World Gone Broke

What’s Going to Happen Now That All the Money’s Gone

Victor/Victoria is an extremely silly movie that makes me feel sorry for James Garner, but it does have its moments, and one of them is when Robert Preston and Julie Andrews are having their first heart-to-heart over how they’ve both fallen on hard times. She at one point asks, “So you don’t have any money at all?” and he answers, “Cassé,” making this casual little popsicle-stick breaking gesture as he does, “but I hope to see you again when I’m flush.”

I just love that attitude. In adult life we become so used to thinking of money by degrees: affluent, well-off, rich, super-rich, lower-class, upper-class, upper-lower-middle-class — these infinite rungs on an infinite ladder. Maybe that’s just the way things are in America, where thanks to all that Puritan bullshit we’re hyper-aware of our economic standing in relation to those around us.

Ah, but not so Robert Preston; not so the chronic gambler or the junkie or that near-extinct creature (except in some parts of the south of England) the gadabout. For them, money is an all-or-nothing proposition. You either have it, or you don’t.

If you have it, you spend it. As much and as fast as ever you may, because who knows when the money will come ’round again? And if you don’t, well, you get by. To quote the bartender from Hard Boiled, you can’t lose all the time. Sooner or later your luck is bound to change. ’Til then you sponge off friends, cage drinks at the bar, run up the tab anywhere you can get credit, kite a few checks, hit the pawn shop if need be, and always, always be ready to skip town.

I bring the subject up because, I’m sad to say, we’re all about to go broke.

Well, not all all; the über-rich people, the ones so far up the ladder we can’t even see them from here, they’ll retreat into their compounds. There, safe behind their high walls and their close-captioned security cams, they will still have and do all those things that are the outward signs of material wealth: Jet Skis, outlandish footwear, spa treatments, Paris Hilton. But I imagine that without poor people to whom they can compare their lifestyles, life behind those walls will become an accelerating downward spiral of decadence and depravity until all the rich people of the world are at last consumed in a gigantic orgy of incest and cannibalism. I hope someone tapes it.

For the rest of us, frankly, we’re going to have to get by, because the money is gone. It all got spent, then borrowed twice over and spent again. And there’s nowhere to really skip town to because the next town is just like this one, and the next and the next all the way out to Timbuktu and back again.

Now, at this point some of you are getting your hackles up, saying, “Well, I always paid my bills on time. I never ran up my credit card debt. I saved for the things I wanted and budgeted for the life I could afford to live.” To which I say: sucker. You should have pulled a Robert Preston. You should have spent it while you had it. That expensive car, that lavish meal, that gold-diggin’ girl/man — even the memories of those things will soon be more valuable than the pittance left in your 401k.

Of course there are people to blame. There were plenty of people who were greedy and dumb, and no doubt some of them will get some sort of punishment — or a least admonishment. But, really, no amount of blaming people will fix things. And besides, as a species, we’re pretty greedy and dumb to begin with. If I was an investment banker, I can’t say I’d have behaved any more responsibly. Can you?

The government will make a valiant go of it, but it’s only throwing good money after bad. The only real way through this mess is to let everything hit rock bottom, try to take what lessons we can, and then slowly, painfully climb our way back up. And in the course of all that, things are just going to suck.

By which I don’t mean it’s going to totally suck. You want to see what things look like when they totally suck? Look at some pictures of Warsaw in 1945. This isn’t going to be like that. It isn’t going to be the America you read about in Grapes of Wrath, either, and it certainly isn’t going to be the Australian outback you saw in The Road Warrior. In fact, ultimately, a lot of good is probably going to come out of all this.

For one thing, there’s the Millennials. Yeah, them: those smug kids born sometime around ’85 who can’t be bothered to put on a tie for a job interview, who think flip-flops are shoes and go into convulsions if they’re separated from their cell phones for more than thirty seconds. That generation has been just begging history to come along and smack them upside the head.

Not that they’re all a bunch of feckless twerps; it’s just that as a group, they’ve really been coasting. Well, now it’s time for them to step up. And sure, they might have it rough for a while, like the fat kid at summer camp for the first time who gets thrown from the horse, capsizes the canoe, is stung by bees, and is always teased by the older campers. But damn it, that kid comes back at the end of summer and he’s lost some weight; he has some stories to tell and some skills he’s picked up, and if he can manage the trauma, he’s the better for having survived it. Well, Millennials? You’re supposed to be all adaptive and tech-savvy and unblinkered by the prejudices of the past. We could really use some of that right now in getting us out of this mess.

For another thing, there are the Baby Boomers. Yeah, them: those smug older people born sometime around ’55, with their bell-bottoms and their summer homes and their golf carts and their bottomless sense of entitlement. That generation has effectively been at the steering wheel of this country for the last forty years, fighting and re-fighting the ideological battles of their teenage years with no regard for the damage they’ve been doing the country.

And just as they were all set to take that long, slow train down to Boca, collect their social security checks, and run out the clock, a lot of them are finding out that they’re going to have to go back to work. Which is as it should be, because a lot of this mess is on their account. (Yeah, yeah, I know I said earlier that blaming people does nothing to fix our problems, but it is nevertheless a fantastic stress reliever.)

