December 06, 2008

I used to answer friends who told me something I’d said was tasteless (and they were right) with a quip like, “If you can’t joke about terrorism and cancer, what can you joke about?” I was mostly being an ass, but a tiny point nestled inside what I said. Laughter helps diffuse the visceral tension that comes with impending doom, and gets us through the next ten minutes without a nervous collapse. Think of Thomas More cracking wise as he climbed the scaffold, or St. Lawrence long before him who told the Roman guards who roasted him over a grill: “I am done on this side—you may turn me over.” (He’s now, no kidding, the patron saint of chefs.)


We may very well be entering a new age of gallows humor. Our current economic collapse deepens by the day, and the measures the government’s taking are at once so extreme and ineffectual, that reading the newspapers is terrifying. Stories in the staid New York Times have taken on the tone of poorly mimeographed gold-bug tracts warning of the “dangers of a fractional reserve banking system.” Tracts we used to laugh at. Not anymore.


Items in straight news pieces use phrases like “attempt to fend off a Great Depression” and “the government intends to print as much money as necessary for this crisis.” Reading them sends a cold shudder through my frame, and I look up to make sure I’m not actually living in early 30s Vienna, waiting for the Socialists to shoot it out with the Heimwehr down by the Ringstrasse. The current crisis feels like the playing out of a very old, damaged newsreel, and we really should be living it in black and white.


The current downward spiral into who-knows-what is hard to wrap your head around, and even harder to explain. (Steve Sailer’s brilliant account of how racial quotas in mortgage lending gave our system its final push over the brink tells just one key part of the story.) Having studied economics sufficient to write an intellectual life of the great market-Burkean Wilhelm Röpke, I’m sometimes asked by colleagues in the liberal arts and theology questions like, “Have you got any insights on how this happened?” and “What the BLEEP is going on?” Broadly, they want to know how our economy could have “lost” trillions in wealth when, if you think about it, the same stuff is all around us: The same natural resources, the same workers, the same managers, universities, intellectual capital. It’s not as if an asteroid had struck the Northeastern corridor, obliterating seven states…. (Of course, given the political effect of my region on the rest of the U.S., such a strike might in the long run raise our GDP.)

Where did all that money go? I found this puzzling myself, but then I came up with the following schematic explanation of the current U.S. economy, derived from my up-close and personal experience of ostrich farms and pyramid schemes.


Having worked for a magazine that covered (that is, promoted) network marketing businesses like Herbalife and Amway, I knew quite a bit about the structure of such organisms. They rely less on selling products (though by law there now must be some items changing hands) than on recruiting. Whatever it is you’re selling—and I’ve written about everything from ceramic patriotic tsotchkes to chicken-based weight loss supplements—you make only a modest sum on each sale. But if you can recruit an army of people under you to sell the stuff, you get a percentage of each of their sales. The goal is to build a pyramid—oops… never, never use that word—an “organization” that will pass their profits up the line to you. Their motive for signing up? Not the chance to sell chicken goop, but to build a similar, er, three-sided geometrical figure. Of course, this can’t go on forever, since the number of new recruits required for anyone but the top echelons to make much money soon exceeds the number of human beings who’ve ever lived. And there you have our Social Security system.


Perhaps the most bizarre such scheme I ever covered was the 1990s Louisiana ostrich bubble. Okay, there weren’t just ostriches involved. There were also emus and rheas—though thankfully not the bloodthirsty cassowary; those deadly birds were left in peace. Camels, wallabies (think: baby kangaroos), alligators, “heritage” sheep and goats, then finally escargot: Desperate family dairy farmers whose businesses had been devastated by federally subsidized agribusinesses were trying to raise each of these critters, in the hope of finding a “niche” crop that could help them keep their farms. While the underlying story was deeply sad, at the time these hard-handed men were full of hope. They’d been shown the commodity prices of these exotics, and were eager to try something new and entrepreneurial—instead of giving up and getting jobs at Jiffy-Lube. I was rooting for them.


As one of those New York agrarians without a driver’s license, I’d eagerly taken the assignment as ag reporter for the Baton Rouge Business Report, cadging rides from friends to rural alligator farms and camel ranches. The alligators were easy profit: You fed them chicken giblets, and made them into handbags. The camels were not for eating; it seemed that in Louisiana, farmed camels could pay for a year’s feed (plus a healthy profit) with the fees Baptist churches paid to rent them for Christmas pageants. Talk about the Invisible Hand….


