Unbalanced: We Need a Hero

Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Carol Schaal

Iron Man, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men and, on the tough-as-acrylic nails side, Sarah O’Connor and Lt. Ripley: Action heroes supreme, and I love ’em all.

Then the financial industry tumbled down a very deep well, and neither Lassie nor any leaping, swinging, gun-toting, bicep-flexing superhero had the right stuff to save it. The problem was way out of their league, and even Greenspan was unmasked.

So if our favorite gods of action are no help, who is? What does it take to save the day and be a hero these days?

Three super skills, I think: power, clout and money. And those possessing those skills aren’t hiding behind masks or funny costumes. You can find them in any list of the obscenely wealthy. Think of them as the Forbes Fat Cats — members of the magazine’s list of the richest of the rich..

But for my We-Need-A-Hero dream, let’s give those money moguls a bit of respect, because some among them deserve it, and an industrial–strength name: The Green Machine.

Imagine for a moment what some members of this group could have done a couple years ago when the housing market began to collapse and holders of subprime mortgages began to default.

It could have been a Bailout Buffett.

Several Green Machiners could have arranged private bailouts for certain big banks by offering to underwrite properties teetering on foreclosure — the run-down, the overpriced, the ranch, the mansion and, yes, even the orange-carpeted. Then the banks would have sold the houses back to the owners at a price they could afford. The GMers could have paid, say, half the original cost of the house, the housing owners would have a workable mortgage and the banks would still be in business.

As part of their clout, the participating Billionaire Boys, a few of whom might then be only the Millionaire Men, could demand the banks revert to acceptable lending practices.

Too late for that plan now, but there’s still time to round up the usual suspects and conduct a search for a new American Hero.

Here’s one qualifying quest: At a Texas barbecue hosted by T. Boone Pickens, who made his fortune in oil but is now devoting his energies to the nation’s energy crisis, the guests are those who made money by playing with money. Smart folks indeed, but Pickens puts down a challenge. Pick an innovative, technologically eco-friendly area — electric cars? nanotech? solar collectors? — and build a business around it.

The main rule: Don’t demand that your company show a quarterly profit at the expense of its long-term goals and health. Yes, someone has to make a profit at some point. But, as Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos might remind them, “One of the things that is most important for a company is to be very clear about their strategy, so investors get to self-select as to whether or not that’s the right strategy for them. I think we’ve done a very good job about being clear that we’re a long-term focused company.”

The more macho can still play the my-company’s-better-than-yours game, the socially minded can feel good about their contributions to society and the rest of us can enjoy cleaner, cheaper energy.

Farther east, at a more upscale affair hosted by Dylan Lauren, daughter of Ralph and entrepreneur in her own right with a string of candy shops, the silver-spoon crowd gets a similar but somewhat downsized quest: start and oversee a charitable, educational or business initiative.

Yes, the trust-fund babies can still be icons of style, the stylish D. Lauren would tell them. But it’s time to show off their creative sides with something other than fashionable shoes and risky behavior. It’s time, she might say, to make a name for themselves.

Finally, in my daydream of heroism, the now-popular Green Machine begins to exert some peer pressure on financiers, making it uncool to play money games that most of us can’t even begin to understand.

As a useful example, the plutocratic posse could point with disdain to that whole creative credit derivatives trading idea. It didn’t sound too good to be true — a useful guide — only because no one could figure out exactly what it did sound like. But in the hands of go-go financiers, it did sound so edgy and hip and forward-facing that few wanted to admit they were too stodgy to play. And it all came crashing down.

“Hmmph,” Bill Gates, who has directed a portion of his riches to good deeds throughout the world, could say. “Keeping score with money is so nouveau riche. What have you built? Who have you helped?”

As the superheroes know, with great power comes great responsibility. So, to the billionaires and the multimillionaires among us, I say: Money talks. Is yours saying something worth hearing?

Carol Schaal is managing editor of this magazine.