Never run with the crowd. They're probably headed over a cliff.

How To Fix The U.S. Financial Problem

The reasons behind the collapse of the banking industry and its subsequent bailout by the government are going to be argued by pundits and experts for the next hundred years. There will be books written on it. It will be the subject of countless Ph.D. dissertations. Political candidates will reference it in their speeches – oh how they will use it in their speeches. But the root cause is easy: greed and dishonesty. But this should come as no surprise. If you went to college you should have seen it coming.

 I matriculated at Auburn University in the fall of 1983. Bo Jackson was a junior that year and the most impressive athlete I’ve ever seen. How that kid could run. I had done extremely well in high school and we were toe-to-toe with the Rooskies. The military needed scientists for weapons research so I enrolled in physics. It was a difficult program so I buckled down and studied hard. I enjoyed my college experience and it wasn’t all work, but for the most part I spent the next seven years pursuing my degrees and there wasn’t time or energy for much else. But this wasn’t true for everyone at Auburn.

 Along Magnolia Ave. and College St. were a number of large, manor houses, each of which had large, Greek letters on their facades. Kappa Alpha. Beta Theta Pi. Sigma Nu. Theta Chi. Lambda Lambda Lambda. (ß if you get that you are too old.) But I didn’t have time for a fraternity. Or the money. Nevertheless, on football weekends friends and I would sometimes go to their open parties which usually consisted of a very loud band – sometimes good, sometimes bad – with a lot of semi-drunk, underage people standing around holding plastic cups full of cheap beer. You remember the drill – or maybe you don’t.

 I got to know people and as it turned out, there were very few physics or math or chemistry majors in fraternities. There were some engineering and biology students who were members but not many. Far and away the members of these fraternities were studying various derivatives of business; banking, finance, business, political science, or whatever. And they didn’t just party on football weekends. It was every weekend – Friday and Saturday, and a few times during the week. And not only were most of the people there breaking the law by drinking underage, they weren’t learning very much either.

 Occasionally I would have one of these guys or gals in a class. Calculus, or physics, or more often, an elective like history. Invariably they would show up hung over, or not show up at all. At the time I wondered how they would pass the class and stay in school. But that wasn’t hard to figure out. They just cheated. I also wondered how they could afford to party so much. When I got to know some of them a little better I found out that too. When they ran out of money they called daddy and asked for more. Even then their grades were terrible and I wondered how they would be able to get a job. I didn’t figure that one out until after college; in business it isn’t so much a matter of what you know as who you know.

 Fast forward twenty years and we find that the people running the nation’s financial system are the same people who got business degrees in college. A bunch of spoiled brats who partied their way through school, didn’t learn much in an easy curriculum, called daddy every time they needed money, cheated on every test and assignment, and wantonly disregarded laws they viewed as outdated or inconvenient. And got away with it. Beginning to sound like a familiar bunch, isn’t it?

 I say the fastest way to fix this problem would be to kick these losers out and hire a bunch of scientists and engineers to untangle this mess. What is easier to understand, naked short selling or the Heisenberg Uncertaintly Principle? How to keep track of a million bank accounts, or how to keep track of a billion sub-atomic particles each doing something different? Going to the moon or thinking up some exotic financial derivative scheme? Figuring out exactly what North Korea’s military capability is up to, or booking a trip to the Caymans? Figuring out how to sequence DNA, or digging the toxic assets out of bundled securities?

Scientists and engineers are trained to work with huge amounts of data – far larger data sets than the paltry numbers used when dealing with money. The problems we attack are larger, far more complex with more variables, more unknowns, and in many cases, invisible forces acting on things we can’t directly see. Our understanding of mathematics is far more sophisticated than that of some business major. And for the most part since getting a degree in the hard sciences requires true discipline, we didn’t cheat our way through school.

When we needed a super weapon to stop a worldwide reign of terror who did we turn to? When polio was ravaging our children who provided the answer? When we asked what Saturn’s moon Titan looked like, who got the job done? Did business majors figure out the quantum mechanics that make computers possible? Did financiers determine the cause of global warming to give us time to fix it? Did political scientists deduce the structure of DNA? These problems are tough! The people who figured them out were smart, disciplined, and well-trained.

The world financial system is hosed. Similar scale problems include the German fiasco on the Eastern Front, the Soviet Union – all of it, global warming, and Reconstruction. Who do you think can fix it? Some guy who partied his way through school and has proven he can’t keep it straight. Or the dudes who figured out how to clone stem cells. I know where I’d put my money, and it ain’t on Wall Street.

-Futbol Guru,


David Roggendorff said:

John, I think you're overselling hard science.  I think of banking (for instance) as more like playing poker - what with the poker face, etc.  One banking team must out-fake other forces, including the government regulators, the government spenders, other banks, and other monitory establishments.  

Banking is harder than a normal stochastic problem.  Each replication has a different environment, so it is not an A B test.  Ditto for each instance of the banks.  Only something more like a process control model might work - but that would require cooperation by the interfering entities.

Not going to happen.  

Good article, though.  

# March 19, 2009 10:14 PM

FutbolGuru said:

In one sense you are right. However your argument doesn't apply to the current situation because so many of the players are cheating. I'm not saying bankers have failed because they are stupid. I'm saying they have failed because they have shown a streak of greed, irresponsibility, and dishonesty that goes back to high school. Engineers and scientists, while by no means perfect, are generally more intellectually honest people because they have to be, just to get through the difficult educational programs. Right now we just need people who understand the meaning of hard work and that $1 = $1, not $1 = 8.27 . We can worry about faking the other banker out later.

# March 23, 2009 8:35 AM

Thedesolateone said:

Are you arguing that we should put some enlightened individuals in control of society?

# March 29, 2009 9:24 AM

FutbolGuru said:

Enlightened? That word means something different to every person who uses it. I'd just settle for some honest ones.

# April 1, 2009 8:25 AM

Thedesolateone said:

What I'm saying is: how can you justify their control in the first place?

# April 5, 2009 7:26 AM

FutbolGuru said:

I justify their control the same way I justify the police. While their presence is sometimes a hindrance to us honest folk, and they occasionally make mistakes, most of us agree that they are necessary to keep the peace.

Apparently we are now in need of cash police on Wall Street. Whether people are just a lot more dishonest and greedy than they used to be, or if current rules simply allow them to be so, makes no difference. The current spate of traders, investors, and speculators need some adult oversight. And if it reduces market liquidity a bit I guess we can just say that the liars and cheats ruined it for the rest of us. If the next group shows a bit more responsibility and restraint I suppose we can talk about de-regulating when that time comes. Until then, we need a new sheriff in town even if no one likes him being there.

# April 7, 2009 12:42 PM

David Smith said:

Your commentary is quite insightful and I agree in most points. Offering only two clarifications: 1. Some have postulated that many of the perpetrators of this financial mess have backgrounds in "law." (And some in both "finance" and "law.") 2. Jimmy Carter was said to be an engineer, and Al Gore purportedly claims some techie heritage. As an engineer, I too am biased towards believing engineers and scientists to be more objective than most folks, but I regularly see plenty of emotion-based "thinking" among techies too.

Per your supplemental comments here, perhaps the real question is HOW to refurbish our system to attract and promote HONEST people into the positions of power.

# April 15, 2009 11:11 AM

FutbolGuru said:


Pay them less.


# April 15, 2009 11:21 AM