Friday, February 13, 2009

can I have another cup of feces, sir?

O the zona, how it tickles our bones! I have often wondered how anyone could have bought into the delusion that buying an asset that goes up in price while the owners all have less real money to buy it could have ponzi schemed its way into the dreams of suburban America. Yet, looking back on the Great Fly’s golden years, one notices how consistent the illogic is – on the war and the excuses for it, on the deregulation and the excuses for it, and in the very hearts and privates of our glorious white collar sector. Premise and conclusion suffered an acrimonious and terrible divorce all across the land. This NYT story today sings a dirge that is as old as the one sung by the people of Hamelin as they watched the children disappear:

“WASHINGTON — The leap in wealth that Americans thought they were enjoying over the last several years has already turned out to be a mirage, according to new estimates by the Federal Reserve.

In its triennial survey of consumer finances, released Thursday, the Fed found that the median net worth of American households increased by a seemingly healthy 17 percent between the end of 2004 and the end of 2007.

But the gains were wiped out by the collapse in housing and stock prices last year. Adjusting for those declines, Fed officials estimated that the median family was 3.2 percent poorer as of October 2008 than it was at the end of 2004. The new survey offers one of the first glimpses of how American families were positioned financially as the roof fell in on the economy, and it provides some sense of how much wealth has been destroyed since then. Indeed, the destruction of wealth is still in full swing: housing prices are still falling, more than two years after the bubble peaked.”

Reading things like this, I have an irresistible urge to turn back the page and look at news stories from the golden years. Newspapers are the sensorium of the elect – they are ever so helpful in herding the mind towards the conclusion that all is for the best in this best of all possible fully vested hard charging innovative worlds. It is the allocation of our human cattle, er, capital that is truly entrancing. Leafing through the archive, I happened on a story by Robert Frank. Frank is the economist recently taken apart by Uwe Reinhardt for defending the compensations of the CEO class. But after all, Frank is, well, bribed to the gills by his own ideology, that peculiar mixture of servility and envy that is the ghost in the Freshwater economics machine. In 2007, Frank graced the WSJ with an excerpt from his book, Richistan. Here’s a bit of it:

“Denver -- Of all the skills taught here at Butler Boot Camp, none is more technically challenging than the Ballet of Service.
The Ballet, used only for formal dinner parties, requires four butlers to glide into a dining room with their silver platters and serve the guests in perfect sync. The climax of the performance is a move called the "crossover" -- a plate-juggling pas de deux in which the butlers slide one platter from their right to left hand with a quick body pivot, creating the illusion that the plate is suspended in midair while it's being transferred.

Every year, more than 50 students from around the country converge for boot camp at Starkey. Their aim is to become masters at the care and feeding of the rich.
For eight weeks, the students hole up inside the mansion to cook, clean, polish, dust, wash and fold. They learn how to iron a pair of French cuffs in seconds flat. They learn how to clip a 1926 Pardona cigar, how to dust a de Kooning canvas and whether to pair an oaky chardonnay with roasted free-range game hen. They learn how long it takes to clean a 45,000-square-foot mansion (20 to 30 hours depending on the art and antiques), where to find 1,020-thread-count sheets (, and how to design a "stationery wardrobe" -- envelopes and letterhead specially designed to reflect the owner's wealth and social standing. They will be taught that sable stoles should never be stored in a cedar closet (it dries them out), and that Bentleys should never, ever be run through the car wash.
Most of the students live in the Starkey mansion during Boot Camp, following Starkey's strict rules. Everyone has to wear the uniform of khakis, crisp white shirts, blue blazers and brown shoes. First names are banned; everyone is "Mr." or "Ms." to stress the importance of boundaries with their future employers. The students are required to rise from their seats every time a visitor enters the room. If there's a coffee cup that needs filling, a spoon that needs polishing or a visitor who needs welcoming, the Starkey students must spring into action. The Starkey students are so wired for service that when a class break is announced, they all pounce from their seats to fill each other's water glasses and coffee cups.
Most importantly, they learn never to judge their rich future employers, whom they call "principals." If a principal wants to feed her shih tzu braised beef tenderloin every night, the butler should serve it up with a smile. If a principal in Palm Beach, Fla., wants to send his jet to New York to pick up a Chateau LaTour from his Southampton cellar, the butler makes it happen, no questions asked.
Starkey students pay more than $12,000 for Boot Camp. While that may sound steep, a good Starkey graduate can start at $70,000 to $120,000 a year, not to mention free room and board. And butlering has become one of the fastest-growing occupations in the United States after more than a half-century of decline, driven by the greatest surge in American wealth in nearly a century. Over the past 10 years, the number of multimillionaire households has more than doubled. As of 2004, there were more than 1.4 million U.S. households worth at least $5 million and more than 530,000 worth more than $10 million, according to the Federal Reserve.”

In the zona, all the ancient wisdom is immediately turned into dross – and so judge not, lest ye be judged is turned into “they learn never to judge their rich future employers, whom they call "principals." ‘ Haven’t we all learned that lesson? It is a country for butlers.

To round off our merry romp through the country that learned to eat shit and ask for more, here’s a bit of an afterstory, from December, 2007:

“As the head of the prominent Denver-based Starkey International Institute of Household Management, Mary Louise Starkey has long been recognized for bringing professionalism to the butler industry. But the city's "First Lady of Service" has also become known among former students, staff and industry colleagues for alleged mismanagement, turmoil and physical altercations at her school ("At Your Disservice," August 9). Now Starkey, 58, has another blemish on her record: She was arrested at the Starkey mansion on November 13 under suspicion of felony second-degree assault.
It's true," says Gary Smith, Starkey International's Director of Placement and Client Services, when reached at the school shortly after the arrest. Smith declined to elaborate, saying, "You know, sir, I'd love to talk to you, but I am not going to do it."

The arrest arose out of an alleged incident on February 7. Former student Lisa Kirkpatrick claims that Starkey grabbed her roughly by the neck and shoved her face toward a mirror because Starkey was upset about her pupil's appearance that day. According to the November 13 arrest warrant, Starkey allegedly said, "I already told you twenty times not to have your picture taken until you have had your hair done!" shaking Kirkpatrick and slapping her on the arm. Several other students said they witnessed the episode.”

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