Living in Uncertain Times

A Spy in the House of Work

There is nothing worse than uncertainty. Unmitigated economic disaster beats ongoing economic uncertainty hands down. Economic disaster is dramatic. It inspires deep feelings and provides an excuse for us poor, dumb worker bees to bond together in our pathetic humanity. Economic uncertainty, on the other hand, is like living your life eternally sitting in some cosmic lobby waiting to interview for a job that you’re sure you don’t want. Economic uncertainty is the business equivalent of existential angst — but with dollar signs attached.


Just the other night at an adult-education course, a sanguine, underemployed buddy of mine, who was the onetime CFO of a company that was once thought to be visionary and that now routinely appears in satires, said that the key to uncertain times is refusing to be uncertain.

I liked the sound of this. I thought it was inspiring. Very old new economy. It reminded me of the saying that Ben Affleck’s character used in the movie Boiler Room: “Act as if.” Act as if Merrill Lynch analysts worked for your interests, not theirs. Act as if AT&T actually had a clue. Act as if the numbers on corporate balance sheets had some relationship to reality. Or, closer to home, act as if your company weren’t staffed entirely by interns.

“Great. But how?” I asked. I said that the times were too uncertain for me to muster the necessary bravado to act as if, but Sanguine Underemployed Buddy explained that the key was to forget the actual economy and to focus instead on key economic indicators. From that perspective, good news — the ultimate antidote to uncertainty — was everywhere. To own the economy, we must first own the economic indicators.

For here’s a little-known secret: It’s not just the economy that makes us feel uncertain; it’s also being forced to try to decode traditional economic indicators. And these days, traditional economic indicators look like a Jackson Pollock painting.

The paper this morning says that Gross Domestic Product has risen. I read just the other day that last month’s CPI-U (not seasonally adjusted) for all items less food and energy was up 0.3%. I was ecstatic, even though I had no clue what this meant. What the hell is the CPI-U anyway? (It sounds like some French morning-after pill that the FDA won’t approve.) Durable-goods orders are off — but what constitutes a durable good? And is a durable good the opposite of an unendurable evil?

Like the rest of the Uncertain, I feel helpless in the face of pundits. Sanguine Underemployed Buddy said that there were positive economic indicators under my own nose. All I had to do was look.


So I checked in with Amburr, who works the lunch shift at the Dancing Bare. “In the last eight-week period, $5 tips were up 47%, an increase of 17% since the period ending October 13, when the G-string yielded almost exclusively $1 and $2 bills,” Amburr informed me. Char, my local Starbucks barista with the diamond Marilyn Monroe stud in her lip, reported that since the quarter ending April 15, people have returned to ordering venti lattes, up 22%.

Suddenly, I saw economic indicators everywhere. At an upholstery shop, a couple was dragging out a newly upholstered sofa. With matching pillows. With tiny arrows stitched into the pillows pointing up. A guy was parallel-parking his brand-new Tacoma truck, and he’d already put a big “thumbs-up” sticker on the bumper. Signs announcing “Special Sales” were gone from shop windows — and there were two more mannequins than the day before. I stopped at one of those big-box electronics stores and looked at TVs, row after row, all turned on. Alan Greenspan was testifying in front of Congress on the economy. He doesn’t know anything, that’s for certain.

This is the latest episode in The Spy’s continuing saga, “Working Behind Enemy Lines.” You can find the entire Spy chronicles here.