But the main focus of my article was ostriches and emus. These birds, you see, are an excellent source of healthy red meat that’s low in cholesterol and fat; indeed, it’s so lean that the steaks are too easy to burn. You pretty much have to sear them—preferably in a nice little red wine demiglace, with a strong spice like oregano, rosemary or allspice to counter the “wild taste.” With the promise of nursing homes and senior centers as lucrative markets, cattle farmers across the state were culling their herds and fencing off sections of their land to hold these large, exotic ratites. The South American Australian emu is like a wimpy kid brother to the African ostrich—smaller, and tame enough that you can reach in and take their eggs. The oil that’s rendered when they’re slaughtered is prized, one promoter told me, “by NBA athletes,” and sold for $32 an ounce.


The ostrich, on the other hand, as a Cajun explained to me—pulling me by the scruff of the neck away from the ostrich run—can “disembowel a lion with just one kick. Those critters are mean!” When it’s time to remove their enormous eggs to an incubator, the mama birds must be distracted with feed—and the eggs quickly purloined before they come back, kicking and screeching.


There was just one problem with the way the birds were introduced into the states: They were part of a pyramid scheme. I’m not sure who first got the notion of packing up ratites from sub-tropical climes and shipping them to the land of Edwin Edwards, but whoever he is he’s probably reclining in a toga, eating grapes peeled for him by a team of naked supermodels. You see, the birds were brought over not as ordinary livestock, but in carefully selected “breeder pairs” of “special breeder stock,” which sold for $30,000 each. The farmers were skeptical, of course—until the promoters explained how many eggs each female would lay, yielding birds that could be sold for (you guessed it), $15,000 apiece. So these poor ex-dairymen would mortgage their land, or spend their savings, to buy several pairs of these gold-plated birds in the hope of finding buyers (also known as “greater fools”).


This scheme, which eerily foreshadowed the tech and real estate bubbles, took no account of the fact that someone, at some point, would have to kill these golden geese and make them into steaks—which would cost, it was estimated, $4,000 a serving. Who would ever bother to slaughter one of these birds? The answer, of course, was no one—at least not until the pyramid had collapsed, and the last round of buyers (the “greatest fools”) gave up trying to break even—and in desperation, decided to “eat the damn things.” Which is, I guess, what happened. I expect you’ll find the farmers who made this costly mistake working at Wendy’s. “Do you want ostrich with that?”


Not all of them failed. Some farmers bought cheaper birds expecting to breed them for meat. So I’m happy to say that at least one of the ranches I visited, Acadian Ostrich, is still in business. (The emus, on the other hand, turned out to cost more money to feed than their meat and oil was worth—which explains why you’ll see the creatures running wild all across the Gulf Coast, ranchers having simply opened the gates, crying “Fly and be free!”)


And this is what happened all across the economy. The homes which Americans were told would go right on appreciating in price forever and ever, were never actually worth the putative prices they (briefly) commanded—any more than ostriches were ever worth $15,000. The scungy two-family houses in blue collar Queens where I grew up were never worth the $750,000 sticker price they’d attained by 2005. By which I mean, their proximity to Manhattan, their quality and attractiveness, the features which made people willing to pay for them, never added up to such a price. Instead, their estimated value was hugely inflated by the sheer expectation that someday, somebody, would be willing to buy them for $950,000. Why would that happen? Because home values were going up. It happened because it was happening, and the only thing that would stop it from happening was the drying up of cheaply borrowed money to finance further purchases by speculating homeowners of ever-pricier ostriches. Er, homes.


Likewise, the paper “billionaires” of 1999—whose IPOs had yielded them options worth more than several African countries—were never anything like that rich. Their shares, which were “worth” $30 billion or something, were impossible to sell. The moment these 30-year-old hucksters started trying to unload the stocks, their value would plummet—based as it was on nothing. No profits, meager earnings, nothing more than the fantasy that a “greater fool” would come along to pay hundreds of millions for shares in a company that sold Hindu devotional mousepads made from recycled condoms. In the end, we ran out of fools.


So as I use my quarterly 401(k) statement to clean up after the beagles, I console myself with the thought that the annual gains of 25% which they earned throughout the 90s never really existed. They were promises of consumption, based not on previous savings, but the hope of future loans. Faery, insubstantial creatures of light and air, which vanished with the first ray of the dawn. The beagles, at least, are real.


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