Tuesday, June 2, 2015

University of Chicago Horror Story or....the Fall of the House of Friedman.

This is the reading room of the William Rainey Harper library, the under-graduate library at the University of Chicago. Kind of pretty huh – well we’ll see how pretty it looks to you after you’ve heard my tale. Because it was here, well just outside here, that I made one of the most shocking discoveries of my young life – one that would change me forever. I had just matriculated the U of C fully intending to get my Phd in Economics until - realizing that Phd meant you had to actually understand calculus rather than just pass the class - I settled for that "Gentleman's C" of degrees: the MBA.

As career and money minded harlots in the high temple of academe we MBAs were held in a certain amount of contempt. Because while we were reasonably smart and hard working we were also terribly normal. And of course there was that odd spot of bother that most of had with the calculus. I realized that I wasn't in Kansas anymore the first day that I moved into my apartment just off campus. I ran into my next door neighbor on the elevator and after introductions I asked him what he was studying and he said "linguistics" to which I replied "that's cool, which language?". He reacted as if I had Ebola: he stepped back and his face turned bright red as he hissed "It's Ling-Guist-ics! Not languages!"

"Oh, ah, so I see...um so what is the difference exactly?"

At that he fled towards his room muttering sinister imprecations about "fucking MBAs" or something to that effect. I never saw him again - I believe he asked to be transferred to another apartment because before I knew it he had been replaced by this nice evangelical Christian Japanese couple - or at least they strummed evangelical tunes with Japanese words which I assumed were Jesus oriented. In other words: more freaks who disturbed the intensely secular and intellectual karma of all the other Maroons.

Because that was what we were: Maroons. You see the U of C was founded with a huge check from John D. Rockefeller Junior. Junior had a knack for giving away money that was at least as brilliant as his dad’s was for making it and it was the University’s good fortune to be standing directly underneath him when he gushed forth. This is one of the reasons that the University of Chicago is tied with Cambridge University in England for the most Nobel Laureates associated with a University despite being one tenth as old. Because when JD Jr. brassed up the other big name US universities were all busily climbing the social register – sneering, discriminating and oppressing while prioritizing the admission of callow white boys who had as they so quaintly put it: “sand”. Although why they wanted so many beachcombers I do not know. So for many years Chicago got all of the smart kids who hadn’t been to the beach resulting in a lot of the sort of prizes that smarty pants win.

So what was I talking about again? Ah, yes Maroons: it turns out that at the time of the great Rockefeller Money Flood Harvard was considered the primo college brand and since they were called the Crimsons the branding geniuses at U of C HQ decided: “hey, Maroon is a drab imitation of Crimson so let’s brand ourselves as a drab imitation of Harvard” – they might have been geniuses at calculus but they didn’t know squat about marketing. Nor had they ever seen a Bugs Bunny cartoon. What a bunch of maroons.

So the other Maroons really looked down on us MBAs even more than they looked down on the budding shysters over in the law school - which hurt our feelings not at all because if all those flaky maroons thought lawyers were swell then we sure as hell didn’t want them to think we were. Which is probably one of the reasons we came up with the idea for “Liquidity Preference Functions” in the first place - the liquidity preference is a concept in financial economics that says ceteris paribus (not that it ever is) people would rather have a five spot in their pocket than an IOU from their loser brother in law because they can use the five spot to fulfill their real liquidity preference for alcohol while no one in their right mind would take the idiot B in L’s marker for love or money or more to the point for that alcohol - which of course wasthe point of our Liquidity Preference Functions. And when the weather was nice we held them out of doors in the quadrangle in front of Stuart Hall which was the old neo Gothic pile where all of the B School’s lectures were held. It was also right below the undergraduate reading room of the William Rainey Harper library – command central for the strangest mob of undergraduate matriculants ever to matriculate with their pants on.

Imagine the scene: It’s five pm on a Friday in September at least four weeks before midterms. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and the beer is flowing. The stereo system is pumping out the Rolling Stones Tattoo You album at collegiate decibel-age and the boy ‘n girl MBAs are starting to get their weekend college grooves on, something that at least half of us hadn’t experienced since the last time we were in college and had dreamed about almost every night since (OK, maybe it was just me but still). And what did we hear through Mick Jagger’s wails? the shouts and curses of undergraduates from library windows far above us. Shouting at us to turn the music down and go inside. Naturally we thought this was just undergrads pulling our chain because they wanted some of our beer so we pointed out that any girl could come down and get beer for free and under duress said that any guy she was with could have some too (the business school was seriously short of women and none of the women we had were interested in undergraduate men, well…boys really) - but they didn’t come down, not even the chicks. They didn’t want our beer, they didn’t want to meet a bunch of studs who were this close to making the big bucks. They didn’t want us at all. They wanted to study. No, honest. I am not making this up. Ask anyone who was there.

And that’s not all because the story gets even darker. Not only did they want to study, they wanted us, the noble, normal ones to go. So they called the cops on us. On a Friday at five thirty pm in September when the birds were singing and the sun was shining and the beer was flowing. And did I point out that the beer was free to almost all comers? When the cops arrived we of course gave them a snootful which they happily quaffed as they explained sorrowfully that we would have to go. We said “Aw C’mon” to which they responded with sheepish, outstretched arms as if to say “we agree with you brilliant MBAs and would prefer to drink beer, meet women and rock on with you and we do not understand the bizarre aliens jeering at us from upstairs any more than you do but we work for bizarre aliens just like them only worse so to keep our jobs we’ll just take your beer and make you go inside.” It was that bad. Even the cops were trapped in the darkness. Cops who wouldn’t – couldn’t hang with us and show the girls their cool guns or even make their sirens go "woop woop". Dark times I tell you, dark times.

And that searing experience has colored my perspective on life to this very day. Because if undergraduates at an accredited college at five o’clock on a Friday a full four weeks before midterms when the sun is shining and the birds are singing and the beer is flowing for free turn it down to study more (did I point out that it was Friday evening four weeks before midterms?) then the world is a much darker and less comprehensible place than I had believed possible. It’s a place where Muslims can chop people’s heads off with kitchen knives and viruses can cross oceans and freak governors out. It’s even a world where lawyers (!) not only can become President but have the inside track to all that power (!??) despite (obviously) being the functional equivalent of crooks..

No, I'm afraid my innocence died that day in Chicago amidst the free beer, Rolling Stones and hysterical jeering freshmen, never to return again. May God have mercy on our Souls

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