Seriously, a lot of the dysfunction of the American economic system — the lopsided consumerism, the misplaced priorities — has to be put at the Baby Boomers’ doorstep. And by the same token, that generation has an important role to play in fixing this mess. Otherwise the coming wave of entitlement money for Social Security and Medicare is going to strangle any recovery in the bassinette. So how ’bout it, Boomers? How about recapturing some of that idealism of your youth and working — and sacrificing — to make a better future not just for yourselves but for everyone?

And hey, speaking as a member of whatever generation it is I’m supposed to be a part of — I dunno, “Generation X” sounds so 1994 — maybe all of this is just sour grapes. Maybe I’m pissed that for their high school years the generation before me had all the sex, drugs, and classic rock they could handle, while the generation after me got X-Box, cell phones, and guilt-free oral. All we ended up with was that Reagan sumbitch and people telling us that if we did actually have the sex, it would probably kill us horribly.

Plus the Millennials and the Boomers are just so chummy together. You would think they were almost parent and child.

Well, apart from this hopeful generational reconciliation, some other good things will probably come out of the meltdown. People will read more. People will go for more walks. People will spend more time with their kids and their friends and their parents. All those DIY skills people once used to boost the resale value of their condos will come in handy as we all start to do more of our own plumbing, our own cabinetry and drywall and electrical installation.

Ditto that for doing your own automotive repair, growing your own food, and sewing your own clothes. You remember being amazed at stories of how freakin’ handy the people back in the Great Depression once were? “Great-uncle Carl once built a biplane in the barn out of spare combine parts and canvas” — that sort of shit? The coming decade is going to see people get a lot more handy.

And another parallel to the Great Depression — although I would like to stress again that what I think we’re going to go through will look very different — will be in how people get jobs and advance through them. Don’t get me wrong: there are going to be a lot fewer jobs out there than there were before. I’m thinking we may hit 17 to 18 percent unemployment before things pick up again. What I’m talking about is how people get their foot in the door and advance up the ladder.

There has been entirely too much nepotism, clubbism, classism, and cronyism in the modern American workplace. Too much “what school did you go to?” and “oh, so you’re so-and-so’s son?” It’s all about giving the high-paying jobs to the sons and daughters of the wealthy and to my mind it smacks of a new aristocracy. Well good-bye and good riddance to that. In the coming decade the jobs are going to go to the smart, hungry young people who show some hustle and will work for peanuts. If they make money for their employers, they’ll move up and start making money for themselves. If not, they’ll get the boot, because the prospectives will be lined up ten deep outside the door, waiting for their shot.

And with any luck that attitude will filter all the way up to the boardrooms. The days of the CEO making four hundred times what the guy on the factory floor does are over. All those big-wigs from GM, Chrysler, and Ford who went bailout-begging to Washington the other week, when they agreed to work for a symbolic $1 salary, you could tell they thought it was just a temporary gesture. Just ’til things picked up again. The boards of those companies are going to see things in a very different light. CEOs the nation over are about to be reminded of just how very red in tooth and claw capitalism can be.

The hardest area for me to speculate about is probably the one that will have the most impact on people’s lives: technology. Put simply, as technology offers choices, the economy will force decisions. Do you really need a landline if you have a cell phone? Do you really need a television if you have a computer? Do you really need a car if you have sufficient bandwidth? At what price break do solar panels and hybrid vehicles make sense?

One thing that’s certain is that the new interconnectivity is going to make entrepreneurship all the more easy. Right now, if you have access to a computer, all the tools you need to basically write and publish your own magazine (say, something like keepgoing.org) are pretty much free for the asking. The same goes for creating your own record label, and soon the same will be true for designing your own video game or iPhone application or animated film or business plan. And the marketing and distribution of these new products will be essentially the same thing, because the purchasing of anything that can be digitized is now almost as simple as hearing about it.

So yeah, some good things are in the pipeline. Which is not to say that things aren’t going to suck, because they will. People are going to face some tough choices. A lot of kids are going to have trouble affording college. A lot of those same kids are going to choose a paycheck — any paycheck — over continuing their educations. A lot of young people are going to be stuck at home with their parents, and having their own house, a marriage, and kids will all seem like things that other people get to have. A lot of people are going to be trapped in crummy jobs that ask a lot while giving very little back. A lot of older people are going to have to work when they should really be rocking on a porch somewhere. There will be more homeless people. There will be more crime, and lives lived in fear because of it.

So my advice is to stock up on the essentials: water purification tablets, ammunition, seed corn, hard liquor, cell phone batteries, cartons of cigarettes, drums of gasoline, iodine, Percocet, your favorite form of birth control, Bibles, extension cords, socket wrenches, sleeping bags, ham radio sets, duct tape, work boots, memory cards, canned goods, and all the friends you can get your hands on. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. But keep the faith. Because I promise you there are better days — better days than we have ever known — just ahead of us.

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