NEW YORK -- The half-hourly shuttle flights between New York, Washington and Boston were grounded for a couple of hours last Thursday because of a line of thunderstorms crossing the northeastern United States. So, along with hundreds of other people, I spent the hours between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. in the relatively pleasant waiting area of Delta Airlines, reading, talking and listening.
I was talking politics with a friend. But we may have been the only ones. The word I heard most often floating above the din of conversation, cell phone calls and television was "NASDAQ."
I am decorated veteran of the shuttle wars, going back to the time when Eastern Airlines began the service with dinged and dented old Lockheed Electra turboprops, and you could fly every hour on the hour between the three capitals of the East for $14. You were guaranteed a seat if you got there before the little hand reached "12." They said they would roll out another plane for one passenger if the first "section" was filled.
There were, almost always, well-known people aboard, usually politicians. There are reports in the National Archives from Nixon administration spies on who was sitting next to whom on the shuttle and what they were talking about. People would play a game about who would be in the lead paragraph of the next day's newspapers if the plane crashed. "NEW YORK -- "Senator X and 72 others were ..."
That's history now. Eastern Airlines went bust, other airlines took over the route, which now belongs to Delta, on the half-hour, and US Airways, on the hour. The regular fare now is $202.50. The lounges are nicer; you can get any business newspaper or magazine free. There are Bloomberg Business News work stations next to the ticket counter, and the television is pumping out stock prices and merger musing. The place is a living monument to the national pastime -- and I don't mean baseball.
The new national pastime is stock speculation. Playing the market, trading stocks, talking about stocks, reading about stocks -- that is the action on the shuttle now. If the plane crashed, the lead would be what effect it would have on Delta stock.
And if these folks, the well-dressed men and women -- the shuttles were almost all male in the old days -- were talking about baseball or any other sport, the subject would turn on contracts, revenues and salary caps. If they were talking about politics, the subject would turn on fund-raising. The root of the excitement being generated by John McCain over the last few weeks was that he was talking about soft money and campaign finance. Imagine this: The man managed to get attention without paying for it! Politics? Fuhgeddabout it! One of the magazines I skimmed reported that the smartest political voice on television, Jeff Greenfield of CNN, was getting his own show on public television. It is called "CEO Exchange." Each show will highlight two chief executives appearing on business school campuses. I not only remember the Eastern Shuttle, I remember when PBS was called anti-business. Now it is, more or less, the Public Business Network, with a few "Frontlines" thrown in now and then.
In fact, one of the next CEOs on the Greenfield show will be William Stavropoulos, the president and CEO of Dow Chemical Co. I remember Dow; it used to be on television all the time -- napalm and all that. But the company was not on college campuses in those days.
Life goes on. Business, especially the subdivisions called investing and entrepreneurship, have triumphed across the board and most borders. Capitalism has been expanded and democratized, which is certainly a good thing. But nothing is forever, including stock prices. Bringing this back to politics, a wise old political head told me the other day that the next president would be a one-termer -- because he is going to take the hit when this speculative economy deflates. That's life going on, too.
This is an extraordinary time. Things have been going so well for so long for so many of the folks using the shuttle these days that you wonder what they will fall back on when the good times stop rolling. I asked a plumber I know on Long Island how things were going. "Great," he said. Wall Street money runs down the street like rainwater around New York. He said his last job was tacking a $90,000 bathroom onto a house near the beach.
In fact, he got $180,000 because he did the job twice. It was a suprise 25th birthday present for a guy's new wife. She loved it -- whirlpools and all that -- but she thought it would look better on the other side of the house. So down it came, and up it went again on the other side.
"I feel a little sorry for these people," the plumber told me. Why? I certainly didn't.
"Well, I'm not sure they'll know how to live when times go bad."
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