Transcript

373:

The New Boss
Transcript

Originally aired 01.30.2009

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Full audio: http://tal.fm/373

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When Dave got his job at the homeless shelter, it was one of the lowest level jobs they had. And he didn't think of advancing up the ladder because he really liked his job.

He liked talking with the residents. He helped make meals, did bed checks, rented movies for movie night, got urine samples for drug testing. One guy had scabies and Dave would put lotion on the scabies. He didn't even mind that.

On his weekend shift, he'd pick of all kinds of cake mixes and special ingredients that he would blend together into these crazy cakes for the 200 residents.

Dave Hill

That was my rep. When I would walk in, people would get excited because they knew that an incredible cake was just hours away.

Ira Glass

So you were good at the job?

Dave Hill

Yeah. I mean, I thought it was fun. One of my favorite things to do was with the urine samples. Because you'd take like a Dixie cup. The supervisor would ask you to go do this.

He would say, would you, you know, go get a urine sample, and so he gave me the cup and then the container to put the urine sample in. I would go do it and then this one time he hadn't come back to his desk yet so I had the urine sample and I got another Dixie cup and ran into the kitchen and filled it with apple juice.

So he said, oh, you got the urine sample? I said, yeah, you know, and I acted like, yeah, I did a great job. I got the urine. Here you go. You know, and I'm like, can you get me another vial because I have left over urine. I couldn't fit all the urine into the vial you gave me so I have this cup of urine still.

You could see like already the horror was setting in, like, no, that's fine. I just need the one vial. I don't need two vials of urine. And I said, well, I need another vial because I have this urine. What am I going to do with this urine?

And he was just like, ah, get it out of here. Throw it out. What are you--? And I just acted really flustered and then finally, you know, drank it, because I thought, you know, there's nothing else I could possibly do with this urine.

Ira Glass

And it was apple juice.

Dave Hill

Yeah, it was apple juice but, I mean--

Ira Glass

And his reaction?

Dave Hill

He was just completely horrified as were the, you know, probably 5 or 10 witnesses to this. And it was really a proud moment for me. I was really happy about it.

Ira Glass

And did you then have to explain, no, no, it was apple juice?

Dave Hill

After a while. Eventually I did. I mean, I let it-- I milked the moment for all it was worth. And there were some of the residents standing around watching it happen.

Ira Glass

They must have loved you.

Dave Hill

Yeah, I tried to keep things light.

Ira Glass

So after about a year into this job, Dave was asked if he wanted to fill in as a supervisor for an upcoming Friday night shift.

Dave Hill

You know, I was excited. I thought I was being rewarded for, you know, the great job that I had been doing all this time. So I was like, oh, wow. Someone believes in me. I can be a supervisor. I felt really good about it. I'd never been supervisor of anything.

Ira Glass

Well, today's radio show, it's This American Life, by the way. I'm Ira Glass. Our show is from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International. Today's show, on this week when there's a new boss in Washington D.C., is all about what happens when somebody becomes the new boss.

We've got a story about a guy taking over a town where people dislike him so much, they won't even talk to him. And we've got a story from our crack economics team about the dead British guy who's about to take over the US economy. But in Dave's case at this homeless shelter, becoming a boss really meant something to him, because he was pretty young still, and growing up, he'd never been seen as very responsible.

Act One. New Guy on the Job.

Dave Hill

And so I showed up for my shift which was an 11 to 7-- 11 at night to 7 in the morning shift. I showed up a little early just to gear up, you know.

Ira Glass

And what does it mean? Like suddenly you're the boss. Like, what do you do as the new boss?

Dave Hill

You have keys to everything, which I was excited about. It was like a big chain of keys, like, you know, like if you were a superintendent of an apartment. I was looking forward to that. And you tell people when to do bed checks.

Everything was going smoothly. I was walking around with my keys. It was sort of a nice feeling. I sort of threw my shoulders back a little bit, you know. You know, I don't think I was getting power mad. I tried to be, you know, as benevolent of a supervisor as I could. But, you know, everything I'm saying, I'm talking about like 45 minutes into it.

Ira Glass

Oh, really? 45 minutes into it.

Dave Hill

Everything I've just said is really just the first 45 minutes on the job-- all of these things that went through my mind and all these things that happened and didn't happen.

[LAUGHS]

So it's about one in the morning on my inaugural supervisor shift. And the weekend cook comes in, and I had worked with him many times before and, you know, was very friendly with him. And so he came in.

And he said, hey, Dave, can I borrow the keys? He's like, I just want to get some meat out of the freezer. And it didn't seem strange to me, because this is a guy who prepares several meals for a couple hundred people a day, you know.

Ira Glass

Oh, you thought he just needed to defrost some meat for the next day.

Dave Hill

Yeah, it didn't seem weird. I thought, oh, he's just getting a jump on things, you know. So I said, sure, here's the keys. He disappeared for 10 or 15 minutes and then came back and said, thanks, Dave, here you go. And he gave me the keys back. And I went home and I thought great, like, you know, my first supervisor shift went pretty well.

And I walked in the next day and the security guard was sitting there. I said, hey, Al, how's it going? And he said, good. Hey, did you hear what happened, you know, with the cook last night? I'm like, what are you talking about? And he said, oh, he stole 300 pounds of beef last night. And, you know, I pretended not to have any idea how that might happen.

I was like, what? You're kidding. What are you talking about? And he's like, yeah, apparently he got keys to the freezer and went down there and took out 300 pounds of meat. He took it all out and threw it over the fence to his buddy.

And I was going like, what? Why would anyone have a need for 300 pounds of meat at 1 AM on a Friday? And he's like, well, to sell it. I'm like, why would anyone-- what do you mean, sell it? He's like, sell it on the street for crack.

