I sit in wonderment at the story of W. Lance Anderson, the president of NovaStar Financial in Kansas City, who while handing out subprime mortgages to any applicant wearing shoes and a shirt managed to sink the company's stock from $40 in June to $1.72. This is a man who earned $1.7 million in salary and bonuses last year, plus $711,386 in deferred compensation, plus more dough in various arrangements that dopes like me can't quite grasp. Meanwhile, all the little investors in NovaStar are cutting back on Christmas gifts and canceling their winter vacations in Daytona Beach.
I myself would never invest money in a company headed by a man named W. Lance Anderson. The very name inspires distrust. What's the W for? Wolfgang? Whoopee? Weasel? A man who goes by W. Lance is likely to wear tinted glasses and two-toned shoes, smoke Kools, and have a gun fetish. Nonetheless, a small army of hopeful investors bought into the idea that you can make money on bad loans, and now they are left holding the bag while W. Lance goes on to his next great idea, perhaps a scheme for making purses from dog poop, and I wish him and his family well, but I will not be there for him at the IPO.
Something in my little brain resists the idea of big profits, windfalls, bonanzas. Maybe the story about the tortoise and the hare made too big an impression. Maybe it's the fact that a writer like me has to make one sentence at a time: There are no great leaps in this field unless you lift whole passages from other people's work, and there is an awful price to be paid for that.
Maybe it's due to the fact that back in my youth, the Anoka Tornadoes basketball team was riding high, aces in hand, a cinch to go to State, and we played St. Francis in the first round of the districts and the game was close, and in the last two minutes our heroes froze at the prospect of losing to those pimply-faced farmboys, and guess what? We lost. The memory is fresh, 50 years later. The Tornado who missed those two free throws with seconds remaining is now almost 70, and I imagine he thinks about it sometimes too. And I imagine he is a conservative investor.
Our high school teachers - some of them - tried to get us to Dare To Dream. They tried to sell us on the idea that we use only a fraction of our brain's capacity (one teacher said 10 percent and another said 2 percent, but he was probably thinking of the class before ours). I was floundering in physics and plane geometry, bored with English, struggling to remember the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, and I was supposed to get my 360-horsepower brain out of first gear, but how? Deep breathing? Wheaties, the Breakfast of Champions? Prayer? (O Lord who hath created this brain, we beseech Thee to rev it up a little.) I tried nicotine and caffeine and achieved some excitation, but smarter? Nooooo.
I now think the 10-percent- of-capacity theory is hogwash. I believe that we are doing about as well as we can do. I think the brain soaks up bits of information. Each fact you absorb squeezes out another - the name of Frank Sinatra's first big hit with the Dorsey band or the order of the minor prophets or the location of Ukiah, Calif. The brain is full. Learn one thing, lose another. In comes a song, out goes math.
The idea that time is wasting and our jets are idling and we must figure out the code and then we can take the great leap forward and fly up in the air - this is what inspires people to invest in the subprime mortgage business, or the Jerusalem artichoke, or the Florida time-share. It's what makes people see the Current Occupant as a conservative. He is no more conservative than I am Eleanor of Aquitaine. He saw an America of plodders and pluggers like me and he put the government at the service of the W. Lances among us and he appointed a whole regiment of W. Lances to high office and here we are, seven years later, holding the bag.
Garrison Keillor's column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.