Friday, May 22, 2009

A little data dropout at the Cliche Cafe

At the age of 27 I emerged from the money-free world of graduate school into a land of regular employment with a paycheck that looked huge and bright, shiny credit cards. I proceeded fairly quickly to get myself in way over my head financially. Once I realized I was spending a more than trivial amount of time fretting over bills, I took myself off to a financial counselor who assigned me homework: write down everything I’d spent over the last year and then everything I was obligated to spend currently. Unusually for me, I actually did my homework - clear proof of how truly worried I was - and reported back that it had been an eye-opening experience.

The counselor smiled and told me that for most of his clients the exercise of having to face in black and white exactly what their financial situation really was often sufficed to set them on the path to economic righteousness. It certainly did for me. I took the counselor’s advice to recast my car loan; it meant exchanging lower monthly payments for a longer term and therefore more interest paid in the end, but was still an excellent deal since the money I saved each month on that payment could now go to pay down the much more expensive credit card debt I owed. I took a second weekend job and put every penny from that job and every penny I could squeeze out of my regular paycheck toward my credit card debt.

Within a year I was debt-free and able to quit my weekend job. As I got a credit card paid off, I cancelled it and for years after that experience the only credit card I carried was American Express - because that I had to pay off every month. I cannot tell you how many free credit card offers I have torn up, how many times I have turned down the offer of a department store credit card. (“Sign up now and get 10, 15, 25% off your current purchase.”) I found that if a particular saleslady was especially insistent I could simply explain that I found too many credit cards too great a temptation and almost always receive an “I gotcha” in response.

I know it is this piece of my history that colored much of my initial reaction to Edmund Andrews’ story of taking on truly massive debt. The contempt I felt for him and his story stemmed from the fact that he had taken on so incredibly much debt without stopping to think about what he was doing and stop doing it and - most of all - from the fact that he had put assorted children at financial risk through his greed and stupidity. Nonetheless, I could understand both the greed and the stupidity. I got into trouble when I moved from a graduate school world of bare minimum money to a gainfully employed world that looked filled with financial excess. In Andrews’ case, it was the world that moved. As Andrews puts it, “this was unlike any other time in history”; “the money was there”. Like me, Andrews found himself in a new world of financial excess and was unable or unwilling to resist the shiny goodies that now seemed within his reach.

So I could relate to the core of his story if not to the sheer excess or to his willingness to drag his and his new wife’s children over the edge with him. Andrews’ story was a small version of the great tragedies: we relate to Othello because we understand jealousy; to Macbeth because we understand ambition; to Romeo and Juliet because we have felt “I’ll die if I can’t have you” love. We would never go so far as murder, serial murder, or suicide but we understand the impulse behind them. I never went - would never have gone - as far as Andrews down the road to financial ruin but I could understand the basic impulse, the response to that unexplored realm of materialist plenty.

There’s just one problem. It looks like Andrews’ story was not a classic tragedy for our time but the oldest cliche in the book: a mid-life romance with the least suitable person he could find. According to Megan McArdle, Andrews’ “brainy, regal, sexy, fiery and eclectic” new wife Patty is a repeat bankrupt. She filed for bankruptcy in 1998 along with her first husband. Almost as soon as her eight-year waiting period was up, in 2007, she filed again. At this time she was already married to Andrews and although she attempted to file separately, his income was added to the filing at the insistence of a creditor.

Patty’s bankruptcy filings were not mentioned in Andrews’ New York Times article and according to McArdle are not mentioned in his book either. This is like Shakespeare forgetting to mention Iago, Lady Macbeth and the witches, and those two other guys who killed themselves over Juliet. Andrews is not a kid in the brand new candy store of financial excess: he’s a sane, sober economics writer who kicked over the traces just before his 50th birthday by marrying a woman who thrives on not just financial excess but financial chaos. He’s the pushing-50 bank manager who falls for an embezzler; the pushing-50 cop who is infatuated with the crook; the pushing-50 Baptist minister who marries the alcoholic. He’s sad and trite and because of the kids he’s even tragic. But he is not a cautionary tale about subprime mortgages, easy credit, predatory lending, or too many credit cards. He's not even a cautionary tale about greed. He’s just a guy who makes us yearn for the days when he would have gotten his hormonal rebellion out of his system by spending a little too much on a red convertible and hair plugs.

I have far less desire to read Andrews’ book than I did before I knew about Patty’s bankruptcies and if I do read it, I’ll be mostly looking for the things in the book that don’t quite make sense unless you know about his data dropout. I also no longer have any desire to hear Patty’s version of the story. I don’t consider her the villainess of the piece - she is what she is and always has been - but I no longer feel she came off badly in Andrews’ version. Besides she is as much of a cliche as he is.

However, I would still like to hear Patty’s former husband’s version of their economic adventures and, boy, would I love to hear what Andrews’ former wife has to say about their financial life together.

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