None of this was making any sense to me and he's like, he's a crack head. And I'm like, what? What are you talking about? He's like, well, yeah, he's a crack addict. He was like a recovering crack-- well, now he's, I guess, full on back to being a crack head, but he was working there as a recovering crack addict. And then he starts going down the line and he's like, well, yeah, this guy's a crack addict, this guy's a crack addict. Like program aids, supervisors, security guards.

Ira Glass

People who have your job.

Dave Hill

Yeah. And he was just going down the line. He's like, yeah, he's a crack addict. And then he starts explaining. He's like, don't you remember when he didn't show up for work that one day. Yeah, they found her, you know, turning tricks down the block for crack. And, you know, there was another guy I noticed just didn't work there anymore and they're like, yeah, they found him in the basement smoking crack on his shift. And he's just going down the line, naming all these people, and breaking it down for me on my coworkers. And finally he's like, I'm a crack head. I mean, he's not currently, but he's like-- And it was just like what?

I felt foolish and I felt kind of betrayed and then sort of wondering what was going to happen. Like, am I in turn going to have to score 300 pounds of meat to make things right? You know? I just sold the movie rights to this story when I made that twist, actually. And now he must score 300 pounds of meat, using any means he can. Boom.

Ira Glass

If only you could find some, like, retired thief who's just willing to do one last score with you.

Dave Hill

I told you, Dave, I'm out of the game. What'd you say? Actually it sounds like it might be kind of fun. Tell you what, I got the itch. I've been looking to get a taste of that frozen meat action for a while now. Glad you called.

Ira Glass

And so how long did you last as the new supervisor?

Dave Hill

That was it. I was never asked to be supervisor again.

Ira Glass

Did you feel bad, like oh, you let people down?

Dave Hill

Yeah, yeah, totally. I felt really bad about it, because 300 pounds of meat, that's a lot of-- any way you slice it, that's a lot of meat to lose. So I felt bad about that because it's a homeless shelter. I definitely cost them money. I was embarrassed about it and knowing that people knew, I thought that people must look at me differently there. Or maybe they looked to me exactly as they always had, which was maybe worse.

Ira Glass

It simply confirmed what they--

Dave Hill

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

Dave Hill. These days he is the star of a late night TV talk show that doesn't actually air on television but on stage at the UCB Theatre in New York City. It is called the Dave Hill Explosion. His website, davehillonline.com.

Act Two. A Trust Without Trust.

Ira Glass

Act Two, A Trust Without Trust. You may have heard of Warren Jeffs. Back in 2006 he was all over the news, a religious leader running from the law. "Prophet on the lamb," one Arizona newspaper called him.

Jeffs was the head of a fringe group of Mormons called the FLDS, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Unlike regular Mormons, FLDS members practice polygamy, which has been technically illegal since 1878, but it's a crime that's rarely prosecuted.

For a century, the group lived in relative anonymity out in the Utah desert but then Jeffs came to power and everything went haywire. Jeffs is accused of excommunicating members at whim, sexually abusing young children, and marrying off young girls to older men. He has followers in enclaves all over North America, including that polygamist compound in Texas that was all over the news this spring.

Jeffs was caught after a year on the run, put on trial as an accomplice to rape, and sentenced to 10 years to life in prison. When he was arrested in 2005, he's said to have had over 100 wives. But after Jeffs was locked up, a much thornier issue presented itself, what to do with all the property owned by the church that he led, the FLDS.

It is not a small matter. For over 70 years, FLDS members had given huge chunks of their income and all their houses, businesses, farms, animals-- all their assets-- to this church trust, which is called the United Effort Plan, the UEP.

Total value of the UEP? Over $112 million. And Warren Jeffs was the person who managed that money. But when Jeffs became a fugitive, he started to liquidate land in the trust, putting it up for sale at a fraction of its real cost to fund the things that he was doing, and the Utah Attorney General stepped in.

The state decided to put the UEP in the hands of a regular old accountant, somebody who had nothing to do with the FLDS, somebody legally qualified to manage the trust in the way that most trusts are managed, in the best interests of the members who paid into it in the first place.

And that is how Bruce Wisan got the job. He was the trust's new boss, suddenly managing the money of a community full of people who did not want him managing their money. Claire Hoffman tells what happened.

Claire Hoffman

Bruce didn't quite know what he was getting into when he took this job in 2005, but he was used to people not liking him. Bruce runs a large accounting firm in Salt Lake City but he has a side career in rescuing distressed assets. It's like being a repo man on a bigger scale.

The state of Utah has hired him to manage all kinds of businesses on the verge of bankruptcy. He ran a motel, a bowling alley, a warehouse, a Subway sandwich shop. At one point, he took over a bankrupt bar and ran that, even though he doesn't drink. But the UEP was going to be a lot harder.

Bruce Wisan

The Attorney General's office said, we really don't have any blueprint for you. This is uncharted territory. You're going in to manage the real estate of thousands of people that are going to look at this as a government takeover, that it's going to be hostile. And they're not going to like you. We don't know what kind of reaction they're going to give you. I mean, there are just a lot of unknowns and uncertainties.

Claire Hoffman

Unknowns and uncertainties is an understatement. The community of Short Creek had fallen apart. For years, Warren Jeffs had predicted the end of the world every six months and so people had stopped construction on their homes and stopped fixing things when they broke. Businesses moved out of town.

In addition, there was a rising tide of litigation against Warren Jeffs and the church by underage brides and other former FLDS members. If they won their lawsuits, they could be awarded millions of dollars in damages and that money could come out of the UEP trust. People's homes in Short Creek would have to be sold off to pay for that.

