Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Lilies and Lehman Brothers

Yesterday the Dow dropped over 500 points. Today I read in the paper that specialists think we've almost hit bottom. And in many articles recently I notice the term "cratering" peppers the text. A bleak term, conjuring for me the desolate landscape of the moon. A peer told me yesterday, "Cratering -- it's what's left after a massive explosion."

Which is funny, because to me the situation has none of the immediacy or clarity of an explosion. Things aren't happening all at once; anything but. Rather it feels in New York as though we're all witnesses to the slow-motion collapse of a building, floor by floor. This isn't a bomb going off, it's dominoes, phantom, in the dark dominoes where you're not exactly sure what touches on what or what might be the next to lose its steadiness. While we were caught up with evaluating our $850 billion bailout, the European banks began to wobble significantly. And if we react too soon or dramatically, we may escalate the whole thing. There's little clarity about how to react at all.

The media, as far as I can tell, points to consumer fear as that which is driving things forward, even as it creates special title sequences like "Economy in Peril," with urgent music and reportage scarier than a Wes Craven movie. Perhaps our situation can cause the American scene to do some soul searching about more than just the portfolio of our investments.

Strangely, as I walk through Manhattan streets these days, things seem much the same as always. One still hears the familiar sirens of police cars going to a crime scene; passersby hurry down the sidewalks, irrespective of signals or other pedestrians; vendors sell ice cream and hot dogs on the street corners. And tourists wander through Midtown, where I live, hand in hand, off to see a show or wonder at the nighttime pulse of Times Square.

Lehman Brothers may have collapsed; the name has changed on the door. But the building still stands, bold and eye-catching as ever with its wrap-around two-story TV screens. Doormen still stand outside the doors, and investment bankers zip in and out as on the run as ever. So, too, AIG, Morgan Stanley, and on and on.

If there's a change to be heard, it's maybe a change in key. What was confident and energized still appears so, but the chord that sounds now introduces a note of question or uncertainty. What is this world that we're all so tied into ? It lives and dies on our commitment to it, but it is all it's cracked up to be? What is happening and what does it all mean?

And commentators can talk about consumers ruled by fear, but I must say, when I take my wallet out of my pocket, I am thinking of what I am doing in a different way. The act of spending itself stands out in a new way.

At a talk last Friday Thomas Frank from the Wall Street Journal commented on the he notion of greed that many have talked about. He argues, "It's not greed, it's the structure. There’s layer upon layer of culprits, from the people who appraised your house to the people who handed out the subprime mortgages like candy."

The lesson to be learned is not about who to trust, but the perils of deregulation: "This is what the system will do if we let it. When you stop the regulation, this is what people will do. The greed is in the structure."

A buddy of mine from Australia recently wrote an article about the spiritual dimensions of all this. I'll post it on this blog tomorrow.

Jesus took care of the sparrows and the lilies that live but a day. If them, how much more will he take care of you.

1 comment:

Ken said...

Seamus, oh Seamus. What a spot-on observation--and brilliantly put.