Sandbox Economics

 

playground.jpgThe playground. To an outside observer, it is a noisy but innocent enclosure, in which children frolic and gambol, engaging each other in happy chatter and utterly compelling games of make-believe.

From the inside, however, the playground offers insight into the world Darwin saw in the Galapagos a hundred years ago: a universe in which the strong perch on monkey bars hurling projectiles at the weaker inhabitants below.

Consider, please, the sandbox.  Ever watched a two-year-old in the sandbox as he or she marches around snatching all the shovels, all the buckets, all the little sandy matchbox cars and plastic ponies and green octopus sand-molding thingys?  And then she herds these things into a corner, claiming that she NEEDS them.  She WANTS them.  They are all, in fact, HERS.

 

sadie-sandbox.jpgThe parent nervously intervenes, tells little Coco or little Cooper that, no, the toys belong to the other children too, see, and won’t it be more fun to play together? 

To which the child would respond, if the child had the proper vocabulary, “Fuck that. I got this stuff, possession is nine-tenths, lady, and those suckers are SOL.” 

Every parent has been in the position of having to reach gingerly into the sandbox and redistribute the toys. And if you’re a parent and insist that you’ve never had to do that…well, either you’re not paying attention or you’ve given birth to Christ.

Don’t you love the moment when you realize the only recourse is to lift your kid bodily out of the sandbox (ignoring all those veiled glances from the other parents  who are delighted that it’s not THEIR kid causing the scene) and carry his flailing, weirdly strong little body (how a child can be so strong on a diet comprised basically of white food is anyone’s guess) over to a bench for a little talk about how it’s nicer to share. 

The kid may grudgingly agree with you, but it’s a purely contingent acquiescence, designed only to get the hell back INTO the sandbox and start the process all over again, perhaps attempting to lure another child into becoming a co-pillager, thus deflecting some of the trouble away from himself.

Over the past few years, as I sit in the playground, watching all these would-be Masters of the Universe stomp around, I’ve had the depressing thought that maybe, at base, we are all … base. Are greed, self-interest, and violence so deeply embedded in human nature that my endless reminders of “say please! say thank you! ask nicely! share with your brother!” will create only the thinnest veneer of civilized behavior and that as soon as the going gets too tough – or too easy – it will be every man for himself? Caveat emptor, mofo…

I trust that by now you see where I’m going with this? Let’s substitute … hmmm …Wall Street for sandbox, and million-dollar bills for buckets and shovels.  Does the picture become clearer?

The men (and okay, probably not all men – Carly Fiorina comes flapping to mind) who have been running our economic show (into the ground) remind me of the seagulls in “Finding Nemo,” who hurtle through the harbor, screeching “mine, mine, mine” until they get stuck, beaks first, and are unable to move.

Nemo-seagulls[1].jpg  

So now Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke et al have their beaks in a sail (or asses in a sling; choose your visual) and we are supposed to do what, exactly? 

A $700 billion dollar bailout? That’s a whole lot of buckets and shovels. 

As we say on the playground, there are consequences for bad behavior.  Do these guys really expect us to REWARD them for their greed and stupidity, their cupidity and amorality? 

We’re going to give this big check to Henry P. and expect him to be the grownup who patrols the sandbox and gets everyone to behave? A man who only a few months ago was on the Sunday talk shows extolling the virtues of the “flexible” US markets?  He reminds me of the playground parent who sits on the bench furthest from the sandbox, scrolling endlessly through her blackberry while her little angel tramples everyone in the sandbox. This same parent, of course, swoops in, eyes blazing, as soon as anyone dares to chastise Little Angel for grinding sand into some other kid’s hair.

If there are no rules – no rules that anyone can understand, anyway – and no punishments for skirting just to the outside of the law, then why should we be surprised that Wall Street is slipping slowly into New York Harbor? No one with any power to intervene seemed to notice, or care, that scruples were being compromised almost as fast as fortunes were being made.

And now these same people want us to give them back their toys, maybe even give them newer, bigger, shinier toys.

My own inner child – herself never far from the surface – looks at this mess and screams “NOT FAIR NOT FAIR NOT FAIR.” 

She’s right. It’s not fair. But that’s life in the sandbox, I guess, if there aren’t any grownups paying attention. 

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