What He Believes

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Dee Ann, a former student of mine, called last week. She believes she’s getting a buyout from her company. So, she said, she’s thinking about switching careers and/or going back to school. Would I write her the letter of recommendation I promised? "Of course," I said.

During our conversation, she reminisced about her time in the business writing class I taught. "It’s helped me a lot," she exclaimed. "I was proofreading, and even writing, memos and reports for senior executives. I should’ve charged them a fee."

"I wouldn’t blame you if you did."

"All those skills, all those techniques you taught, have served me well. But there’s one thing you mentioned that I’ll never, ever forget."

"Really? What’s that?"

"Credit," she intoned. "When you told us what it meant…"

"It’s Latin for u2018he believes, ‘" I reminded her.

"Yes! Ever since I understood that I’ve never been able to see the economy — in fact, all of society — the same way as I did before."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, now I understand — that’s what credit is. If someone lends me or you money, that person is acting in the belief that you or I will pay it back, with interest," she explained.

"You’re right about that. "

"But you know, there’s even more belief than that. Not only does the banker — or whoever — think he’s getting the money back with interest, the person borrowing it believes he or she will be able to afford the payments."

"Even after they double, as happened with the adjustable-rate mortgage. They believed they could pay…"

"Or they just didn’t think about it," she observed.

She went on to explain that companies all over the world bought "packages" full of the "toxic" loans, believing that they would be paid back and provide a good return on the investment.

"They all believed, whether or not they examined the things in which they put their faith," I mused.

"And here we are…"

Our conversation reminded me of a sermon I heard many years ago, at my uncle’s funeral. He died, suddenly, of a heart attack, at the same age I am now. "He told me he believed in Jesus," the priest recalled of my uncle. "If that’s what he believes in, that’s what he has now. Whatever you believe in, that’s all you’ll have in the end. If you believe in money, that’s what you’ll have. (By the way, if you do, don’t leave it behind: Your relatives will only fight over it.) If you believe in pleasure in this moment, that’s what you’ll have when you leave this world, this moment. But if you believe in Jesus, that is what you will have when the Lord recalls you. Just remember: Be careful of what you believe in, because that is all you’ll ever have."

That priest was well on in years when he exhorted me and my other surviving family members about how we should live. So I’m guessing that he’s long dead. But, even though I’m not religious, I can hardly think of anyone who could better speak to our current situation.

"Be careful of what you believe, or believe in" I reminded Dee Ann.

"Yeah. Just look at all those guys who thought they were so smart. Where are they now?"

"And the guys who manipulated the system are the ones with the platinum parachutes."

"But they didn’t believe," she intoned. "They just played on everyone’s beliefs."

"And the ones who believed…"

"They’re stuck with it now," she said.

"Yeah, be careful of what you believe in." I couldn’t say it any better than that priest. I don’t think anyone who worked at Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG or Washington Mutual could, either. All we have left are their beliefs — and our complicity with them.

Justine Nicholas [send her mail] is recovering from the year she spent as an academic administrator.

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