October 21, 2008

and when I fell on the floor I drank more

10/21/08

Stop me, stop me, oh stop me if you've heard this one before, but a few months after 9/11, I was a blithering wreck. We were still living in downtown Manhattan, and having lost That Internet Job, I would purposely sleep past noon because I thought the next terrorist attack would surely happen before lunch, and if I could make it to 12pm, I knew I'd be safe.

I surfed the Web relentlessly in an insatiable, diseased quest to find out as much information as I could about the variously sickening ways terrorists could harm me and my family, and I stopped eating for about two weeks. By February, I had to go to the free clinic at NYU, where I was booked by a somnambulist intern who cared only that I not kill myself on his watch. I wrote emails to my family begging them to move out of Manhattan, then found a place for Tessa and me in Park Slope, only because it was at least two miles from any potential nuclear fireball.

I mention these things because I had my apocalyptic demons, and wrestled them to a truce. I did it with a very effective SSRI (Celexa), a fair amount of therapy, an amazing wife who could not be daunted, and the curious tincture of time. I needed all four of these things to remove myself from the brink, but I did it. And I like to think that the entire experience has completely inured me to the death and doomsaying currently enveloping America's financial meltdown.

This was put into stark relief by today's Zap Your PRAM recap, a talk by Rob Paterson on Saturday that was guaranteed to scare the living yakshit out of anyone within earshot. His talk broke down exactly what led to this mess, and the insanity of the "derivative market" – I mean, it's impossible to discuss this stuff without thinking the American way of making money isn't much better than a Nigerian email scam.

At this point in our discussion, you must listen to two separate episodes of "This American Life". I've had them forwarded to me at least ten times now, and they explain the whole thing better than anyone else: The Giant Pool of Money and Another Frightening Show About the Economy. Don't worry, I'll wait.

ScotchTastingZap2(bl).jpg
I led a scotch tasting Friday night – god knows we needed it (photo by N. Burka)

So Rob, who knows his business, got very scary near the end of his discussion. It verged on nightmarish scenarios of growing your own dinner, finding old people who know how to cure meat for the winter, and questions like "How many days of food does Prince Edward Island have at any one moment?" (Answer: two.) It's a world where cars don't work, electricity is scarce and you better have five cords of firewood in order to make it to April.

Now, I'm not saying this can't happen. What I am saying is that contemplating this kind of future is a miserable mind game I can't afford. Rob (who is thoughtful and frightfully intelligent) is not guilty of this, but I have known many people who have a certain glee about this kind of apocalyptic porn, a certain wide-eyed fascination with the whole fuckin' world crashing down around us, a drown-em-all mentality that has its roots in the flood parables of Noah and the destruction of Sodom.

I just can't go there anymore. I have a daughter, I have a family, and I'm simply not willing to contemplate keeping a shotgun under my bed in case roving Mad Max bandits try to raid our beet preserves. This is not to say we're not prepared for a national emergency: we've got months of food supplies, gallons of fresh water, emergency cash, a "go bag" and an escape plan. But those were borne of other emergencies – post-9/11 preparedness and, of course, earthquakes.

Rob did end on a very interesting note. He said that money had taken the place of relationships, and it's positively true. Grandmothers and family members used to share the burden of raising children, and now we throw money at nannies and babysitters. Men and women used to cut grass and tend gardens, and now we throw money at lawn services that mow grass we don't play in anymore.

In this new world, we would have to re-establish relationships with our neighbors, barter for the things we need, and mix our lives together. We'd have to know the guy who knows the lady who knows the guy. It would be a new "localism", and the absence of money would bring about the rebirth of friendship. I was left to wonder: is there a way to do that without a reducing our economy to the Bronze Age?

In closing, I don't think Rob thought this economic collapse would last forever, and we might come back even stronger in 5-7 years. I posited that an energy invention – a true replacement for oil – could come from the USA, and give us a true American Renaissance. He added that the Renaissance followed the Dark Ages, but, well, "keep your powder dry until 2011":

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Posted by Ian Williams at October 21, 2008 11:04 PM
Comments
Posted by: ALan at October 22, 2008 4:28 AM

I left before Rob spoke but have followed his ideas for a long time. We disagree but we also like each other a lot as he also does a lot of good work building community through NPR, one of my favorite thngs to be involved with myself when I am pretending I am American.

I have issues with his economic thoughts from two sides. First, I mow my lawn, plant food and barter for venison. I know plenty like that, plenty of hunters and gardeners who have not off-loaded my life through throwing money at it. Second, I think the resilience of the market is missed. While I am a centre-left sort of person, the strength of the market is in its ability to react and adapt with amazing speed and confidence. Yes, there is the shell game aspect to bubbles - ask any informed Scot about the Darian project from around 1690 and watch the eyes well up.

The market is reacts in a human way and humans have survived and not fallen into that Mad Max society. I am quite convinced that green technology is not only the next wave of strength but likely the next bubble as well. I will see six more bubbles come and go before I die.

Posted by: Anne at October 22, 2008 5:09 AM

"Apocalyptic porn" -- yeah, that's right; lot of that circulating these days. I won't drink the Kool-Ade either. And it's not because I don't believe some of it; it's because a smidgen of ostrich behavior saves my sanity, without which I'd be worse than useless to anyone.

Just have to plug away, one day at a time, going to work, cooking the meals, taking care of the (mostly grown up) kids, catching a movie now and then. The sun still rises most days, the stars come out at night, and in the vast expanse of the universe, outside of time, I tell myself: All will be well. Or at least, all will BE.

Posted by: Dan James at October 22, 2008 5:21 AM

I tend to agree. I think Rob's talk was bang-on up until the speculation on the future. Will we end up eating potatoes and turnips for every meal on PEI? Probably not. I think, as is usually the case, the reality will be between the two extremes. We won't be bartering web services for beaver skins but it won't be the same as it has been for the past 10 years.

I also think there is a compound problem that will be shortly alleviated. We have a client who is a seventh generation family business (retail). They pointed out that in their 200+ year history every single presidential election year has been a down year.


Posted by: Claudia at October 22, 2008 7:43 AM

You might enjoy reading at least part of _The Complete Tightwad Gazette_. It's ostensibly a dated money-saving tome from the early 1990's, but its enduring power comes from encouraging a do-it-yourself-without-fear kind of mentality. I'm taking stabs at doing all kinds of things an urban yuppie never would have thought of doing before: baking my own bread, making my kids' Halloween costumes, cooking the greens along with the beet roots, etc. I'm hardly Martha Stewart, but I'm finding it tremendously fulfilling to be more in control of my household and my family's needs. I think most of our stress surrounding the current financial situation has to do with issues of fear and control.

Posted by: emma at October 22, 2008 10:50 AM

Who knew that Hogwarts was really in PEI? Can you see that someone is watching the scotch tasting through the flue network in the fire.

Seriously though, having been through a couple of hurricanes with extended power outages, it is amazing how neighborhoods bond during those times. You see people on porches, gather to cook outside on a grill and actually talk instead of sitting around in front of some kind of monitor. It almost makes you a little sad when the electricity comes back on and everyone holes back up in their houses.

Posted by: Andy at October 22, 2008 11:51 AM

Ian - I would love to hear your take on the Zeitgeist: Addendum movie. This is the one that deals with the monetary system.

Posted by: Freddie at October 22, 2008 6:10 PM

Don't read The Road. Serious bummer.

Posted by: oliver at October 23, 2008 9:13 AM

Yeah, I'm sure the Renaissance was a serious consolation after those Dark Ages. Especially if you'd died from Plague. Giotto would have been a breath of fresh air.

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