"Complified and Simplicated"

Ain't language grand? I have James Thurber to thank for that lively nugget above. And Wall Street to thank for this recent linguistic gem: “High Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Leverage Fund”. No matter that, having worked on Wall Street in my misbegotten earlier years, I still can't make heads or tails out of that moniker. Apparently no one else can either, which may be why it recently had to be bailed out to the tune of $1.6 billion in order to forestall a nasty bankruptcy. Did they really expect to succeed with $600. million dollars to invest and $6 billion of debt? Oh, I forgot, they were planning to pass these bad ass-ets on to the unsuspecting public with an IPO called "Everquest Financial", apparently without revealing that many of those assets had already undergone drastic reductions in value.

I saw Wall Street in the seventies, where chauvinism was glorified and women disdained. It was an era when women couldn't bring their clients to breakfast at a local restaurant (men only, but there's a diner down the street, dear). When the Exchange Club which invited me to be their first female member, was threatened with expulsion by the national Board unless they demoted me to an “Exchangette”. When major clients were regularly stolen from women account executives because “everyone knew that deals were made in the men's locker room”.

Stepping back to the sixties, an editor at the Daily Reckoning describes the City of London (similar to New York's Wall Street): “Oh, it was so quaint and so civilized. The partners all wore Derby hats. And a butler would bring around tea twice a day. At 11 and at 4. He wore a morning coat and served the tea, with white gloves, on a silver platter. After tea-time, everyone went home.”

Now the financial shenanigans continue around the clock. No tea and crumpets. But plenty of hot air dished out as financial wisdom. Now you can lose big bucks faster and more elegantly than every before. It's a neat circle: Google makes you rich. Hedge funds make you itch. Most of us thought the enshrinement of debt ended with the imprisonment of Michael Milken, but mischief is much more pervasive than a mere prison term. (Even Milken didn't learn much behind bars: apparently he violated his parole by serving as a consultant and was fined $42. million for the transgression). Now the butlers of Wall Street are serving debt to the unsuspecting and the unwitting, which unfortunately seems to include a fair number of banks and public retirement funds that really should know better. Caroline Baum who writes for Bloomberg News describes these securities as "home loans pooled into mortgage-backed bonds packaged into collateralized debt obligations carved up into tranches combined to form other CDOs". Now there's a tasty mouthful.

Maybe it's asking too much to expect even professionals to delve deeper into the mechanics of some of these complex instruments of finance. Gunter Grass calls it “peeling the onion”. Taken to heart it would surely bring tears to the eyes of the brokerage industry.

And what about the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue? The Veep doesn't have to answer to congress because he “serves as president of the Senate, which means that his office is not an 'entity within the executive branch.'” This linguistic tap dance was offered by White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, as reported by the Washington Post. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin's response is unequivocal: “Vice President Cheney is expanding the administration's policy on torture to include tortured logic. In the end, neither Mr. Cheney or his staff is above the law or the Constitution.”

Maybe they failed to grasp what “is” is. Then again, maybe it's naïve to think that either Wall Street or the White House deals in truth and crumpets. I certainly don't expect white gloves and a silver tray. But a little bit of complified and simplicated language would be a relief.

On the other hand, what kind of demented king would delight in a pie full of dead blackbirds? Is a sweet crust hiding a nasty truth worse than a crusty critic who can't bother to hide his venom? John Simon, writing for Bloomberg.com, had this to say about Sarah Ruhl's new play at the Second Stage Theater in New York: "I have never had a worse time than during these 90 interminable, intermissionless minutes of a play that, were it a lamp post, dogs would shun."

Somewhere between complified and simplicated, between teetor and totter, there lies a balance. We seem to have difficulty finding it these days.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2007