So it was Bruce's job to fight to protect the assets of the trust from these kinds of judgments. He had to convince the courts that even if what Jeffs had done was wrong, awards shouldn't be paid out of the trust. And if all that weren't daunting enough, Bruce had to get past the first hurdle.

Bruce Wisan

Their leader, Warren Jeffs, told the people to literally ignore me, that I didn't exist. If I knock on their doors, they're not going to open the doors. We'd put letters in every post office box in town and the post office would often say that the floor would be littered with my correspondence because they were told not to even read anything that I said. So I didn't have a lot of opportunity to meet the average member.

Claire Hoffman

On Bruce's early trips to Short Creek, women would grab their children and rush inside to avoid him. They wouldn't serve him in the ice cream shop. He would often be tailed by law enforcement. The local police were still tools of the FLDS.

Being a mainstream Mormon himself, Bruce had always heard about the fundamentalist polygamists living out in the desert. And like most mainstream Mormons, he didn't think too highly of them. But now he wanted to help, especially when it came to people's homes.

No one in Short Creek had a deed to their own home. Their houses were communal property owned by the church. In fact, this was the biggest part of the UEP trust, people's homes. But without deeds to their own homes, everyone lived at the whim of church leaders who could decide in a day whether you were entitled to live in your own house or not.

Bruce Wisan

When Warren Jeffs came into power, there were a lot of families that were disrupted. He moved a lot of people from house to house. He expelled a lot of men, reassigned their wives and children to other men.

I spoke with a young girl that left the community. She was on one of those moving crews and she said that they could go into a house at night-- usually 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning-- and they would move the whole house in less than an hour. And they would go in and Saran wrap the dressers and desks and whatever. Things weren't packed in boxes. Even the next door neighbors wouldn't know until the next morning that somebody new was living in the house.

Claire Hoffman

Many of the people Warren Jeffs excommunicated from the church still live in the area. They were the first ones to open their doors to Bruce, offering help and advice. Bruce has hired several of them to help him, like Jethro Barlow. A trained accountant, Jethro has lived here his whole life and was a member of the FLDS for most of it until a few years ago, when he was excommunicated. Then his house was taken from him and the church ordered both his wives to leave him.

Jethro Barlow

I'm in a situation right now where I have children that I haven't seen or spoken to in years. One of them lives right across the street, kitty corner from me, and I haven't spoken to him since I moved back to the community. My mother is in one of these big walled compounds over here. I can't visit her.

Claire Hoffman

Jethro says he was one of the first of the 200 men to be expelled from the FLDS under Warren Jeffs. He doesn't know why. At that point, Warren Jeffs was kicking men out because of the tiniest of infractions. By the end, if Jeffs had a bad dream and the dream showed you not to be righteous, that was enough to get you evicted. And so without warning or explanation, Jethro was expected to leave his community and the life he knew.

Jethro Barlow

Like a Taliban coming into Afghanistan, there was just every week another fatwa that was issued about color of hair, what you could eat, what color you could wear, meetings that had to be attended to, et cetera, et cetera.

Then the church became more and more intrusive into people's lives. And as those few people who dissented or resisted or had a different opinion-- in fact, the entire older generation. Over 200 heads of families have been dispatched from the community and sent away.

Bruce Wisan

One time I was down in the community. We were in Jethro's truck.

Claire Hoffman

Again, Bruce Wisan.

Bruce Wisan

Just driving slowly in a pickup truck. And a young mother with two small children were walking on a sidewalk and she smiled and gave a casual wave to us as we drove by. We were only driving like 10 or 15 miles an hour. And she didn't really look at us. She didn't know who we were.

And I commented to Jethro. I said, oh, isn't that nice? And he stopped the truck and put his hands over the steering wheel and put his head down. And he said, that was one of my daughters and those were two of my grandchildren that I've never met.

And I said, Jethro, go back. Why don't you go back and talk to her and see them then? And he said, oh, I would give anything to do that, but it would cause so many problems that I don't think I should.

And it wasn't that it would cause problems for him. It would cause problems for her if she were to be seen speaking with an apostate, even though it's her father and even though those grandkids had never seen or visited with their grandfather. And those are tragic, tragic situations.

Claire Hoffman

Fixing these tragic situations would seem to be beyond the power of an accountant, but incredibly, Bruce Wisan thinks it isn't. And so early on, he decided the best thing he could do for Jethro and everyone else here was to give them their homes. The houses would no longer be owned by the trust. Bruce and the Utah court saw this as simple justice.

For decades, people like Jethro paid a hefty chunk of their income to the trust. Now they get the titles to their houses in return. The 15% of the community Bruce estimates are excommunicated would finally have real independence from the church, which they've wanted.

But for everyone else, the families who are still in the FLDS, it would have a side effect the courts and Bruce don't like to talk about much or advertise. A side effect that FLDS families find frightening and threatening to their way of life. It would give the church less control over them.

Claire Hoffman

So in a way, owning a home is a way for them to disentangle themselves from the tentacles of Warren Jeffs.

Bruce Wisan

Yes, it is a way if somebody wants to, as you say, untangle themselves from Warren Jeffs and some of the strange doctrine that he's preached. Yeah, this would be the time to do it and this would be the way to do it.

So this is really the main part of town. The police station and city hall for Colorado City is right there.

Claire Hoffman

Bruce takes me down to Short Creek for a tour. Short Creek is made up of the twin cities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. Driving around, the lack of color, signs, advertising is shocking. Everything is gray and white and brown.

