Volume > Issue > You Can Say That?

You Can Say That?


By Pieter Vree | September 2019
Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

Mark G. Brennan suffers from stage-four cancer. If there’s a silver lining to having stage-four cancer, it’s that you’re free to speak your mind, even in public — you might not live long enough to suffer the consequences of your honesty.

Brennan is an adjunct associate professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He was recently invited to Cornell University (his alma mater) to address a group of visiting students from Beijing’s Tsinghua University on the subject of fiduciary duty — not the most riveting of topics, as even he admits. But these were China’s best and brightest from one of the top MBA programs at one of that nation’s most reputable research universities, and Brennan was interested in learning how they think, what makes them tick. So after delivering his talk, he opened the floor to questions. After a few routine queries about the topic at hand, he repeated his request for questions — about any topic. “One woman finally took the bait,” Brennan recounts in a column in Chronicles (July). “She asked me how cancer had changed my view of life. Good — the floodgates finally opened.” Thoughtful and varied questions poured forth from students who, Brennan surmises, don’t often get the chance to grill their professors on matters outside the day’s strict lesson plan.

Brennan began his talk by promising his audience the “unvarnished truth.” In response to a question about whether society is always improving and whether he was concerned about the expanding U.S. federal debt, he delivered on his promise. “Let’s be serious, it’s game over,” he intoned. The rest of what he calls “a confession disguised as a tirade” is worth considering in full:

The U.S. has $22 trillion in government debt, and just yesterday The Wall Street Journal ran a chart on its front page showing that Social Security goes into the red in 2020, decades earlier than we had originally thought. Warren Buffett, the world’s third richest man with a net worth around $86 billion, receives a monthly Social Security check, because we don’t means test. These are just two of the U.S.’s intractable problems. But Americans are too busy arguing about which gender pronouns they prefer and obsessing about the Mueller Report to acknowledge these financial weapons of mass destruction. We have wasted $5 trillion on a pointless and immoral war in Iraq. Your country, by contrast, has spent ¥5 trillion on Belt and Road infrastructure. You win. Game over. My grandchildren will be curled up in a fetal position, sucking their thumbs in the corner, while your grandchildren rule the world. Congratulations.

When Brennan finished his impassioned soliloquy, he stood there drained — remember, he has stage-four cancer — as the Tsinghua students spontaneously burst into applause. He wasn’t sure whether he should “laugh, cry, or clap along with them.”

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