Notes from an MBA reunion

Lovely piece by Megan McArdle in The Atlantic about the 10-year reunion of her University of Chicago MBA class.

I have a theory about what happened to us, and our nation: when too much money is piled together in one place, it starts to decay, and as it does, it emits some sort of unidentified chemical that short-circuits the parts of your brain controlling common sense. When my class matriculated in 1999, ads for a firm called Discover Brokerage featured a tow-truck driver whose passenger notices in the cab a picture of the home—an island—that the driver has purchased with his fabulous online-trading profits. The passenger looks taken aback while the driver muses, “Technically, it’s a country.”

What’s even more amazing than the fact that this ad was ever made is that this sort of triple-distilled balderdash could intoxicate a large group of very smart people at one of the nation’s top finance schools.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: none of us was simpleminded enough to take those ads literally. Oh, ho-ho, no, not us! No, we made only the most erudite and sophisticated sorts of mistakes, like gang-rushing banking internships, and telling ourselves we were “consumption smoothing” as we used student loans to finance vacations. Believe it or not, many of us talked frequently about the echoes of 1929—but we still didn’t necessarily act on that insight, as the markets cratered in the early 2000s.

For my summer 2000 internship at Merrill Lynch, I chose the technology-banking group despite having watched the March 2000 NASDAQ crash from the lobby of Merrill’s auditorium, where we were supposed to be undergoing orientation. Ignoring the helpless, angry flapping of the HR staff, a bunch of us spent the afternoon telling nervous jokes and watching the eerie flicker that billions of dollars give off when they evaporate on live TV.

Predictably, the technology-banking group had almost no work. Also, I was not a good fit with Merrill’s very conservative, very competitive culture. I felt as if I’d decided to intern with a mathematically gifted baboon tribe, and I’m sure they were just as puzzled by me. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get a full-time offer. Having learned my lesson, I very sensibly turned around and took a full-time job upon graduation at … a technology-strategy consultancy. I got laid off even before the bankers.

I love that metaphor of Merrill Lynch staff as “a mathematically gifted baboon tribe”. But I’ve been reading Michael Lewis’s wonderful book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, and as a result I would delete the “gifted” part and just stick with the baboons. Except that that’s a bit hard on baboons. And they live in troops, not tribes.