It doesn't look like America, or at least not America in this century. Part of that is because Warren Jeffs got really into banishing things, all sorts of things, like the color red. He outlawed stripes and dogs, killing off hundreds, movies, books, TV. He dismantled the library.

We pass a four-wheel motorcycle with five teenage girls piled on, in ornate old fashioned hairdos and prairie dresses driving down the road. It's hard not to stare but then again, in this area, our car is a spectacle.

Bruce Wisan

And they know we're outsiders because I have short sleeves and your hair isn't done up in the normal way.

Claire Hoffman

This is an odd place. The homes are massive. They have to be to house all those wives and those dozens of children.

Bruce Wisan

This is where Warren Jeffs lived.

Claire Hoffman

Warren Jeffs's compound takes up a city block and it was there that allegedly he lived with over 100 of his wives. But many of their homes around town are unfinished, missing roofs, walls, windows. This is the construction that never got completed because of all those predictions of the apocalypse. Most of the streets were dirt.

When Bruce took over, the trust owed almost $2 million in back property taxes, which he started paying off. Then he pushed the city government to make long needed repairs to community property, like paving the roads, getting fire hydrants installed, improving the water and sewer system, renovating the town park.

Even here there was resistance, because his overall agenda was clear to everyone. He wanted to make the town government, the police, the utilities all function the way they function in other towns, as secular neutral institutions no longer under church control.

Bruce Wisan

They battled me, the cities especially-- the city councils, the city water people, city engineers, all of those people covertly opposed what I'm doing. They don't argue with me. They don't debate with me. They just tell me they're going to do something and then don't do it, or tell me that I can't do something because of some new requirement that they've just thought up.

Willie Jessop

He has destroyed and attempted to destroy every good thing in the community.

Claire Hoffman

That's Willie Jessop. With Warren Jeffs in prison, it's not exactly clear who's running the FLDS now, but Willie Jessop has emerged and taken the spotlight as spokesman and point person for the FLDS, standing up against the outsiders, the feds, and the state. And no one seems to disgust Jessop more than Bruce.

Willie Jessop

There is not words in the English language that I have found that can describe what Bruce Wisan has done to this community. There isn't words to describe the harm that he has done to people.

He launched a full set attack, with this judge's help, on our police department, on our city governments, our water companies, our municipalities. He'll have to be accountable to someone a lot greater than us for what he's done.

Claire Hoffman

To Jessop, Bruce is a bad man who's out to destroy the polygamists' faith. He tells me that Bruce first came into the community proclaiming himself the state appointed bishop. Since then, Jessop says, Bruce has tried to take apart every bit of structure their community has and to profit mightily along the way.

Willie Jessop

I think he made his stand very quick by the people he employed and he only reached out publicly. He'd show up to the city hall meeting and tell everybody how he only wanted to reach out to the community, but then he would only seek the interest of those that were hateful, known hateful against us.

Claire Hoffman

What I was going to say when you started the town hall meetings, his point is, I had town hall meetings. Nobody showed up and the only people who showed up were the people who were kicked out. So those are the people who engaged with me. And that would be his explanation.

Willie Jessop

Well, how could anybody say-- well, if nobody shows up and you're supposed to be helping them, something must not be right. But rather than fix it, he just kept doing it. And then the more he can say how uncooperative it is, he can justify larger lawyer bills to pay himself and bigger accounting fees to pay himself. There's a huge conflict of interest. Does he really want to solve the problems when he gets every penny of the problem that he generates? Come on.

Claire Hoffman

Bruce's fees are a source of real bitterness here. They've totaled more than $600,000. In addition, to protect the trust's assets from being seized in lawsuits against Warren Jeffs, Bruce has spent over $1 million on lawyers.

To pay for all that, he's selling off trust property, including an office building and some plots of land. He's also asked every Short Creek resident to pay $100 every month to fund city improvements and the administration of the trust.

The way Jessop sees it, that's just stealing from FLDS members. But of all the things that Bruce has tried to do, nothing angers Jessop more than his attempt to privatize the land and create individual home ownership.

Willie Jessop

If I want my home to be held in the way that I believe, which is that we put our homes and we pull them together in a united order, that's how we got them. That's how we built them. That's how we consecrated them.

And if somebody comes and says, I'm going to break your church up and give you your home and I don't want him to, what is he doing it for? Why do you want to give me a title to something that I believe belongs to the community and to heavenly father and to us as a whole? Why do that? Why force me to do that?

Claire Hoffman

Why do you think he wants to do that?

Willie Jessop

Psychological and sociological warfare against the FLDS. And he's got the state of Utah giving him the authority to do it.

Claire Hoffman

This point's the impossibility of Bruce's job. Bruce insists that he's just an accountant looking after the assets of the trust with no other agenda, but the simple fact that he's telling the church to divide its communal property and give away houses is stepping on how people here want to practice their religion. Again, here's Willie.

Willie Jessop

It's a little bit like saying, I want to go and give everybody their brick out of a church. Well, if nobody wants the brick, why would he tear down their church? Why would somebody force me to take it? Is there anyone in the community that said, hey, I want my property subdivided in this? Any? Have you heard of any?

Claire Hoffman

I ask him about the one group in Short Creek who definitely want their houses back from the trust, and that's the people who have been excommunicated from the church. And he surprises me by denying that anybody was kicked out of the church.

Meanwhile, Bruce points out that regardless of their standing in the church, all these FLDS and former FLDS members are also American citizens, which means that when they paid into the trust, it gave them certain rights to their property, including owning their homes. He wants every FLDS member to know that they have that right. Since most of them have been in the church since the day they were born, it will be the first chance they ever get to exercise it.

