Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008
The Year of Living Stupidly
By Joel Stein
In a disaster, the key is to remain calm and make informed choices. If you're a dork. Disaster is actually a great excuse to do whatever you want. What is a riot if not a chance to grab a free flat screen?
So with the Great Depression II: Greater and Furiouser™ approaching, this was a year of massive risk-taking. At every turn, we used chaos as an opportunity to take the nest egg and gamble it--but only after leveraging that nest egg with complicated derivatives that would famously come back to bore the crap out of us. (See the top 10 everything of 2008.)
How crazy did we get? Our presidential election came down to a woman and a black guy, as if the presidency were no more important than those last two Supreme Court seats at the end of the bench. The Republicans picked their Vice President using the same criterion as guys in an Alaskan bar: by going for the only chick there. Sarah Palin got a $150,000 makeover when it was obvious to everyone outside the party that John McCain needed it more. As the year went on, people got even more entranced by risk, placing their roulette bets on green. Barack Obama picked Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State. Heidi married Spencer. Coors got rid of Zima.
When Obama faced the Rev. Jeremiah Wright scandal, instead of denying or attacking, he led a serious discussion about race--something that has never worked after the first semester of sophomore year. Mitt Romney made a similarly brave gambit when posing with some black children on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and opening the dialogue by saying, "Who let the dogs out? Who! Who!" The nation's fastest-rising politician, Joe the Plumber, got his start with the gutsy decision to ask for a tax break that he didn't remotely qualify for. Even crazier, opponents of gay marriage in California bought ads claiming kids would be taught gayness in schools, when everyone knows kids don't get taught anything in California schools. (See TIME's Person of the Year, People Who Mattered, and more.)
Governor Rod Blagojevich, already under suspicion for looking and dressing like a Serbian warlord, publicly dared people to wiretap him, insisting all they'd hear him discussing was what the Cubs should do in the off-season. Baseball things like taking government money in return for firing Chicago Tribune writers who hate him. When what the Cubs really need is a starting pitcher.
Danger-seeking was so popular that somehow pirates came back. Someone gave Don Imus a radio job. When investment banks crumbled, we decided to hand over $700 billion to Henry Paulson, who used to run an investment bank. It was the kind of year when a famous football player could think, Sure, I've drunk a lot and have a loaded gun in my pants, but the music in this club makes me want to put my hands in my pockets and dance!
Never before had non-French, non-soap-opera-character wife cheaters been so bold. After learning about the intricacies of prostitution rings by busting them, Eliot Spitzer sought out a girlfriend experience with a prostitute who is an aspiring singer with a MySpace account. He would have been more discreet making love to a screen live on CNN, as John King did. The mayor of Detroit communicated with his mistress by text-messaging, a form of communication so obviously insecure that the President is not allowed to do it and teenagers are.
Other countries seemed just as insane. The President of Georgia dared the Russians to attack, which always results in invasion unless there is someone else at the exact same moment daring Russians to drink. And Canadians held countrywide protests demanding a new election--even though they'd just had one. When Canadians start acting crazy, America should fit itself for a giant straitjacket.
Who wasn't taking risks? The banks. When the government gave them money to get them lending again, they pretended that they would hand it out as per the agreed-upon rules, and when no one was looking, they smartly held on to all of it, which we all know is the only real way to win Monopoly.
The other person suddenly not taking risks is Obama. He hired old, experienced staffers--one of whom is so old, he was, impossibly, the Fed chairman before Alan Greenspan. It is possible that he's vetting people from Lincoln's Cabinet. Obama's economic scheme isn't to buy up vast amounts of mortgage-backed securities but to fix old roads and bridges. This is a guy who not only understood how to roll the dice in 2008 but might also have a good idea what we're going to be like for the next few years. We're probably all out of risks for a while.