Don't Ask me Why Excerpt: Cookie
I slip into class behind and in front of a few others and settle into my back row perch. Vasiliauskas weaves and swaggers around the fuzzy brown room, hands clasped behind back. He has mailed it in—further, deeper, harder in. His morale has been beaten into a joyful, vaguely deranged ambivalence.
Today we’re talking about an uncomfortable topic: Sex with animals. Nah. Seriously, though. We’re discussing The Great Subprime Mortgage Crisis.
The financial crisis is an uncomfortable topic because of its implications on the futures in this room. I guess it’s something like lecturing a roomful of Cookie Monsters on the importance of a balanced, nutritious diet.
It’s like Just shut the fuck up and give me cookie, you know? I like cookie, I want to eat cookie, I have already decided that I will be eating fucking cookie. So just let me eat fucking stupid cookie in peace. Let me eat cookie with a clear conscience.
But, not so fast!
You see, you are here, here in The Hallowed Institution to have your ignorance replaced with answers. You can’t pick and choose which ones you get! You get ‘em all! The good, the bad, the inconvenient! That’s why you’re here. Isn’t that why you’re here?
“Zee crisees forms over zee courze of some years een zee meed-2000s. Over zees period, vee veetnessed drasteec declines een zee houseeng market of zee US along veeth videspread paneec across zee entire global financial seestem.”
Cookie. Cookie. Cookie.
“Yees. So, the reason zees topeec ees so eemportant to us, ees of course, zee bond. Vee are, as maybe zhew have heard, studyeeng zee feexed eencome. Zee feexed eencome ees videly regarded as zee mechaneesm at zee zource of zee financial crisees. Zat, and perhaps, a leetle beet of zee greed.”
He pauses, smiles, and appraises the fuzzy brown room.
“Does anyvun een our meedst have zee abeeleeties to deescribe zee crisees as zhew know eet?”
He ponders and unfurls his hands in mockshock.
“Vow! Meester Zuckerman. Zhew vant to answer my quescheen?”
Zuck darts around not sure if he’s been called on. He strengthens his hand against the fuzzy brownness.
“Vhy, proceed please.”
“Well, Mr. V. I can say a few things about the crisis. Of course, it was caused by a somewhat widespread mismanagement on the part of the financial services industry. A swift and enormous increase in housing prices and the continuing financialization of the mortgage payment came together to bring down large sectors of the economy. Homeowners lost because they could not pay their mortgages and the financial services industry lost because the derivatives on their books, which were tied to mortgages became worthless. Well Mr V., that’s a very short explanation, of course.”
“Yees, yees. Thank zhew Meester Zuckerman. A short explanaysheen, yees, but a vorthy vun, nonezeeless.”
I’m sitting in this fuzzy brown room after devoting a nontrivial portion of my life to calculating the price of financial instruments and sitting in fuzzy brown rooms. And many of my friends, who I really do like, have as well. And, you know, all those job interviews and following the path to success and all that shit. So. The cookie, please. The cookie without the Calories from Fat and the Corn Syrup and the Cream Product, please. Yes, it is true. A big part of me still just wants the cookie.
See, we don’t need this knowledge to enter our hippocampi. Or anyone’s for that matter. Because, once you learn something you’re fucked.
Yes. Knowledge is the ultimate excuse-crusher. Bad behavior by virtue of ignorance is just plain, simple, blissful ignorance. Self-aware bad behavior is much more of a moral pain in the ass.
Because, of course, no one enjoys reevaluating a worldview that serves them well.
And that’s not just us. No way is that just us. We don’t have a monopoly on this sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes confrontational, sometimes violent reaction to incredibly inconvenient knowledge. Nah. We’re right next to everyone who ever thought they were right, right next to everyone who ever needed to be right, right next to everyone.
