Proposing another kind of freeze

What to do about the economy? We're planning to come up with the perfect solution, just as soon as we can figure out our income tax, and maybe balance our January statement. In the meantime, like everybody else, we have a friend who has a theory.

Our friend, like yours, can stab a truly accusing finger in the direction of OPEC.

He is willing to take a firm stand on the monetary policy of the Federal Reserve, or even two firm stands, like a really good economist.

He will also tell you that government spending and taxes are having terrible effects on inflation. But don't make him mad by asking just where and just how.

Our friend took an evening course in investment analysis about ten years ago, and when he gets mad, he will snap that he knows as much about economics as a peanut farmer or a movie actor.

When he is through displaying the breadth and depth of his knowledge -- give him two minutes, three at the outside -- our friend gets down to his theory.

Stabilizing the dollar on the Japanese exchange is just fine, he concedes, but stability begins at home -- and he does mean at home, with the neighborhood bank. He calls his argument the Stable Teller Theory.

Our friend happens to be a New Yorker,taking his custom to a midtown branch of one of the biggest banks in Manhattan. And yet, until just a couple of years ago, the tellers, he says, were as constant -- as in place -- as the cold-cuts man in his neighborhood delicatessen and the best barber (third chair from the door) in his neighborhood barbershop.

Same teller's window, same teller's face.

And the economy was a rock.

Now everything's changed. From week to week a new set of strangers stare out at him from behind those bars, coldly. His check gets lifted by fastidious and doubting fingers. When they phone up the computer -- after mispronouncing his name to him -- they frown thoughtfully into the middle distance as if listening to really ghastly news about his bank balance, his credit rating, and quite possibly his personal character.

Our friend certainly feels his financial empire shake while all this is going on. But worse, he says he feels the bank tremble beneath him too.

Why, it's as if the bank were changing its name every month or so, our friend complains. What else were all those marble pillars and granite walls saying in the old-fashioned bank?

You wouldn't change the faces on your currency, he asks, now would you? Changing tellers, he maintains, has the same effect as finding Millard Fillmore's face on a ten-dollar bill.

The tiny FDIC sign, promising him that his account is insured, simply cannot make up for the unsettling effect of all these strangers doing William-G.-Miller- knows-what with his money.

Our friend suspects that the interchangeable-teller policy is a preliminary step to replacing all tellers with robots. He is trying to see the bright side of this future. If Chase Manhattan and all the rest can just invent and program a Mrs. Abernathy doll, the automated banking world, he is certain, will be a better place.

Mrs. Abernathy, in the first window, had wavy white hair and these wonderfully sympathetic eyes when she pushed her bifocals to the end of her nose to say good morning. She pronounced your name better than you did yourself. When you gave her money, you could hear vault doors close. When she gave you money, you thought it was your grandmother, pulling a mince pie out of the oven.

You didn't need the FDIC when Mrs. Abernathy was around.

Our friend doubts that the President could restore fiscal confidence, even if he should freeze wages and prices. But if the President would only freeze tellers, that would be a beginning. In matters of confidence, our friend keeps saying, it's the little things that count.

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