Bruce Wisan

I've been told even by FLDS-- an occasional FLDS person-- if titles are passed to the individuals, that maybe 30% of the FLDS will keep the title to their houses. So these are people that are not quite as staunch and may want this opportunity to establish some security for themselves.

Claire Hoffman

Mostly, Bruce is tired and ready for this case to be over, and frustrated at all the battles that haven't gone his way.

Bruce Wisan

My only ambition is to get out of this case. It's been three and a half years. My attorney and I are just exhausted and it's affected my CPA practice a lot. I probably spend 50% of my time on this case and it represents 10% of my billing. I'm spending 50% of my time on 10% of my income. That's not a very smart thing to do. And so, frankly, I would really like to see this resolved.

Claire Hoffman

Whoa.

Bruce Wisan

Now where's the police station? I'm supposed to park at the police station.

Claire Hoffman

I think the police station is--

It's on a Friday morning this past November that Bruce is driving to the county courthouse in Saint George, Utah. We turn the corner to the street of the courthouse and are greeted by hundreds and hundreds of polygamists in pastel prairie dresses and denim work clothes crammed on the sidewalks that surround the courthouse.

They're eerily quiet, like something out of a movie. They're waiting for Bruce. Bruce drives briskly past as if this happens every day. Then he spots a cop on the corner and rolls down his window.

Bruce Wisan

Where's the police station?

Claire Hoffman

The police station is right across from the courthouse. A police escort has been arranged to lead Bruce into court through the back door of the building to avoid the crowd. It's been four years that Bruce has run the UEP trust, and with all the infighting, he doesn't have much to show for it except nearly a dozen lawsuits filed against him.

But today, one of them has generated a huge crowd. The church has contested Bruce's right to sell off a plot of farmland on the outskirts of town. He has to do it, he says, in order to pay the costs of running the trust. The FLDS flock is up in arms, saying the land was sacred and the future site of a temple.

Today's hearing is an opportunity to make a show of force, to demonstrate just how opposed to Bruce they are. And they've come en masse.

After an hour of closed door deliberations, the judge tells the two parties she won't make a ruling for 30 days and that for now the land won't be sold. It's a rare win for the FLDS. Outside, the huge crowds smile and whisper thanks to their heavenly father for conquering Bruce.

Man

God has blessed me so much. The heavenly father will win.

Claire Hoffman

It's very possible that someday soon, when Bruce gets deeds to their homes into the hands of all these people gathered here, church leaders will convince all of them, every last family, to hand their homes right back over to the church and a brand new trust. If that happens, Bruce says, at least they'll have had a fair chance to get what's rightly theirs. At least he'll have opened a door. He can't make them walk through it.

Ira Glass

Claire Hoffman lives in Los Angeles. Coming up, sex lives of the world's great economists, or of one of them, anyway. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, The New Boss.

Act Three.

Ira Glass

And before we go any further, I just want to say something about the new boss in Washington D.C., Barack Obama. And before I say this, I want to be absolutely clear with you that what you are about to hear is not the viewpoint of this public radio station, of Public Radio International, National Public Radio, or anybody else in public radio but the staff of This American Life. OK? This is something that came up at one of our editorial meetings and it is now the official editorial policy of This American Life when it comes to the Obama presidency.

Julie Snyder

Don't force him to quit smoking.

Ira Glass

Our senior producer, Julie Snyder, agreed to come into the studio to discuss this.

Julie Snyder

The smoking is his one flaw, basically, the one sort of release valve that he has of being not perfect and not always in control and not totally responsible.

Ira Glass

Let the guy have like one moment where he doesn't have to be on stage in his life.

Julie Snyder

And so controlled and so responsible. If he doesn't have this, if we shut down this, then I'm afraid he's going to have an affair. And that's horrible and awful. You know, you would hate him. I would hate him. Everyone would hate him, justifiably so.

[LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

You think that that's where it goes?

Julie Snyder

Yeah. And I know everyone's all like, oh but, you know, oh, he and Michelle and they bring romance back to the White House and they love each other so much. I totally agree. I don't think that he would have an affair because he's unhappy. I don't think it would have anything to do with Michelle. He would just have an affair because he needs like the one vice that reminds him that he is not superhuman and that he's not always just like the President, you know.

Ira Glass

And it's not like he'd ever let himself be photographed smoking, too.

Julie Snyder

That's like the thing. I know. Totally. Because I know everyone's, oh, he's like a role model and stuff like that. Like the guy's hardly going to be like boozing it up and smoking in pictures and stuff. There's no way he's going to be caught smoking.

Ira Glass

Julie Snyder is the senior producer of our program.

Act Four Fifteen Trillion Dollar Dismal Science Experiment.

Ira Glass

And this brings us to Act Four of our program. Act Four, The $15 trillion Dismal Science Project. Of course, a new boss comes in with a new plan for how things should be run and one of the big parts of Barack Obama's new plan is the economic stimulus package that was passed in the House this week. It's going to be debated next week in the Senate. He's been talking about this stimulus a lot.

Barack Obama

Thank you. Thank you.

Ira Glass

This is from the big speech he gave a couple weeks ago where he explained the economic package. The House's version will cost the government over $800 billion, $800 billion of spending and tax cuts that Barack Obama says is the only thing that can help our economy right now.

Barack Obama

It is true that we cannot depend on government alone to create jobs or long-term growth, but at this particular moment only government can provide the short-term boost necessary to lift us from a recession this deep and severe. Only government can break the cycle that are crippling our economy, where a lack of spending leads to lost jobs which leads to even less spending, where an inability to lend and borrow stops growth and leads to even less credit.

