Friday, August 28, 2009

The Rich Have Feelings, Too

Posted in Vanity Fair by Tom Wolfe:

Up until the tarantulas arrived late last year waving their billions in “bailout” money before our faces, there were ten of us, including the two Harvard algorithm swamis, who could use the Gulfstream V, the Falcon, and the three Learjets pretty much anytime we needed them.

The vast majority of the flights—let’s get this straight before anyone starts clucking and fuming—were strictly business, but we also used the planes to “maintain an even strain,” as our C.E.O., Robert J. (Corky) McCorkle, liked to put it.

At the risk of sounding condescending, we should point out that ordinary people haven’t the faintest conception of the strain we had to endure daily. How many ordinary people have ever done anything remotely like betting $7.4 billion—bango!—just so!—that the price of energy will rise sharply 14 months from a certain date? How many of them ever had the animal spirits to go for it on the say-so of a young never-been-wrong-yet meteorology swami from M.I.T. who was convinced that, after a five-year lull in the cycle, a series of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes would pulverize the Gulf of Mexico, obliterating all offshore drilling operations, possibly shutting them down for years? How many ordinary people have woken up in the middle of the night, eyes popped open—swock!—like a pair of umbrellas, stark raving terrified by the possibility that they have just blown $7.4 billion on … a weather forecast? How many of them have ever sat for three days, 72 hours straight, in front of a gigantic plasma TV watching the Weather Channel as if it were the Super Bowl as Hurricane Enrique dithers, dawdles, malingers, messes around off the coast of Fort Lauderdale? How many ordinary people have been reduced finally, by sheer fear, to yelling at the screen, “Come on, Enrique, you pathetic wuss! Move your fat eye, you lazy worthless bitch! Be a man! Move inland! Cut straight across the Everglades, tear ‘em up by the roots and just let the greenies wail! Set your eye on the freaking Gulf! Take your goddamn steroids! Show some rage, you pussy! Barrel into those goddamn oil rigs! Destroy ‘em! Obliterate ‘em!”? How many ordinary people have finally sunk to their knees, hands clasped in prayer before a plasma-TV screen, imploring it, begging it, beseeching it … to save them?

God knows we deserved every chance we could get to even out the strain.

One of the sweetest sounds in the world was Corky making the rounds up here on the executive floor, saying in his laid-back voice, “I feel like boffing some bimbos in the Caribbean. Anybody like to come along?”

We never had to deal with airports like O’Hare or J.F.K. and their intestines of roadways looping over and under one another on the way to terminals teeming with the aforementioned ordinary people. No, we always left from small general-aviation airports.

In the U.S. the term “general aviation” means its exact opposite, the way “public school” does in England. An English public school is private and, on top of that, exclusive. Likewise, general-aviation airports in the U.S. are for everyone but the general public. They exist exclusively for people or businesses with the money to buy and maintain private planes. The fields are usually so small our driver can take us out onto the tarmac and stop right beside our jet. Now, here comes the part a man has to love.

Who is it who puts our luggage into the plane’s baggage compartment, including golf bags weighed down by the steel shanks of every club that a bunch of rich golfers with handicaps of 19 or more have ever heard of? Who hoists all this unbelievable stuff and stows it?

The captain and the co-captain!

Yeah! And they don’t talk like any flight commanders, either! They have the polite, deferential, as-instructed cheeriness of bellboys. They weren’t working for United Airlines or Delta or JetBlue or the F.A.A. or the air force. They were ours. They were our servants, our chauffeurs, and they were expected to act that way.

If there was no stewardess aboard, the captain or the co-captain would come back into the passenger cabin and ask us what we’d like to drink. We would be lounging lushly in what was designed as a living room, not an airplane cabin. There were mahogany, walnut, and amboyna inlays all over the place … You never had to sit next to anybody. You had your own virtual easy chair and all the legroom in the world … and cantilevered tabletops made of the same rich, spectacularly grained woods.

Ahhhh … here comes the captain, returning with your drink upon a little tray, primly placing it on your tabletop, along with a little linen cocktail napkin. Bent over in a half-bow, like any good butler, he asks you if you’d like anything else … and please don’t hesitate to use the call button …

The captain we’re talking about! The co-captain! We could already feel the strain evening out, and we hadn’t even reached Boffingland yet!

Whenever the captain informed us we were descending for landing, Corky always cupped his hands about his mouth megaphone-style and announced in a loud voice, as if over the intercom: “Please return all seats, tray tables, and stewardesses to their original upright and locked positions.”

That always cracked us up. On the Gulfstream V he’d pull that one right in the face of the two stewardesses. Of course, by now the politically correct nomenclature was “flight attendants.” So sometimes Corky would have his fun by referring to them as “flight attendesses.” The girls? They had no choice but to giggle, as if heartily amused. After all, they worked for us. They were our geisha girls in the sky.

But there was a subtler side to it. Corky’s gag mimicked the landing instructions a captain or a flight attendant gives on a commercial airliner—except that on a commercial airliner they aren’t instructions. They’re orders, as one quickly discovers if he ignores them.

On our boffing flights, instructions by a captain or a flight attendess were no more than well-intended advice … or suggestions. They didn’t dare utter them with so much as a faint hum of authority. We owned the very livelihood, if not the hides, of these, our servants …

… and then …

All right, so we did blow the $7.4 billion when oil dropped from $145 a barrel last July to less than half that—$70—in October and less than half of that—$34.60—four months later. And we did have a total of almost a trillion dollars’ worth of bets out on the board when the market crashed. And we were foolish enough to feel it was a miracle when the Treasury Department dangled its billions before us.

Had we but known … Had we but known … we wouldn’t have touched a dime of it. It would have been more honorable just to crash and burn and take bankruptcy like a man. For the tarantulas had arrived—only, we didn’t know that yet. The “bailout” was their Trojan horse. Fools that we were, we welcomed them!

We should have read the writing on the crime-scene tape as early as November 18 of last year, when Rick Wagoner of General Motors, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler, and Alan Mulally of Ford flew from Detroit to Washington in their corporate jets to ask Congress for $25 billion in bailout money. They appeared before the House Financial Services Committee, and that was all the congressmen would talk about, the airplanes. Such resentment! Such scorn! They asked the three men to raise their hands to show their willingness to give up their jets as a precondition before asking for the money. The beggars at least had enough pride and testosterone left to refrain from raising their hands in unison and saying, “Yassuh, massuh.”

A congressman from New York, Gary Ackerman, upon hearing that this impudent trio had treated themselves to private planes to come to ask for the American taxpayer’s money, said his constituents would be appalled, shocked to the point of disbelief: “It’s almost like seeing a guy show up at the soup kitchen in a high hat and a tuxedo. Couldn’t you all have downgraded to first class or jet-pooled or something to get here?”

We couldn’t believe it! It strained the brain! We failed to realize that congressmen themselves had become the first inflamers, provocateurs, mob leaders of every tarantula in the country!

When the three men returned to Washington on December 3, they traveled by car. It took them almost half a day. The congressmen scoffed at it as a cynical stunt or else a phony act of contrition. Why hadn’t they come by commercial airline? That would have atoned for the sin of private-plane pride perfectly well … and they could have made the trip in one hour rather than half a day.

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