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If the 90s were the 60s

First performed in a bookstore in Gleeb, Australia in 1995

 

I had just wanted a job. That morning, I’d rode the CalTrain to San Francisco to interview at Bank of America for a "management trainee" program I’d seen advertised on campus. My interviewer had taken apart his electric pencil sharpener, and as he asked me questions he attempted to reassemble the device, which he admitted he had shorted out by absent mindedly inserting a ball point pen during the previous interview. He wanted to know where I saw myself in 5 years. As a philosophy major in college I’d learned the unfortunate habit of attempting to answer such big questions honestly, often at the sake of brevity or conciseness. He just wanted to know did I want to loan money or invest money, but my response wandered from the failure of hope as a metaphor to the 7,000 ton mushroom spore recently found underneath Michigan.

I left the building feeling lost, my head hanging off my shoulders. Was there a place in the world for a man of principle and conviction? I wasn’t watching where I was going and I bumped into a crowd. On the broad marbled plaza on the corner of Kearny and California there was some sort of protest going on. Wearing placards and sandwich boards that said "BofA loans to communists", seemingly ordinary businessmen and businesswomen were marching around a small fire they had lit in a wheelbarrow. Atop the fire, on a pole, they were burning an effigy or vodoo doll of Bank of America’s bald-headed CEO and Chairman, AJ Claussen. KRON and KTVU cameras were taking it all in. A small piece of paper flew out of the fire and landed at my feet. I picked it up by the unburned corner and saw that it was a bearer share of Bank of America Class A common stock, which—I had done some homework for my interview—was worth about $60, a lot of money. I waved it in the air frantically, trying to get the flame to go out, when the KRON cameras turned on me and the riot police broke through the crowd.

We were taken to the supplemental jailhouse in Alameda in a yellow school bus, and on my way down 980 I met my fellow accused. The Stockholder Liberation Army was a terrorist outfit that applied guerilla tactics to force staid Blue Chip corporations to take the necessary, sometimes harsh steps to maximize shareholder value. The SLA received covert, untraceable funding from angry mutual funds and pension plans who held such large blocks of stock that they couldn’t sell their holdings without further driving down the price. I couldn’t tell if they were true young republican zealots or if they were just doing it for the money, although one guy did have "T. Boone Pickens" tattooed on the back of his hand and one pregnant woman swore that the father of her baby was Peter Lynch, the Magellan Fund guru who had told a whole generation of Americans to tune in to the market, turn on to stocks, and drop out of cash.

The cops held us for the night. They didn’t have enough cells so we stretched out on the floor of the booking room, watching a television tuned to CNN flashing nonstop social turmoil. Cops were shooting kids in Miami and muslim soldiers were bombing UN relief missions in Yugoslavia and the government of Ethiopia was starving its own people. The world seemed beyond hope, beyond help. I crawled up in a ball and began to shake. Then someone handed me an old tattered paperback book, which I cracked open and began to browse, and succeeded to read all through the night. It blew my mind away, rocked me to the core. The book was Milton Friedman’s Market Forces, and it offered an alternative view of history than the one I had been taught. Philosophy is predicated on an unspoken assumption, which is that wars get bigger and more destructive each century, and sometime—perhaps soon—all of civilization will be detonated. But Freidman made me see that war was being replaced by commerce and free markets. Self-interest was not something to be afraid of, it was somethng to be embraced. It did not lead to chaos and armageddon; rigorous pursuit of self-interest would lead to economic order and credit cards for all. By the time the sun came up the next morning, my mind was clear: if I wanted to do my part to bring calm to the world, I would join the forces of capitalism and heed the doctrine of stockholder liberation.

The SLA had taken a lease on the 33rd floor of the BofA building, posing as a real estate holdings firm. I was given a standard issue blue wool suit and a haircut. We were served two high-protein meals a day in a makeshift dininghall rigged from an old conference room. At night we rode the cable car up Nob Hill, where the SLA had rented boarding rooms by the week. I wasn’t given a salary, but every two weeks a few more shares of BofA stock were transferred into a Schwab account in my name. We had every incentive to bring Claussen down.

My first move was to go after the mainframe computer system. Dedicated high baud NTSC modem lines ran through the elevator shaft, and I was able to splice in a terminal, giving us limited access to their dataway. We couldn’t break the password codes that would have let us fuck with account balances, but I programmed a computer virus so that every time someone used an ATM, the LED screen displayed the message "Your account is being charged five dollars to execute this transaction." Within days it had become a huge public embarassment for BofA. Claussen had to run a full page ad in the Chronicle, apologizing for the confusion. The stock dropped six points and the Sacamento Bee ran an editorial urging Claussen to resign. I was named SLA "Operative of the Month" and my picture went up on the lunchroom refrigerator.

Now Claussen had one real soft spot as a CEO. He had a bizarre fetish for physically watching the volumes of checking deposits travel through their system. Most banks had moved their central paper processing divisions into low overhead rural areas, but BofA was still processing 20% of its volume through the 32nd floor just so that Claussen could come downstairs every evening on his way home and gloat over the automatic letter openers. That’s right, the 32nd floor. One night we pulled up the carpet, pried off the floorboards, moved aside a ceiling tile and dropped right down on Claussen’s favorite viewing point. I sent him unconscious with a blow dart to his fatty neck, administering 2 cc’s of chromium mentathol. When he woke up in a windowless room, he had no idea he was still inside his own corporate headquarters. It was the last place they would look for him.

"What do you want?" he gasped.

I took him by the tie and gave him a yank. He knew darn well what we wanted. The board to resign, a shareholders meeting to be held, and a new board elected. An SLA operative was calling the television stations that very moment.

"You’re just a kid," he blurted. "What the hell do you know about how a bank should be run?"

I wasn’t going to discuss this with a man who couldn’t manage a lemonade stand. I went upstairs to check on the negotiations. On the television, board member Richard Rosenberg told Dan Rather that they would never negotiate with the SLA, for it would only encourage us more. We weren’t surprised when an hour later Rosenberg called on the SLA’s 800 number and made a counter-offer: the board wouldn’t resign, but it would fire Claussen, elect Rosenberg as CEO, and pay us $20 million in greenmail from a fund to prevent hostile takeovers.

Twenty million would buy us our own private jet, someone said.

"That’s bullshit," I cried. "They can’t buy us off."

We argued. Rosenberg’s a Claussen clone, I protested, but I was drowned out by the excitement. Twenty million would buy us a base of operations in the Cayman Islands. Or better yet, someone else suggested, with twenty million we could buy an auto parts retail chain to launder money through.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Twenty million was only an infinitessimal fraction of the BofA equity loss since ‘81—we could get a better settlement out of a simple shareholder lawsuit! Besides, there was more at stake here than just BofA. We were fighting against the abuse of power everywhere. What would it mean to the average investor if we sold out to Rosenberg? How could I ever walk down to Charles Schwab and look anybody in the eye?

But they saw dollar signs. Easy money. Yeah, someone said, with twenty million we could buy our own golf course!

"You sicken me," I responded in vain.

They called Rosenberg and gave wire instructions for our Swiss bank account. Then they folded down their shirtsleeves, slipped on their suit coats, and headed out to celebrate at the Blue Fox, an old money restaurant off Montgomery frequented by investment bankers. I watched them climb into an elevator, patting each other on the back, making small talk about baseball, jingling the loose change in their pants pockets as their eyes went up to watch the elevator floor light.