First a Coaster, then a falconer/central banker.
Mar 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 26 • By JOE QUEENAN
The stunt in Colombia led to one of my most successful ventures ever when a money-launderer in Bogota hooked me up with an IMF official in Zurich and I landed an assignment to work for a month at the federal reserve in Zimbabwe. Initially, President Mugabe’s people only wanted to see if I could cut the mustard as an interest-rate forecaster. Like Plimpton, when he’d gotten smacked around good and proper years earlier at training camp with the Detroit Lions, I expected to get my head handed to me. But no, I turned out to be pretty darned good at the sub-Saharan rate-forecasting game, and even helped bring down the Zimbabwean inflation rate to around 130,000 percent a week when I suggested that the government stop printing money on Thursdays and periodically move the decimal point three places to the left.
“That way, you can keep the public guessing,” I explained. I’m not saying that anyone would ever confuse me with John Maynard Keynes or Milton Friedman, but I certainly didn’t make a fool of myself, either.
After I plugged my story on the Colbert Report, I was slated to spend a month training as a bag man for the yakuza and write a story about it for AARP under the title “Overseas Retirement Options.” But then I got a call from the Treasury Department. Tim Geithner was really upset about the way his TARP program was being vilified by folks on the right and said that, provided I could guarantee major national exposure for my story, he would be willing to let me come down to Washington and work in his office for a month. That way, I could show the public that rescuing the global financial system wasn’t a piece of cake, that it wasn’t just a bunch of bozos from Dartmouth making all this stuff up on the spot.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that it was smooth sailing from the get-go. The first few days on the job I kept forgetting the difference between a run-of-the-mill credit swap and a reverse collateralized mortgage obligation—which really ticked off Larry Summers. “Get it straight, douche!” he snapped.
Let me tell you, that was a humbling experience. It was even worse when I admitted to Paul Volcker that I didn’t know what BofA stood for, and couldn’t entirely grasp the concept of “capital structure.” Then one day it all clicked. Just like the time I’d taken the crash golf course at the Grand Cypress Resort for GQ, and managed to land on the green in two after triple-bogeying the first two holes. I had my eureka moment at Treasury when Geithner stopped by and asked if I was starting to learn the ropes. For whatever reason, I suggested that the major U.S. banks be subjected to a stress test, that the policy of marking toxic assets to market henceforth be abolished, as it was spooking the public, and that the government immediately take over General Motors.
“Forcing Wagoner to walk the plank would send a positive message to Main Street that you’re serious about clearing up this mess,” I said. “And if Citigroup doesn’t get its act together, I’d ice that putz Pandit, too.”
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I knocked the ball out of the park every time during my brief stint at the Treasury. Heck, I was working with the best and the brightest; these people were scary-smart; they didn’t need a knucklehead like me to tell them how to fix the economy. But because I’d spent so many years as a stunt journalist, I got the hang of things pretty quickly. Moreover, restructuring the American economy is a whole lot easier than posing as a bloodthirsty Maoist guerrilla. To tell you the truth, it’s a whole lot easier than golf.
So in the end I didn’t do so badly. True, I screwed up when I told the Chinese ambassador that if he wasn’t happy with the dollar’s recent performance, he could take his own jerkwater currency and stick it where the sun don’t shine. And I probably could have come up with a better acronym than TARP if I’d really set my mind to it. But for the most part I did what I set out to do and I’m reasonably happy with the results. Geithner himself paid me the highest compliment when he told Barack Obama, “This guy picks things up so fast we should ship him to Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Jong-Il.”
But I know my limitations—and besides, I already had my next assignment lined up. Maxim is sending me out to the foothills of Pakistan to learn how to flog pint-sized teenaged girls. Luckily, it’s the moderate wing of the Taliban I’ll be working with out there. You know, the guys who can take a joke.
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.