Timothy Noah and Marjorie Williams

On Quantity and Quality
An email conversation about the news of the day.
July 22 1998 10:41 AM

Timothy Noah and Marjorie Williams


Dear Tim,


Thanks for pointing me to Alain de Botton's op-ed in today's Times. Like you, I loved it--though I note that he doesn't quite belly up to the question of whether he likes Ulysses. (Or, indeed, of whether he's read it.) I liked his nicely-turned observation that "The modern book lover is condemned to a nauseating feeling of under-readness." It's true that it can, as he writes, be more satisfying to spend a great deal of time knowing one book well (I give you Howards End) than to try in vain to read everything. Once I spent a whole term in high school, with a tyro of a teacher, reading the first three pages of The Great Gatsby. We wrote papers about what foul dust floated in the wake of Gatsby's dreams; we discussed our platonic conceptions of ourselves; we prepared an elaborate picnic as a way of mimicking riotous excursions into the human heart. (I recall being assigned to make elaborate cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off; it only occurred to me recently that perhaps the teacher was simply tired of cafeteria food.)

Anyway, de Botton's piece emboldens me to lay down the heavy burden of my secret indifference to the writings of William Faulkner.

My other favorite piece in today's paper is on the Times business front: an update on the fortunes of the Merrill Lynch broker who drove Orange County into bankruptcy by selling its treasurer on high-risk investments. While the Orange County executives responsible ended up losing their jobs and pleading guilty to criminal charges, Stamenson is still earning $750,000 a year from Merrill Lynch in salary and bonuses--despite the fact that Merrill Lynch had to cough up more than $400 million in settlements for leading its client astray. ("Mr. Stamenson no longer enjoys an income that once came to around $3 million a year," the Times writes, adding with a straight face, "but he is still paid more than most Americans.")

Briefly, it was Stamenson who first saw gold in the hills of municipal finance, a sleepy backwater at the time he began selling clients on exotic investments like derivatives. There were some executives inside Merrill Lynch who warned that clients like Orange County were courting disaster (to the eventual tune, it turned out, of $1.6 billion), but the upper echelons at the brokerage ignored the warnings. And this is why they continue to embrace Stamenson, who might otherwise be a dangerous witness against them. Today's piece is a great look at Merrill-Lynch's corporate culture, which tapped Stamenson to star in a training videotape. Salesman, he told the new recruits, must have the "tenacity of a rattlesnake, the heart of a black widow spider and the hide of an alligator."

Though Stamenson has hung on to his three homes, there's rough justice in the world: apparently he spends all his time now giving depositions.

Haven't had time to get to the elevator story, but I'll read it this afternoon. I like your notion that New York's come-back is overrated: let's give this more thought.






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