Concerning Brokerages and Political Discontent

November 20, 2010

Park & Broad, Hartford

While translating an article on the current financial crisis from English to Spanish, I realized that I didn’t know the word for “brokerage” in Spanish, so I looked it up. Usually when I am translating and go to the dictionary, it turns out that I knew the word already, whether in English or Spanish (for this happens both ways – sometimes I encounter a Spanish word that I understand perfectly but for which I cannot conjure an English analog), but couldn’t quite remember it at the moment. This is both frustrating and reassuring: frustrating because time is money and I want to be good and efficient at what I do, but reassuring in greater measure because it reminds me, “Oh, I did know that word. My vocabulary is expansive because I am well-read in two languages, and worldly.” The immediate familiarity of a forgotten word in my second language gives me the same gentle self-satisfaction as when I recognize obscure allusions in an erudite person’s jokes.

The Spanish word for brokerage is “corretaje,” and this word gave me no such warm feeling. I have definitely never heard the word before – and why would I have? In my day job I am public defender at the juvenile court in Hartford, Connecticut. About half the people I talk to on a given day speak Spanish, and it is safe to say that none of them are brokers or transact business with brokerages. I would even hazard that most of them, like me, have never heard the word “corretaje.”

Now, I can discern a relationship between “corretaje” and “correr” – to run – and in some recess of my brain there is a memory of learning in college, somehow, that “corredores” were people who once had some role in formal commercial transactions. Still, this word basically feels like a collection of letters with no particular connection to its substance. But that makes me ask: what is the substance of a brokerage? What does that word mean in English, and what is it that a brokerage house does? I have no fucking idea.

OK, I am overstating the case a little bit. I can surmise that brokerages collect or are placed in charge of money that is not their own, and then invest this money to the advantage of its owners, with some significant residual benefits for the brokerages themselves. I cannot begin to imagine, however, what the daily activities of a broker might comprise. Are they on the phone a lot? In meetings? Giving Powerpoint presentations? I have listened to all those collaborations between This American Life and NPR’s Planet Money team in which Alex Bloomberg and Hanna Joffe Walt explain the financial crisis in a way that east coast liberals like me will understand, and I have done some wikipedia research, but that shit refuses to stick in my head. Brokers wear fancy suits, they work long hours, and then they go drink scotch and look at strippers and buy mansions in Fairfield County. Later, somehow, the whole economy gets ruined.

Here’s the thing: my clients who have no idea what a “corretaje” is are poor, Spanish-speaking teenagers in one of the poorest cities in the nation, or they are the struggling working-class parents of these teenagers. That is not to say they are not smart – plenty of them are – but they don’t have much occasion to meet brokers, let alone deal with brokerages. in contrast, I am a lawyer, highly educated and solidly middle-class. I have an actual 401(k) plan, with which brokerages are likely involved in some way. I have met a number of brokers in casual social settings. Sometimes, I have asked them to explain to me what the hell they do with their days, and infrequently, they have obliged. Still, I am clueless about brokerages.

All of this makes me understand very well the nihilistic apoliticality that prevails among my clients and their families: Somehow, a bunch of rich people were legitimately employed at jobs where they inexplicably got richer while decimating the nation’s economy. Now the government has massive debt that needs to be paid off. The President – a man of modest origins, our first non-white President, elected thanks to massive participation by black, hispanic, and poor voters – created a commission to figure out how to reduce this debt, and the commission proposed, among other things, reducing Social Security benefits, raising the retirement age to 69, lowering corporate taxes, and increasing the gas tax. What the fuck?


One Response to “Concerning Brokerages and Political Discontent”

  1. I would have gotten to the “What the fuck!” a lot sooner, but not in way as viscerally satisfying.

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