This year, like every other year, my husband and I observe the ides of April by going to the bank where I deposit whatever the accountant has allowed to my Keogh plan in F.D.I.C. certificates of deposit. The operative term here is “F.D.I.C.” My husband, a Depression baby for whom municipal bonds represent wild speculation and who was raised on sagas of bank failures and foreclosures, would rather keep his money under a mattress, but a Federally insured savings account is the next best thing. He accompanies me on these occasions lest I be waylaid by bank “retirement specialists” anxious to divert my $2,000 into something that might actually make me and the bank some money. Once I went alone and came home with some annuities, another time with junk bonds which I had to sell six months later at a loss. Ever since, he’s walked by my side, guarding me like a Brinks armored truck.
Here’s how it goes: We are led into one of the mahogany floor pens presided over by a yuppie V.P. Her office is festooned with brochures showing happy gray-haired people in retirement communities that don’t look like retirement communities. Smiling and surrounded by loved ones who don’t begrudge grandma and grandpa a visit, the geezers radiate the joys of a robust portfolio and planning ahead.
Our V.P. now scrolls me up on the monitor, gasps at what she sees, admonishes me over the fact that I have a five-figure amount in a savings account that is making only 4.7 percent a year. There follows a lecture, the gist of which is that when losses to inflation are considered (of 3 percent or less in the last two or three years, but up to 6 percent in the late 80’s and early 90’s) along with taxes and bank fees, then my net increase in wealth is negative. She reaches for the phone to make a quick call to one of the in-house investment advisers ( We’ve got a live one here, let’s reel her in ) when my husband jumps in to defend his “investment strategy,” patiently explaining that these are the only “instruments” to shelter me from taxes while I’m earning freelance 1099 income along with his W-2 income.
I’ve heard this lecture so often my eyes glaze over, and I in turn become a raging impulse speculator in reaction. Money is, of course, our society’s big dark secret, and the fact that even the most flagrant sexhibitionist and tell-all confessional writers don’t spill the beans on income attests to its being more sacred than sex. On The Jerry Springer Show they may go hammer and tong over incest, abuse, infidelity, cross-dressing, but no one ever fights about how little the guy makes. Or suggests that if his profit margin improved, so might the marriage.
As is the case with many marriages, we have a Jack Sprat-and-his-wife fault line where money’s concerned, with differences that are sometimes complementary, sometimes teeth-grindingly at war, and often too perversely contradictory to categorize. While my husband is conservative to an extreme where investments are concerned, he’s mindlessly extravagant (and generous) in daily life, thinks nothing of spending money on taxis, never reads the check before he pays it and overtips wildly. I’m more frugal on a day-to-day basis, always take public transportation, will cut short a lunch to qualify for the free transfer on my Metrocard, but have the impulses of a riverboat gambler where the market is concerned.
I can’t bear to watch while everyone makes out (or seems to) like bandits in a stock splurge I have no part in. I finally went behind my husband’s back and placed a bet at the long odds window: $3,000 in a stock recommended by a friend in venture capital. All hell broke loose when the prospectus arrived in the mail. My husband read it and said it had everything but a Surgeon General’s warning: This could be dangerous to your health. I made a hefty profit, to my husband’s dismay. Second time around, same thing. My most recent foray, however, hasn’t panned out. The $3,000 investment is down to $700 and dropping. My husband doesn’t know whether to be sorry about the loss or glad to have his grim prognosis confirmed in a way that might cure me of any further impulse-buying.
He not only lived through the Depression, his father was a millionaire in real estate one minute and an overnight bust the next. They were on relief for 12 years, and he grew up on images of the crash, one of the great movie themes of the 30’s and 40’s: In Only Yesterday , a man’s whole world blows up in his face; in Frank Capra’s American Madness , bank president Walter Huston tries to hold off hordes of angry depositors demanding their money. In It’s a Wonderful Life , George Bailey contemplates suicide over the prospect of a run on his bank. And it wasn’t just the Crash of ’29. In Adam Had Four Sons , set in 1907-8, widower Warner Baxter loses all his money and has to send the beloved foreign governess, Ingrid Bergman, back to the old country till he recoups. The Depression was something my husband both saw and experienced, its devastations are hard-wired into his psyche, while I grew up in the relative security of the 50’s and movies bathed in the glossy optimism of the Eisenhower years. Also, there were real gamblers in his family who lost more than their shirts, and it cured him of any temptation. But he doesn’t realize that he’s gambling, too: He’s been betting his F.D.I.C.’s on a crash for the last 20 years. Just as speculators are at one end of a spectrum, he’s at the other extreme, glued to the CNBC stock ticker and only satisfied when the market takes a dive. As the victim of torture comes to seek the blow as a repetition of the reassuringly familiar, so my husband’s nerve ends are geared to the vibrations of disaster as he reflexively awaits, even craves, the dips, downturns, nose-dives, the declines, the recessions, the alarums and excursions of a crash that will finally confirm his lack of faith. I tell him he’s downright un-American to have so little confidence in the country’s economy.
Part of me loves his unworldliness. It’s almost a relief to be out of that particular race at a time when our culture has become so obsessed with money that the term “bottom line” extends to the depths of our soul. A very rich acquaintance in real estate once told me that he’s not interested in money, “it’s just a way of keeping score,” but keeping score has become a matter of life and death. Every day, we read of exorbitant fees and sweetheart deals and box-office bonanzas going to a few hit movies or superstars, disproportionate to merit, depriving everyone else of their measure of the goods. Neither aristocracy nor meritocracy, we now live in a celebritocracy where renown is as good as gold and trades as such on the human stock exchange.
Columbia University, always crying poor to its staff and faculty, recently tried to lure an economics professor, Robert Barro, from Harvard University, offering him a breathtaking $300,000 and his wife a cushy faculty position. This was done brazenly and publicly, as such things are nowadays, thus ensuring maximum demoralization for all those profs who don’t make 300 grand and splattering Columbia with more egg on its face when the guy refused-no doubt using the offer to up his bargaining position at Harvard.
This was not a basketball player or a bankable movie star, but an economist, for heaven’s sake! My husband claims to know more about economics than he does. And if the market goes down, he will! He’ll be vindicated as a sage, acclaimed by all … even if there’s no money left to reward him properly.