Ira Glass

His plan would rebuild roads and bridges, double the production of alternative energy, expand access to the internet, and do all kinds of other things.

Barack Obama

It's a plan that represents not just new policy, but a whole new approach to meeting our most urgent challenges.

Ira Glass

In fact, much of the President's plan comes straight out of a very old playbook, a playbook developed before World War II, in fact, in the depths of the Great Depression by a foul-mouthed, slutty British elitist, who was called arrogant, supercilious, unbearably boorish. And that's by his friends. His enemies, man, they really hated him.

He's one of the great economists of the 20th century and you've probably heard his name, John Maynard Keynes. The team that brings us our economic stories here on This American Life-- that's our producer, Alex Blumberg, and NPR economics correspondent, Adam Davidson-- have this story about him and his playbook.

Alex Blumberg

Keynes published his big theory-- the theory underpinning President Obama's fiscal stimulus-- in 1936. And many would argue that 73-year-old theory is being tested right now for the very first time. And Adam, you've been carrying around Keynes's 1,000 page biography for weeks now getting ready for this story.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, it's the abridged version, I should tell you. Yeah, it's huge. It's by this guy Lord Robert Skidelsky and it is such a great read because Keynes is totally fascinating. Every few pages I'm flipping between thinking he's an amazing, charming, genius and then that he's a narrow-minded jerk.

I keep thinking that there are at least two movies you could make about Keynes. In one, you'd see Keynes as the statesman advising presidents and prime ministers and furiously writing up these papers that change the direction of modern intellectual thought.

Alex Blumberg

I can see the montage right now.

Adam Davidson

The paper writing montage.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, the paper writing montage.

Adam Davidson

It's exciting. And then you'd zoom in on him coming up with the plan that some say save the free world from communist takeover after World War II. So that's one movie you could make. Another movie would pretty much be a gay porno.

Alex Blumberg

Well, why don't you tell us more about that one then.

Adam Davidson

He ran with the Bloomsbury Group, you know, like Virginia Woolf and all those painters and poets. They were into free love and raunchy language and they used to complain in letters to each other that Keynes was just way too dirty for them.

Alex Blumberg

So he was out there. In the early 1900s, he was an openly gay figure. He would take his boyfriends to fancy dinner parties. People referred to them as married. And then suddenly in 1925, after sleeping with a lot of his students at Cambridge and many other men in the Bloomsbury orbit, he married a woman and was by all accounts quite happy with her and faithful. You get this sense of a guy who did and said whatever he wanted.

Adam Davidson

And that's just as true in his economics as in his private life. He loved hurling himself on the public stage with all these shocking, outrageous opinions. And the opinions were all over the place. Sometimes he's almost a socialist, then he's fanatically defending free markets.

Reading Keynes is kind of like reading the Bible. You could probably find a passage written sometime that justifies just about any position. But there is this common thread in what he wrote.

Alex Blumberg

Sort of an elitist common thread.

Adam Davidson

Yes, he generally felt that almost any problem could be solved by getting together a bunch of young men who had gone to Cambridge and asking them to run things. Every once in awhile, he might be OK with an Oxford man, but really Cambridge was best.

He even wanted Cambridge men to run America. He didn't think anyone in the US was smart enough. He also, by the way, didn't like Jews, the French, the working class.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah, and he had the sense that these Cambridge-led government boards should sort of run everything from individual companies to determining how many babies should be born and, he wrote cryptically, of what quality. He was, after all, on the board of directors of the British Eugenics Society.

Adam Davidson

So here we are in modern day America, millions of working men and women in peril, and this is the guy we're turning to? A bigoted Americaphobe who hates working men and women?

Alex Blumberg

Well, yes, and it's all because of this book he wrote in the 1930s. His prescription for how to get out of the global depression. It was his masterpiece, published in 1936, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

Tyler Cowen

I've read The General Theory about five times, I would guess. I think the first time I read it I was maybe 18.

Alex Blumberg

Tyler Cowen is an economist at George Mason University and he's been very publicly reading Keynes's masterwork again, this time writing notes and conducting a discussion on his blog, Marginal Revolution. He says it's no easier the sixth time around. Here is a sample sentence.

Tyler Cowen

"But it is a grave objection to this definition for such a purpose that the community's output of goods and services is a non-homogeneous complex which cannot be measured, strictly speaking, except in certain special cases as, for example, when all the items of one output are included in the same proportions in another output." And that's without looking. That was a purely random passage.

Alex Blumberg

And that was like page what?

Tyler Cowen

That was page 38.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, so it's hard to imagine too many people getting to page 39.

Tyler Cowen

If you do make it through The General Theory, you learn that Keynes was correcting what he saw as a fundamental error in the economics that had come before. Under classical economics, if there's a downturn, the economy will sort itself out. If people aren't buying enough, prices will drop to where people start spending.

Alex Blumberg

Keynes's radical insight was to look out the window in the 1930s and see that sometimes things don't right themselves.

Tyler Cowen

And the economy goes into a downward spiral. Everything just gets worse and worse. And it looked, in the 1930s, as if that's what was happening. And to some extent, it was.

Alan Blinder

A failure of effective demand, he called it.

Alex Blumberg

This is another economist, Alan Blinder at Princeton, who was an economic adviser to President Clinton. A failure of effective demand, he says, is basically that people aren't spending enough money. Maybe they don't have any or they got laid off or they're afraid they're going to get laid off.

Adam Davidson

And if people aren't spending enough money, there's no way for the economy to automatically adjust. And in the 1930s, nobody else had figured out how to get people spending again.

