If the 90s were the 60s
First performed in a bookstore in Gleeb, Australia in 1995
I had just wanted a job. That morning, Id rode the CalTrain to
San Francisco to interview at Bank of America for a "management trainee" program
Id 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 Id 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 wasnt
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 Americas 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, whichI had done some homework for my interviewwas 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 couldnt sell their holdings without
further driving down the price. I couldnt 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 didnt 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 Friedmans 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 sometimeperhaps soonall 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 wasnt 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 couldnt 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
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. Thats 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
Claussens favorite viewing point. I sent him unconscious with a blow dart to his
fatty neck, administering 2 ccs 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.
"Youre just a kid," he blurted. "What the hell
do you know about how a bank should be run?"
I wasnt going to discuss this with a man who couldnt
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 werent surprised when an hour later
Rosenberg called on the SLAs 800 number and made a counter-offer: the board
wouldnt 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.
"Thats bullshit," I cried. "They cant buy
We argued. Rosenbergs 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 couldnt believe what I was hearing. Twenty million was only
an infinitessimal fraction of the BofA equity loss since 81we 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.