterhood by having a male as a hero -- but to them I say nonsense! As far as I’m concerned, Stewart should be the hero of all who believe no one is telling it like it is when it comes to the economy and who have felt, as I have, unheard in all of this.

You’ve no doubt heard about Stewart’s interview of CNBC’s Jim Cramer last week. The interview was the culmination of a week that started with Stewart’s show (The Daily Show on Comedy Central) ridiculing CNBC’s coverage of Wall Street. Jim Cramer took particular umbrage at the clips the Daily Show ran of his CNBC show “Mad Money” and so, over the course of the week, Cramer popped up on a number of other programs to talk about the economy and to defend himself. Finally, on the 12th, Cramer agreed to be on The Daily Show.

I had mixed feelings about the Stewart/Cramer interview. It had received a lot of hype and I thought it would end up playing out as a manufactured brouhaha -- the verbal equivalent of a World Wresting Federation match. From the moment the interview began, however, it was clear my concerns were unfounded. Stewart was friendly to Cramer, but he was clearly in a serious mood.

Stewart was tremendously well prepared and he proved to be masterful at cross-examination. Early on, after getting Cramer to blow is own horn about the fact that he was a hedge fund manager for many years, Stewart ran a clip of Cramer explaining how easy it is to make money short selling. When the clip was finished, Stewart asked him to explain what that means. Cramer then launched into an impressive sounding explanation that also included him claiming he didn’t short sell. Stewart interrupted and said it sounded like he did. Cramer then said that if it sounded that way, it’s because he was inarticulate. Well -- if you’re a fan of Perry Mason -- you know what’s coming next… Stewart says “roll 210” -- and you guessed it, 210 is a tape of Cramer saying that, in fact, he did short sell.

I’ll admit, I’m not a fan of Cramer -- he’s always struck me as more bluster than substance. That evening he was Mr. Humble, however, admitting again and again that he should have done better but that he tried. One of the most interesting things about Cramer’s performance was that he kept referring to “the shenanigans” that were “going on”. Shenanigans? Shenanigans? Referring to all the abuses and schemes that various companies have carried out the past few years and that have led us into this financial crisis as shenanigans is either incredibly condescending to us or betrays a lack of understanding of what really was going on, either of which is reprehensible.

Stewart then paraphrased one of my favorite concepts from law school, arguing that the financial news industry is not just guilty of a sin of omission -- it was guilty of the sin of commission and that the industry was in bed with Wall Street. Cramer argued they weren’t in bed together and whined that there was nothing he could do because people lied to him. Stewart wouldn’t hear of it, saying the idea CNBC could have on guys from Bear Sterns and Merrill who leveraged 35 to 1 and then blame mortgage holders is insane and he objected to Cramer trying to play the doe-eyed innocent.

Then came the part of the interview that made me want to sing out, “Thank you Mr. Stewart” for giving voice to what many of us feel. After yet another clip, Stewart said, “I gotta tell you -- I understand you want to make finance entertaining, but it’s not a f---ing game … When I watch that … I can’t tell you how angry that makes me because what it tells me is (at this point his voice goes from angry to quietly indignant): You all know. You all know what’s going on…”.

But what really nailed down for me Stewart’s title as my hero was something he said that, though difficult to admit, contains a lesson for us all: “… any time you sell people the idea you don’t have to do anything … that you can sit back and you’ll get 10 to 20% on your money… that’s a lie. Our wealth is work … we’re workers … and selling this idea of ‘hey man, I’ll teach you how to be rich’” is really just an infomercial. Hear, hear, Mr. Stewart.

So there you have it -- a hero is born.

P.S. If you haven’t seen the show and are interested, those in the U.S. can watch it on the Internet at: www.thedailyshow.com; those in Canada can watch it at on CTV's web site.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a good luck charm

By Ingrid Sapona

I’m a bit superstitious -- but in a positive way. In other words, I’m not inclined to think bad things will happen as a result of some random event (like seven years bad luck if you break a mirror). Instead, my brand of superstition is based on the idea that certain things can bring good luck.

A prime example of my positive superstitiousness (to coin a phrase) is my belief that I’m a parking good luck charm. I was reminded of it again just the other evening when a friend and I were headed to a bar we’d never been to before. We had a pretty good idea where it was on this popular, busy street, but we weren’t certain of the exact location.

Just after my friend pointed out the place, I spotted an easy-to-pull-into parking space directly across the street from the front door. It was a very cold evening, so we were especially grateful to have found such a close spot. As I pulled into it, my friend mumbled something about my being lucky. I couldn’t help myself -- I blurted out, “Well, I’m a parking good luck charm”. She didn’t say anything in response, but I’m pretty sure she shot me a “whatever” look.

I first began thinking of myself as a parking good luck charm in my 20s. This one friend and I used to go out at all hours and no matter where we went, we always ended up finding great parking. At some point he commented on the fact that whenever he was with me, he never had a problem finding parking. (Apparently he didn’t have such good fortune normally.)

Then I started noticing that I seem to find primo parking spots even when I’m driving and have someone with me. Eventually I concluded it was happening far too regularly to be a fluke, so since then, if I’m in a car with someone and we’re looking for parking, I confidently announce I’m sure we’ll find a spot because I’m a parking good luck charm.

When I say that, those who don’t know me too well usually react with a pretty cynical, “Yeah, well, I hope you’re right”. Often, just as they finish muttering that, I point out an open space and little more is said about the matter. And then there’s the reaction I get from inveterate disbelievers. One guy I went out with, for example, always used to mock me by saying, “Oh that’s right – a parking good luck charm -- not a bridge fairy.” (His comment was a reference to the Canada/U.S. border crossings at Niagara Falls. Depending on the economic and political climate, the wait to get through Customs on the bridges can be from minutes to hours.)

I’ve thought about why I seem endowed with this luck when it comes to parking. The answer, of course, simple: being a parking good luck charm is nothing more than being confident you’ll find a space and then focusing your attention on your surroundings as soon as you arrive where you’re looking to park. Really, you could call it “parking conscious”. You’d be surprised at how many people aren’t parking conscious.

My belief in my parking luck is very much like a good luck ritual that worked for me in law school. Right before I left for an exam I always played Kenny Loggins’ “This is It”. The title refers to the fact that the present moment is the time for action. I felt that if I left the house singing it, I’d do ok. Looking back, it seems clear the luck I ascribed to the song came from the fact that singing the phrase -- This is It! -- helped me focus on the reality that the moment of the exam was the time for action -- the time to call forth all I’d learned and crammed into my little brain! I guess you could say the song helped make me “exam conscious”.

The great thing about good luck charms is they help you feel lucky and that boosts your confidence, which is bound to make whatever it is you’re up to go more smoothly. The best thing about being a parking good luck charm isn’t that you find great parking -- that’s just an added bonus. The real benefit is that if you feel you’ve been lucky with parking, you end up in a more positive frame of mind, which can help carry you through whatever you’re doing next.

Regardless of whether you believe there’s any such thing as a good luck charm, I hope these examples convince you that you can create your own luck with a positive attitude and by focusing your awareness on the immediate task at hand. So, next time you’re in search of parking, try being your own parking good luck charm -- all it takes is belief and focus. Go on -- give it a try. What’s the worst that can happen? I’ll bet you end up in some pretty sweet spots.

© 2009 Ingrid Sapona