“I’m sorry to hear comments on Russian news about Ms. Palin,” says my friend Tanya. “Looks like the States is making a clown out of itself.”
Regarding clowns, my student Sergey asks why I think Georgian president Saakashvili, whose country is so tiny, would fire on a huge country like Russia, with all its military hardware.
Answer: “Bush told him to.”
Whatever George said, everyone here knows it wasn’t about “democracy.” When, on September 3, Azerbaijani president Aliyev turned down Dick Cheney’s proposal of a gas pipeline that would bypass Russia, Cheney (according to the Moscow Times, September 8) “was so disappointed that he did not attend an official dinner in his honor.”
Meanwhile, at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Tatiana tells me that PwC has recently hired a spate of American managers. “I guess they can make more money here,” she says.
Over at JPMorgan, Nikita says, “Usually, we get pretty nice letters from the head. I don’t get it. How could so many smart people go so wrong?”
“Well,” I say, turning to the class, “who are your business heroes?”
“Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan,” Andrei says.
I write the two names on the board. “And who are your negative models?”
“I don’t trust any of them,” Katya answers evenly. “I think all leaders are only interested in themselves.”
I erase the plus sign above Friedman and Greenspan, change it to a minus sign.
After the laughter dies, Natalya says, “Yes, and didn’t Lehman Brothers hire Jeb Bush as an adviser? I mean, just before Lehman went bankrupt?”
What I’m picking up from Russians about the credit scam is “Been there, done that, and now you know how it feels.”
And how does it feel? The Russian Stock Market has lost 75 percent of its value. The “official” inflation rate is 11 percent, but we’re paying 20 percent more for groceries. Unemployment remains fairly low because wages hover around $4 an hour—for the moment.
Polina, a private student who works for Sberbank, the country’s largest government bank, tells me that Sberbank “dismissed” 70,000 of her colleagues.
Pensions, at less than $150 a month, have long been a joke.
And my newest student, Elena S., says, “Watch the price of oil for the value of the ruble.”
Elena is 6 feet tall and likes to wear red vinyl stilettos and tight-waisted dresses that show off her Olympic-rower physique. These days, as an executive director at Russia’s largest telecommunications company (the government-owned company privatized some of its shares in the late ‘90s), Elena’s stuck with the job of raising capital.
“Money is expensive these days,” she muses, while double-filtering already bottled water in some kind of humming machine.
My school had told me that because I was one of their “serious teachers,” they were saving Elena for me. Oh, no, I had thought, not another one of those free-market capitalists.
About the U.S. bailout, Elena says cheerfully, “The GDP of the U.S. is $11 trillion, so if the U.S. has a deficit of $11.3 trillion your country will be bankrupt.”
“Right …,” I say. Later, when I check, her figures seem off. The CIA World Factbook claims that the GDP of the U.S. is $13.84 trillion. Oh, well, what’s a couple trillion?
“But don’t worry,” Elena says. “America is a productive country. She still has reserves. People will always want to invest in the dollar. It’ll be much worse for Europe when their banks start to fail this winter.”
She laughs. “There’s only one country that would consider investing in the ruble.”
In Elena’s effort to save her struggling company (she’s off for two days in London, then two days in China, and, the following week, will drop in on the U.S.), any currency will do.
“I’m circling the globe looking for money,” she says. “Ah, well. Grow the star, milk the cow, kill the dog.”
“Russian saying,” she says.
“How about Canada?” I ask. “They have a good banking system.”
“Yes, but Canada won’t lend unless you sell them products of equal value. And we import over 80 percent of our food.
“The problem is the mentality here,” she adds. “We have all these people who have made money from oil and gas. But they don’t like to invest in the country. They only like to buy luxury goods.”
“But why can’t the bailout be used for the stock-induction plan?” I ask, stubbornly returning to the U.S. crisis.
She pours organic almonds into a crystal bowl, refills our glasses with her purified water. “Because the bad debt needs to be cleaned out. Buying the debt is a more natural cleaning process.”
I’m not convinced.
“They’re prolonging the fall,” she adds.
“R-i-i-i-ght,” I say. But I don’t have the chops to argue with her, so I simply ask a question out of our book: “What are some benefits of political stability?”
“Political stability means that people are able to invest in their futures, are able to plan their lives with less risk,” she says.
“That’s very interesting,” I say. “Whenever I asked that question before, people said that in times of political stability companies are able to make more money.”
“No, it’s the opposite,” she says. “Companies make more money when there is less stability. It’s in the countries with strong governments that the profit margin is less.”
She touches her fingertips, accordion-style. "Of course, we have more stability now than 10 years ago. But in a couple of years I wouldn’t be surprised if 40 percent of our people are out of a job.
“Because we still have war. Everywhere,” she says.
She pauses, shoots me a sly grin. “Our two countries are alike, don’t you think?”
She refills my glass. I imagine all of us, everywhere, parched.