Alan Blinder

The Keynesian prescription is if all else fails, the government can spend the money. So normally we don't say in a free market economy, well, the government. We say, well, people and businesses should do it, but Keynes's idea, which was revolutionary at the time, is if the private sector won't do it, then the public sector can do it as a fill-in, a stop gap.

Adam Davidson

Blinder, like lots of Keynesians says that's basically what happened. Government spending got us out of the depression, but not in the way we learned in school. You know, I learned that FDR, inspired by Keynes, spent his way out of the depression.

Alex Blumberg

FDR did expand the government spending. He started the WPA and the Tennessee Valley Authority and a whole alphabet soup of other programs, but he never spent as much money as Keynes said he should have. And he did all sorts of things that Keynes opposed, like raising taxes and trying to balance the budget, which Keynes said would just cancel out any positive effect from the spending.

FDR sort of drove Keynes crazy, actually, and prompted at least one scolding letter. But then geopolitical events took over and forced FDR to spend as much money as Keynes wanted.

Alan Blinder

The huge dose of massive Keynesian stimulus came in the buildup to World War II. We started spending titanic amounts of money.

Adam Davidson

And was the way we ended the depression Keynesian? Was it--

Alan Blinder

Yeah, it was Keynesian, but it was not for that reason. I mean, it was to fight Hitler and to fight Tojo, but it was Keynesian.

Adam Davidson

Keynes had a heart attack and died in early 1946, which left economists to basically fight over his ideas right through today. One of the first fights, did Keynes get us out of the depression? On one side, people like Alan Blinder, who still believes that a Keynesian dose of massive military spending did the job. On the other side, folks like Tyler Cowen.

Tyler Cowen

I don't agree with that at all. World War II was a time of economic misery. There was low consumption. There was rationing. Times were tough. It was a continuation of the Great Depression. The numbers for GDP were high because we were making tanks, but it didn't make people better off.

Adam Davidson

And unemployment was low because people were fighting a war.

Tyler Cowen

But they were being killed. It was terrible. So the numbers are, in a way, phony, even though they look good. So in that sense, the war made the depression worse.

Alex Blumberg

In terms of standard of living.

Tyler Cowen

In terms of real standard of living.

Alex Blumberg

Back in the 1940s, nobody was listening to that argument. For about 30 years after World War II, Keynesianism was mainstream economic theory, but during that time Keynes's theory morphed into something that Keynes himself wouldn't have recognized.

Keynes's mantra was always uncertainty, what he once called the dark forces of time and ignorance which envelop our future. But his disciples came to believe that his theories could be used in a much more precise way to control the economy than Keynes ever believed.

So Keynes's disciples thought if the economy needs a little boost, you cut just enough taxes and increase just enough spending. If the economy is heating up, you do the opposite. You raise taxes by a couple of percentage points and cut government spending.

Alan Blinder, the Keynesian economist at Princeton, says that there was a triumphant sense among Keynesians, that by carefully tweaking taxes and spending this way, they could overcome booms and busts. They could permanently eliminate recessions.

Alan Blinder

There was a view that developed in the 1960s-- and developed excessively, one must admit in retrospect-- that we could steer the national economy pretty well. Not perfectly, but pretty well. If you pick up Walter Heller's book that was written in the 1960s-- Walter Heller was the head of the Council of Economic Advisers for Kennedy. The amount of optimism exuded there seems almost laughable. This was a watch we were repairing.

Adam Davidson

One way the economy is not like a watch, when you repair a watch, politicians aren't involved. Politicians took the Keynesian message that government spending can be good and they kind of went nuts. They paid for the war on poverty, the Vietnam war, they sent a man to the moon, all the time running up the federal deficit, convinced that Keynes gave them a free pass.

For Keynesians this is always a problem. Prescribing Keynesianism to some politicians is like prescribing crack to a coke addict. They like it a little too much. And in the 1970s, the patient hit rock bottom.

We had high unemployment and the Keynesian solution stopped working. We spent and spent and unemployment got worse and we got inflation, something Keynesians had no answer for. After that, it was the Keynesians' turn to walk in the wilderness.

Chris Edwards

When I took macroeconomics in the 1980s and early 1990s, the textbooks explained the basic Keynesian system but then spent a few chapters showing why the Keynesian system did not work.

Alex Blumberg

This is economist Chris Edwards with the avowedly anti-Keynesian Cato Institute, a think tank founded in 1977 near Keynesianism's lowest point.

Chris Edwards

I thought the debate was settled in the 80s and I thought we all agreed that Keynesianism doesn't work. But now with the new stimulus package before Congress all these Keynesians have come out of the woodwork.

Adam Davidson

Did you know there were Keynesians around?

Chris Edwards

Sure, but I thought the sort of kindergarten Keynesianism, as I call it-- the simple idea that the government could spend more money to grow the economy. I thought that really sort of simple Keynesian idea had died in the 1970s, but I was wrong.

Alex Blumberg

Edwards is part of the school of thought that replaced Keynsianism. There are a bunch different groups in this school, the monitorists, the Chicago school, supply side economics.

Adam Davidson

And they use a different set of tools to steer the economy than the Keynesians. The Keynesians, remember, like to use taxes and government deficits. These anti-Keynesians said, never use those tools. All you have to do is have the central bank, the Fed, carefully control interest rates.

If the economy overheats, raise rates. If it starts to sputter, lower them. This is why you've heard so many newscasts in the last two decades about Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke raising or lowering interest rates.

Newscaster 1

The Central Bank raised its federal funds rate by half a point.

Newscaster 2

The Federal Reserve Board's interest rate setting arm announced a quarter of a percent cut in a key overnight bank lending rate today.

Newscaster 3

The Federal Reserve raised the short-term interest rate today by a quarter percentage point to 4.75%.

