Early in my senior year my postgraduate plans were set, so I was on the prowl for “gut” courses where I could earn credits without doing any work. (On the East Coast we called them “guts” while in California they were called “micks”, as in “Mickey Mouse.” In that era Mickey Mouse was an overused, consequently imprecise term; for example, “Deep Throat” was a Mickey Mouse movie.)
At some point in their college lives half the undergraduates at my college took Drama 36. The professor was a theater critic who commuted from New York City and gave weekly lectures on 20th century plays. There were no mid-terms, and it didn’t matter whether we read the plays or even attended class. The only requirement was that we turn in a five-page essay (wide margins with double-spacing) concerning any topic related to one of the plays covered by his lectures.
I happily enrolled. By senior year I could knock off a five-page paper in my sleep, which I often did to the irritation of my roommates at 4 a.m. on the day the paper was due.(My 1950-vintage manual Remington was exceptionally noisy.) The other legendary guts were Introduction to Geology (“rocks for jocks”) and the Sociology of Deviant Behavior (“nuts and sluts”), but their perfection was marred by a mid-term exam. Drama 36 stood alone.
Seeking to build on that success, I kept looking for other courses that would enable me to coast to graduation. The title had promise, so I signed up for Game Theory, thinking that it was about cards, pinball, chess, foosball, or the new computer games that had started to appear on the university mainframe. A course that offered instruction about my favorite diversions and earn quick credits….hopes were high.
Much to my disappointment, it was taught by a mathematical economist whose pedagogical method consisted of covering the blackboard with Greek letters. I retain little of his sleep-inducing disquisitions on Pareto optimality or the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but there was one insight which has stayed with me, represented by the following graph:
The correlation between great wealth and power is intuitively obvious, but what about negative wealth? If you were just an average deadbeat, you would be at the mercy of your creditors. But if you owed TEN MILLION DOLLARS (this was the Seventies, Dr. Evil), you had as much influence over the bank as if you had a ten million dollar deposit. The bank could not declare you to be in default because bankruptcy would take them down with you; the lender would bend over backwards to keep you alive.
And that is why foreigners continue to ship us TV sets, shoes, and barrels of petroleum while we send them more pieces of paper inscribed “In God We Trust” to add to the many billions they already hold. Stopping or slowing the process would disrupt their economies as much as ours. The gut economy: easy credits and the final exam that may never come. © 2005 Stephen Yuen