Right next to the priests and the Clives, right next to the choicelessly unsure frat bros and right next to the militant social justice warriors. Right next to the book banners and the colonizers and the oil drillers and the slaveowners. Right next to everyone who ever had an online romance with a member of the Nigerian royal family. Right next to the dictator who invented sunlight and French fries. Stuck too deep, set too firm, and living out a story that’s been written long in advance.
Just a bunch of people being too damn certain of their conception of the way of things—and too damn uncomfortable with the alternatives.
It’s the reason we have wars, man. It’s the reason we get angry. It’s the reason we’d prefer not to watch videos of rotisserie chickens, back when they were alive, being passed through electric water bath stunners. We just don’t want to be wrong. We simply don’t want to reevaluate. What’s the point of questioning what’s already true?
The thing is, certainty and ignorance are close bros. They sit on the same side of a circular table. The big difference being that, when someone loses their ignorance they feel illuminated—like when they discover French fries or sex. Because ignorance is the lack of opinion and certainty is the ultimate opinion, discovery for the ignorant is a gain. But, discovery for the certain is a gain and a loss. It’s an admission brought on by that forced reevaluation. So, when someone loses their certainty they feel confusion, loss of identity, personal inferiority, and all the other afflictions of I don’t know. What certainty really becomes—its main function—is uncertainty avoidance.
Point is, this right here is a moment. This simple scene represents everything that education is supposed to be. This is a moment to test certainty. Sure, it’s a moment all clouded by the fuzzy-brown-seemingly-inconsequential nature of it, but it’s still a moment.
In the midst of this moment, the hardest core among us continue to fuck around on their laptops. They’re deadlocked into blissful ignorance. Good for them. Seriously.
So Vasiliauskas meanders through Mortgage Backed Securities, Collateralized Debt Obligations, ratings agencies, Swaps, Fannie, Freddie, interest rates, the ebbs and flows of key pricing metrics, and the epic rise, fall, and resurrection of financial civilization. He’s good. I trust him.
As Mr. V wraps up his story that girl from the back raises a triumphant hand—her Like hand, her Love hand, her Retweet hand.
A non-Zuckerman question!
“So, like, after all that, who was wrong here?”
“Vell. Zat ees a matter of zee opeenion, of course. I suppose vee can say… Vell, vat do zhew seenk, Mees?”
“Umm. I mean, I think you could say that the people buying the homes were kind of irresponsible. But, then, you could kind of say that the people who offered them those loans were irresponsible. But, well, I guess the rating agencies too, with the super-high and misleading ratings. And, kind of the insurance agencies and then the Federal Reserve, cause they set the interest rates too high. And kind of the bankers who pushed the bonds. Umm. I guess now that I think about it… everyone was kind of wrong. Woah.”
Vasiliauskas claps, kind of—more like in the way you’d turn on a clap light. “Yees, eet ees true, vat zhew have said Mees. Eet can certainly be argued zat everyvun, perhaps, vas wrong.”
Throw the opposing forces of right and wrong and good and bad together into some sort of electric field or centrifuge. What happens? Which ones stick together? Is right always good? Is wrong always bad? Is right good? Is good right? Will the forces of wrong and bad clingingly embrace each other like some nefarious, pathetic elemental bond? Are they the same?
Because right and wrong are relative concepts. Same with good, same with bad.
So, forgive them.
There’s no formula for living your life. No one else has ever done it.
Forgive us. Forgive Vasiliauskas. Forgive Zuckerman. Forgive me, whatever I do. There isn’t any science for this shit. If you choose the Lexus and the cube, if you insert yourself full force into the disintegration of the American Dream, if you buy a snake, if you manage a supply chain, if you pray, if you watch Lopez Tonight on mute in the middle of the day, if you crush a ping pong table with your body, if you laugh at someone who does that, if you answer the phone Namaste, if you follow all the rules and all the conventions and all the should-dos, if you break all the rules and all the conventions and all the should-dos, if you eat the cookie, whatever you choose. You’re not right or wrong. It is what it is.
They’re your choices. But, just remember. You have to face the world with your choices.
How much can you take?