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Sticks & Stones

This week, Nathan calls names as he compares politics to high school and bites back at the mean girls making fun of Egypt…

Most of us discovered the power of names early on in our lives. Not the ones we’re born with, but the ones we earn – or have forced on us.

The deadliest and wittiest insult is nothing next to a nickname that clings to you, follows you through your life and defines you for everyone you know. It was the first power given to Adam, and it let him rule the world. How ironic, then, that the greatest, most merciless, most Machiavellian name-givers of all time are pre-teen girls.

They’re artists. These tween tyrants can take everything you’ve ever been or ever wanted to be, the truest part of you, and instantly remold you. Like magic they pin your entire existence into one vile phrase. It spreads like wildfire through your peers, and in front of their eyes you’re transformed into a monster – Skankopatra. Zit Lick. Gut Wiggle.

By the power of Hoth! By the power of Lucifer! By the power of Bieber! We curse thee!

Alhamdoulillah, their dark powers extend only as far as the edge of school grounds. Wouldn’t it be terrifying if a group of these girls had real influence, could work their nickname magic on grownups, on companies, on entire countries? Think of the power they could wield, the careers and economies they could smash on a whim, the amount of sucking-up they’d demand in tribute to stay their awful wrath.

Prepare your best rubber-and-glue comeback, then, because they’re real. A trio of label-spewing girls positioned so high that their every little word falls on our heads like a meteor. Their names are Moody, Fitch, and S&P; the three largest credit ratings agencies. They like to size up countries, companies, and securities and decide if they’re cool enough to lend money to.

Instead of Pizza Face or Thightanic, these girls give out really boring nicknames, like AA+ or BBB. It’s how they keep the riffraff from understanding what the hell they’re talking about. The worse your nickname is, the less everyone wants to lend to you, and the higher the interest rates you’ve got to pay. If you’re AAA, you’re the coolest kid in school – everyone wants to hang out with you, everyone wants to buy your bonds (which is the same as giving you a loan), and the yield (or interest) is low. If you’re CC or Baa3, you’re scum, you’re picked last for gym, nobody wants to lend to you or play tag, and your yields are sky-high.

The whole thing is a vicious circle. If you’re not cool, the popular girls don’t like you. They give you a terrible name, and then you’re even less cool. Odds are you’re not that good at being cool in the first place, so the extra pressure of the label makes it even less likely that anyone will ever want to be your lab partner. If a country’s in trouble, downgrading it makes it more expensive for it to borrow the money that it needs, which sinks it even deeper into debt, which tends to make everyone freak the hell out and do stupid things like put taxes on cooking oil.

S&P doesn’t think we’re cool anymore! Quick, start smoking and cut the education budget!

That’s the scenario that just played out in Egypt. First Fitch came up to us, which was weird, since S&P is usually the queen bee. Fitch looked us up and down, a sneer curling her lip as she took in our street demonstrations, our currency depreciation, our cheap shoes and terrible acne. “Those energy subsidies are so last season. What are your foreign reserves?  Like three months’ worth of imports? Pssh. You are such a B.”

And there it was. Egypt was a B. Later Fitch’s friend Moody came by and called us a B3, which means the same thing in her made-up little language. She also pushed us into our locker. We whined about it for a while, but frankly no one was really surprised. When you’ve got a bad case of Islamist government giving you dandruff and lousy GDP growth all over your face, it’s gonna come back to bite you at some point. Beneath the pre-teen witches’ withering look of contempt, Egypt’s stock took a stumble and investors headed for the door (even faster than they had been).

The funny thing is, these girls only have power because we let them. Just like at schools, everyone can just decide that they’re full of it and not pay any attention. Just look at the US: S&P downgraded the US a while back for the first time in history, called it an AA+, and now yields are as low as they’ve ever been since the Civil War. It’s basically free money. Now the US is suing S&P for $1 billion, punching the agency in the face for calling them fat.

As much as it hurts our feelings, getting called bad names by Moody and Fitch (and probably S&P before too much longer) won’t really affect much. Egypt never socializes much at recess; like any good Arab boy it prefers hanging out the gang from the old neighborhood. It’s the international investors that really care what the trio thinks, and they’ve never wanted much to do with us anyway. Most of Egypt’s debt is owed to people inside Egypt, and they don’t give a damn what some mean little girl is calling us. It helps that their yields are already already sky-high (more on that it a later column; it’s completely insane).

Did the bad girl make you cry? Don’t worry, we’ll always be right here with you. You and your beautiful money.
Really, all Fitch and Moody did was remind us of what we already know. The country’s in trouble, the economy is on a downward slide that no one seems to have the courage to stop. But this country was a great empire thousands of years before the credit ratings agencies put on their first sparkly lip gloss. We can handle a few dirty names.