Alex Blumberg

The Keynesians and anti-Keynesians fought some bitter battles through the 1980s, but by the Clinton administration, most economists agreed on the basics. Some of Keynes's ideas are useful, but we're in a post-Keynesian world. The interest rate is the tool we use. This view held pretty much until exactly one month ago, December 16th, 2008, to be precise.

Newscaster 4

There was a surprise move at the Federal Reserve today. The Fed was expected to cut interest rates by a half point. Instead, the Fed cut the key lending rate by as much as a full point to zero. That's the lowest federal funds rate on record.

Alex Blumberg

That's the day the Fed tried to stabilize the economy by lowering interest rates all the way down to 0%. It can't go lower. But the economy kept getting worse. Their main tool seemed to have stopped working.

So economists and policy makers started looking around for some other way to fix things and they found that there's one guy in particular who'd given a lot of thought about how to get out of a situation like this.

Alan Blinder

OK, so here's the way Keynes would have done it. So you measure here output.

Adam Davidson

We're in Alan Blinder's office at Princeton, which conveniently has a blackboard. And he's up there applying Keynes's formula-- it's pretty straightforward-- for how to get out of a mess like the one we're in.

You start with some estimates. First, you guess what the economy would be producing if all the people and factories and businesses were working at full capacity. Blinders guess, that's around $15 trillion. And then you look at what the economy is actually producing. Let's put that at $14 trillion.

Adam Davidson

So do you know those numbers on--

Alan Blinder

You don't know any of these numbers. You estimate all of them.

Adam Davidson

So the economy should be producing $15 trillion, but it's only producing $14 trillion. There's $1 trillion shortfall. So the theory says that if the government spends money, or gives us money to spend through tax cuts, that will increase everybody's spending and get the economy back to where it should be.

The government doesn't have to spend the whole $1 trillion shortfall, though, because of something called the Keynesian multiplier. Every dollar the government spends produces more than a dollar in spending throughout the economy. If they pay you to build a bridge, you spend your paycheck on rent and food and so on, and then those people have money to spend on other stuff. So, according to Keynes, there's a clear answer to how much Mr. Obama's administration should spend.

Alan Blinder

To raise the GDP by $1 trillion. Suppose your multiplier was around one and a half, so that would lead you to conclude that you needed about $650 billion as a stimulus. Voila. That's the kind of number they're talking about right now. You see it in the newspapers every day, a number in that range.

Adam Davidson

Have you done this more rigorously for yourself?

Alan Blinder

I have not, but I hope they have.

Adam Davidson

Right now, a lot of economists are supporting the idea of a stimulus package. There are people you'd expect, like Paul Krugman, a proud Keynesian at The New York Times, and there are some surprises like President Reagan's Chief Economic Adviser Martin Feldstein. When I talked to economists, I found a lot are in the middle, not convinced it'll work, but in the absence of anything else, they figure let's give it a try.

Alex Blumberg

But the frightening thing about a stimulus package is that no matter which economists you talk to-- the ones who want the Keynesian stimulus and the ones who think it's the worst idea ever-- are looking at exactly the same data. They're just coming to utterly opposite conclusions about it. This, even economists like Alan Blinder will tell you, is the problem with economics.

Alan Blinder

The biggest problem with learning things in economics is the inability to do controlled experiments. So we don't have-- unlike what is the case in many but not all sciences-- the definitive experiment. Right? This experiment they did in the 1920s proved that Einstein was right about the perturbation of mercury. It proved it. We can never do that in economics.

Alex Blumberg

The best you can have is a really good theory.

Alan Blinder

The best you can have is a real good theory. It's not going to work perfectly in a textbook manner all the time.

Alex Blumberg

For Tyler Cowen, though, this is about as good as it gets for testing Keynes's theory. Remember, he like a lot of anti-Keynesians, doesn't think Keynes got us out of the depression. He doesn't support Barack Obama's stimulus plan. He thinks Keynes was probably wrong. But if we do the stimulus and the economy quickly recovers--

Tyler Cowen

That would prove that Blinder is right and I am wrong.

Adam Davidson

Definitively?

Tyler Cowen

Well, no test is definitive, but it would be strong evidence. If we spend $700 billion and the economy recovers within a year or a year and a half, I would take that as serious evidence that my view is wrong. I don't think it will happen, but I would take it seriously.

Adam Davidson

So, this just happens to be-- just the elements that have come together right now have just accidentally created the perfect conditions for this test.

Tyler Cowen

Near perfect. I view this, if we decide to, as the first test of Keynesian fiscal policy as a formula for getting out of a depression. The very first test. It's one reason why I don't want to do it, because in my opinion, the idea's untested. So to spend, say, $1 trillion on an untested idea, in my view, is a mistake.

Adam Davidson

There are lots of economists who think a Keynesian stimulus would be a mistake for all sorts of reasons. Some say you don't need a stimulus to fix the recession because a recession isn't a disease that needs a cure. It is the cure. A recession brings down prices from a falsely inflated high. A recession is what makes houses affordable again.

Alex Blumberg

Others say a stimulus package might end the recession but then we'll have worse problems later on: vicious inflation, a bigger, less efficient government, and $1 trillion more in debt to pay off. The Obama administration is betting that none of this will happen. They're trusting a different theory. They're trusting Keynes.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg and Adam Davidson. You can hear them do economics coverage in normal human language several times a week at the Planet Money podcast. To find that, google Planet Money.

Credits.

Dave Hill

I told you, I'm out of the game. What'd you say? Actually it sounds like it might be kind of fun.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week for more stories of This American Life. P R I, Public Radio International.