The The New York Times Magazine, on 6/11 at least, is all about money. You know, the folding green stuff. Jackson Lears has a piece about The American Way of Debt. Being the excellent historian he is, Lears dissects the anti-debt jeremiads and discovers that Americans have always been quick to going into hock:
But as the history of debt in America shows, condemnations of extravagance can obscure more than they illuminate. The equation of debt and decline assumes that once upon a time Americans lived within their means and saved for what they bought. This is fantasy: there never was a golden age of thrift. Debt has always played an important role in Americans’ lives â€” not merely as a means of instant gratification but also as a strategy for survival and a tool for economic advance.
The American Way of Debt
But that’s not all. Remember the Lehigh University student who robbed a bank, reportedly to pay off his poker debts? If not, this might remind you:
Greg Hogan Jr. was on tilt. For months now, Hogan, a 19-year-old Lehigh University sophomore, had been on tilt, and he would remain on tilt for weeks to come. Alone at the computer, usually near the end of one of his long online gambling sessions, the thought “I’m on tilt” would occur to him. Dude, he’d tell himself, you gotta stop. These thoughts sounded the way a distant fire alarm sounds in the middle of a warm bath. He would ignore them and go back to playing poker. “The side of me that said, ‘Just one more hand,’ was the side that always won,” he told me months later. “I couldn’t get away from it, not until all my money was gone.” In a little more than a year, he had lost $7,500 playing poker online.
“Tilt” is the poker term for a spell of insanity that often follows a run of bad luck. The tilter goes berserk, blindly betting away whatever capital he has left in an attempt to recoup his losses. Severe tilt can spill over past the poker table, resulting in reputations, careers and marriages being tossed away like so many chips. This is the kind of tilt Hogan had, tilt so indiscriminate that one Friday afternoon this past December, while on his way to see “The Chronicles of Narnia” with two of his closest friends, he cast aside the Greg Hogan everyone knew â€” class president, chaplain’s assistant, son of a Baptist minister â€” and became Greg Hogan, the bank robber.
On Dec. 9, 2005, Hogan went to see “Narnia” with Kip Wallen, Lehigh’s student-senate president, and Matt Montgomery, Hogan’s best friend, in Wallen’s black Ford Explorer. Hogan, who was sitting in front, asked Wallen to find a bank so he could cash a check, and Wallen pulled over at a small, oatmeal-colored Wachovia. Inside, Hogan paused at the counter for a moment and then joined the line. He handed the teller a note that said he had a gun, which was a bluff. “Are you kidding?” her face seemed to say. He did his best to look as if he weren’t. With agonizing slowness, she began assembling the money. Moments later, a thin sheaf of bills appeared in the tray: $2,871. Hogan stuffed it into his backpack, turned around and walked back out to the car.
The Hold-‘Em Holdup
I’m waiting for someone to shift the blame for the holdup from poker to Narnia.
There’s a great comic-style illustration of Hogan’s slide in crime. It is eerily reminiscent of this 19th century series of lithographs about an earlier young gambler’s descent into madness.
A historian of Lears’ stature is able to rebut fears about current runaway debt by elegantly tracing the historical patterns of borrowing. I, on the other hand, see a somewhat hokey comic strip, and link to a series of lithographs with sarcastic captions. I’m guessing that I have a great, great deal of maturing as a scholar ahead of me.
Still, where else can you read about “a stern moralist in a silky komono?”