"Hello! You've reached the United States Treasury's automated bailout hotline. Please listen carefully, because our options have recently changed. If you're too big to fail, press or say 'one.' If not, hang up and dial 1-800-FOR-FEMA.' "
"Great! You've selected Option One. If you're a bank, press or say 'one.' If you're a brokerage firm, press or say 'two.' If you're an insurance company, press or say 'three.' "
"You've selected Option Three, which means you're an insurance firm. Did I get that right?"
"Okay, let's drill down a little further. If you're calling because you're besieged by class-action lawsuits brought by take-no-prisoners plaintiffs' attorneys because your large corporate policyholders committed innumerable mass toxic torts, press or say 'one.' If you're calling because you insured billions of dollars' worth of undocumented, nonperforming mortgages, press or say 'two.' "
"Two. No, wait, one. I mean, uh, both."
"I'm sorry. I didn't understand. Let's try something else. If you're the CEO of an insurance company with a servile compensation committee that gave you an irrevocable golden parachute, press or say 'one.' If you've served on corporate boards with Henry Paulson, press or say 'two.' If you believe in strict market Darwinism for every company but yours, press or say 'three' "
"If you want your check automatically deposited into your company's bank account, press or say 'one.' If you want cash in small, unmarked, used, nonsequential bills delivered to a branch office in Zurich or the Cayman Islands, press or say 'two.' "
[Silence. Thinking. Surge of fiduciary energy.]
"Okay. Please enter the amount you want using the number keys. Use the star sign for a decimal point and press pound when you've finished."
[Lengthy series of numbers entered, followed by the pound sign.]
"Wow! You are in trouble! Your funds should clear in three business days. When you have another claim, call back. Thank you for calling, and have a great day!"
Alan Neff, a lawyer and novelist who lives in Chicago.