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SWAGGER, NOT STYLE

The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

Everything I Need to Know About Economics I Learned from Oscar-winning Screenwriter William Goldman, or Sober Insight into the Financial Crisis (No.)

Chris Klimek

So I looked at my checking account balance this morning and saw something new and unwelcome: red numbers. Scary. But also wrong -- right? I've managed to keep a positive balance in my checking account since I finished college. (The fact that I'm actually sort of proud of this fact probably tells you everything about my comfort level managing money as well as my own assessment of my long-term employability.) On the 15th and 30th of every month, my wages are deposited automatically into my account with wonderful, convenient, benign digital efficiency. On the first of every month, my mortgage payment is withdrawn automatically from my account with cold, brutal, relentless digital efficiency. Except that for a few hours this morning, it was looking like the mortgage had come out without the paycheck going in. And so: Red numbers! Panic in the markets!

Admittedly, I know roughly as much about economics as Sarah Palin does about foreign policy. But everything I'm reading and hearing about the current financial crisis says that the problem is essentially that lenders have stopped lending. They've lost faith in the systems they rely on to tell them who is solvent and who is broke, and so they're afraid to loan money even to companies that until recently were universally regarded as good credit risks. Companies, even stable, well-run, reputable companies, borrow money every day to cover their operating costs -- including payroll. I've heard several journalists who specialize in all this crazy voodoo say that the "crisis" that for the moment is still an abstraction to most Americans (as evidenced by their refusal to back the bailout) is going to become smack-in-the-face real when employers can't borrow the cash they need on payday.

So when I looked at my bank balance this morning and saw that the end-of-the-month deposit that until today could claim a perfect attendance record just wasn't there, I figured the crisis had just hit home for me.

I called my employer's Human Resources department, which assured me I'd been paid. Then I called my bank. After about five minutes on hold, I reached a customer service guy and explained my predicament. "I'll try to find what's going on," he told me, and back on hold I went for a few more tense moments, until I heard the phone ring again and found myself connected to another customer service agent, a woman this time. Naturally, she knew none of what I'd just explained to the other guy. As I was repeating my story to her, I saw my paycheck suddenly appear in my account. The red numbers preceded by a minus-sign were gone, replaced by a positive sum. Not a big one, mind you, but one presented in a font of reassuring black.

"Unfotunately, we've been experiencing some processing delays," the agent told me, her voice oozing professional empathy.

This before coffee.

When I bought my first home two years ago, my tenuous-at-best grasp of the fundamental workings of real estate, mortgages, interest rates, and all that drove me nuts. I'm embarassed to admit that I was relieved to settle into the groove of simply paying the mortgage every month, which while burdensome, was still preferable to having to think about it. I just don't understand money, I lamented, cursing myself as unworthy of the wealth-creating, innovation-rewarding, capitalist utopia in which I was privileged to live.

In recent weeks, as bank failures and other portents of fiscal doom have proliferated, what keeps flashing through my head is William Goldman's maxim from Adventures in the Screen Trade: Nobody knows anything.

I wish that revelation made me feel better. I really do.