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The Birth of Paupers

End of the RoadIf, like me, you allow your New Yorkers to collect until there’s a stack of them on the table near the door, staring at you balefully, accusingly, crying out to be read, then you should know there’s reason to check out the current issue. There’s a great article, which, bless them, they don’t want you to read for free. You can see the abstract of Nick Paumgarten’s “The Death of Kings” online or buy the magazine. (Do people still do that?) It’s worth it for the priceless reflections on when people knew, viscerally if not certainly, that our financial system was a joke.

“Most people by now may recall a moment of clarity, an inkling of doom,” he begins. Though no one expected the crash to be so big and so bad, there were signs all over the place. Now, it’s too late to do anything about those little epiphanies, but it is fun – if that’s the right word – to reflect on them. I thought something was up a few years ago when we had dinner with a hedge fund guy, the brother-in-law of a friend, who chatted with me about debt-based trading. I kept asking how that could possibly work, since someone at some point was stuck with the nothing on which it was all based. He told me if you were smart, it wouldn’t be you. That was it.

The real moment I saw for sure that things were untenable was last February. We were having dinner at what is now a commonplace staple of the Triangle dining scene, an expensive locavore restaurant. We ran into friends and got to chatting the way you do, between the so-so seviche and the too-rich-to-even-be-swallowed dessert. They told us about their latest plans to renovate the home they had recently finished renovating. The husband told me about the home theater he wanted to put in the basement. But it was going to be a lot, he told me, because “You can’t get a decent TV for under $20,000.” “Mmmm,” I mumbled, thinking, Whaaa? Did he really just say that? That’s when I knew that the world was mad. People were mad, lifestyles were mad crazy, and, really, it couldn’t go on.

Even before Lehman failed, we all knew that something was wrong. More importantly, that sumpin weren’t right. Now, it’s all out there and there’s no getting away from this crash or depression or whatever-you-call-it, even for an afternoon.

This thing is enormous and all-pervading, evolving and ongoing, history-altering yet in many respects banal. It is a persistent state, like the weather, or a chronic illness. … The loss of a job, a home, a college fund, or one’s dignity is both a symptom of the collective disaster and a contributor to its deepening.”

Like Zoe Heller’s formulation of depression, this global financial catastrophe is “a dull, inert thing — a toad that squatted wetly on your head until it finally gathered the energy to slither off.” The only thing we can do to lighten the mood, is what I do about everything upsetting, look back and laugh. Let’s play the new party game: When Did You See the End Coming?

3 Comments

  1. Rob Schofield

    May 17, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    For me, I think it may have been when I heard that the then-only-planned condos on the top 10 floors of the new downtown RBC skyscraper had supposedly sold out before anyone had even set foot in the new building. I mean, downtown Raleigh is great and really coming on, but a half-Mil for a modest sized apartment that one had only seen drawings of? That didn’t seem sustainable.

  2. gregflynn

    May 18, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I’ve been seeing it coming since October 1987 when the market confirmed what my gut was feeling. I don’t think there’s an end as such. As in a horror movie, the boom/bust cycle keeps coming back to life.

  3. Stephen Jackson

    May 18, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    I remember driving through the inland area around Naples, FL in 2005 and seeing new development after new development going up and thinking, “This is virtually a swamp. Who would want a McMansion here?” No surprise that this area is now a foreclosure capital.