Sunday, April 26, 2009

Snake Oil

Layered with years of exhaust from the adjacent freeway, the Holiday Inn stood like a symbol of another time. A time when the hotel was fancier before other more modern and pricier hotels took up space. Now it was old, but still a place where a nice enough conference room could be procured at a cheaper rate. It looked exactly like the recession we are experiencing.

A tall, slender woman, a former runway model whose face had been re-sculpted a few times guarded the hall’s door. Her fake blonde hair hung stylishly, but thinly over her shoulders. Her practiced, automated role of greeter further entrenched her as an aging Barbie doll.

What was I doing there? Why didn’t I leave? I registered and found a seat in the second row. The audience members spoke to each other quietly, or sat there waiting. There were probably a hundred people.

The announcer introduced the day’s speaker as someone with fantastic teaching skills. He told us how fortunate we were to have him lead the workshop. I guess not all audiences are so privileged. I was expecting to learn how to become a more informed investor so I was encouraged. Not that I had much to invest. But knowledge could only help which was the reason I decided to give this whole thing a chance.

This teacher looked as if he wore a hair piece. He had the man-in-his-50’s paunch. He took off his suit jacket sweating profusely after only five minutes. When he turned to walk away, I could see the cellulite through his pants’ material. He spoke rapidly about candle sticks, blue and red lines, and making money. He wanted us to think of him as our “daddy.” Huh?

He introduced his wife, the aging Barbie doll, who strolled down the aisle and onto the stage, smiling, thrilled to turn her feet just so to show off her black boots. She wanted to instruct the “ladies” about how to have the shallowest relationship as possible. She told us to know what’s in all his accounts, keep him thinking the new outfit was old, make him feel that she will be the beneficiary of all his assets when she divorces him or he dies—whatever comes first. But most importantly, take control of the finances by learning the stock market. It was if she was having her own mini Norma Rae moment. She threw her shoulders back, head up, obviously proud of how inspirational she was. She nodded in triumph and marched off the stage.

The teaching, a review of stock market trends, the current downturn, the optimism that things will turn around started to fade into an infomercial. When Mr. Daddy told us the techniques that initially were shown to us to convince us to come to the workshop were not of much use, everything became clear.

When he showed us a tricky technique instead, he didn’t want anyone to ask any questions. But someone really wanted to know if it was legal. Mr. Daddy could not give a definitive answer. This type of scheme was a micrometer shy of a scam. And I had a thought—maybe the recession we’re in now is because such manipulations and street-fair magician illusions are one big reason everyone has lost so much of their 401ks.

Towards the end, husband and wife gave us the price list for their training course--$24,000. They wanted to make clear that the course was on sale.

I put away my notebook, told the registrars to erase my name from their lists and left. I had to think long and hard about why I was that desperate to get as far as I did and waste a Saturday on such nonsense. Luckily it was a rainy day.

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