Like Wile E. Coyote plotting his next move as his fur still sizzles from the last Acme bomb, Mr. X is making plans for a triumphant return to the glamorous world of High Finance. "I've got an opportunity in real estate," he explains: "Bringing affordable housing to the people who've been shut down by primary and secondary financial institutions." It sounds like an ambitious project for a guy who works at an auto repair shop.
But Mr. X used to be a high roller in the financial community. Hired to oversee legal and financial conditions in the parent company of a savings and loan, he turned a blind eye to the S&Ls' shady dealings. "The risky things were happening in California I and the parent company were in another state. I thought, Nothing will happen to me, which of course was fallacy. But when you reach that kind of height in the corporate world, sometimes you feel that you're infallible."
Even sitting in a dreary beer-and-pizza joint, wearing a humble work shirt, Mr. X emanates a ruthless sort of pragmatism. Despite his warm humor and surprising optimism, it's not hard to picture him signing the papers that would put innocent citizens' hard-earned savings at risk. "Bullshit!" he insists. "These hardworking middle-class people get very greedy, ripe to jump at anything that's going to make them money, especially if it's under the table." He concedes that greed fueled the S&L management, too. "Greed has a way of blinding any sort of rational thought."
Mr. X should know. His colleague went on to be indicted, sent to prison, and despised by millions as one of the most audacious figures in the S&L scandal for his misuse of financial clout to fund crass political shenanigans. "I didn't do it," Mr. X says, "He caused the problem, he stole the money."
Friends in the Justice Department saved Mr. X from charges of obstructing justice in the S&L proceedings. "I said, 'If I'm indictable, indict me. If not, get out of my office.' They take a dim view of that, the government." His reputation had already gone down with that of his colleague. Since his refusal to testify, Mr. X and his accounts have been attacked repeatedly by federal agencies, including the IRS.
The upshot? Mr. X remains sequestered away in a town he abhors, busying himself with car repairs to keep from going stir-crazy while he awaits another round of legal battles with the government. He lives modestly: until the final court decision, it would be imprudent to play the market or report a high income. He attends to his health: after the scandal broke, Mr. X suffered a heart attack and subsequently gained 50 pounds under an incorrect dosage of heart medicine. Amazingly, he keeps his faith in the American Dream.
"If you're willing to put in the time and effort, if you're motivated, there's not a lot you can't accomplish in this country. It can be done by anybody, anytime, anyplace, but you've got to be willing to pay your dues, and most people aren't. They complain, they whine and snivel." Mr. X is scornful of most people, but his eyes gleam when he describes the opportunities they're passing up. "Most wealth is concentrated in a very few hands, of people who have a vested interest in the system not falling down. Take a look around you most people don't even know the rules and regulations they live under. Well then, learn! If Rockefeller can use the IRS system to his advantage, why the hell can't you?"
After observing first-hand the liberties taken with people's money by supposedly stable institutions and, after a half-decade of fending off powerful bureaucracies, Mr. X still advocates using the system to find personal success and security. "If you get motivated, the system will not shit on you. You will use the system." What about money? He recommends hard work, maintaining a savings account even when you're young and poor, and setting solid goals. "At the end of the day, money's just a way to keep score. Most people in the hierarchy of the financial community know this: money is something to be used as a tool."
To some of us, the S&L scandal was a dramatic enactment of what we'd always suspected: that the American Dream and the financial system upon which it rests are fragile illusions, corrupt to the core. But it's strangely comforting to hear Mr. X's old-fashioned advice. What would seem corny coming from the mouth of a naïf or a dullard sounds smart, sensible, and even touching under these circumstances. "Money's just a means of exchange," he finishes. "But it also offers freedom to do exactly what the hell you want to do. Isn't it worth it, even if that's your only goal?"