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Wall Street Blues

'Cratering' by Chris JohnstonOver the course of the last year the Dow has lost 35 per cent of its value, amounting to trillions of dollars. Newspapers here in the States are peppered with references to the market 'cratering', a bleak term that for me conjures the desolate, lifeless landscape of the moon. A friend suggested another interpretation: 'A crater — it's what's left after a massive explosion.'

Which is funny, because to me our situation has none of the immediacy or clarity of an explosion. It turns out the idea of a 'stock market crash' is a misnomer. Things don't happen all at once. Anything but.

First the mortgages, then the banks, then industry ... it's the slow-motion collapse of a building, floor by floor, or the implosion of a web, a broken strand in one section causing undue pressure and breaks in altogether different and hard to predict areas.

While we in the States were caught up with evaluating our $850 billion bailout, the European banks began to wobble significantly. Today the conventional wisdom is that only by working together internationally can we address the crises we face. And even after we begin to do that, the market tumbles.

Everywhere in the news we hear of the 'panic'. Yet as I walk through the streets of Manhattan these days, things seem much the same as always. Passersby brusque as ever, pushing their way down the sidewalks, irrespective of signals or other pedestrians. Vendors selling ice cream and hot dogs on street corners. The sirens of police cars sounding in the distance. Tourists wandering through midtown hand in hand, off to see a show or wonder at the nighttime pulse of Times Square, while failed or failing investment firms stand unseen all around them.

I'm not sure what that points to, that odd disconnection between physical and financial realities. And the mind plays funny tricks in the gaps, seeks consistency or a narrative where maybe there is none.

A newspaper box on a street corner, the papers within a week old. Has the paper abandoned it because of the financial crisis? The New York Times, the United States' premier newspaper, recently announced it was merging a few sections. Was this long in the works, or a consequence of the last few weeks?

Suddenly everything is about the crisis, even that which isn't. I saw tourists in Central Park taking a picture in front of a grand old building and wondered if that building stood for them as a sort of memorial of a time of wealth, a way of taking things for granted now on the way out. But it wasn't, it was just a nice photo op.

The moon rose in midafternoon over the weekend and it seemed eerie and apocalyptic. I've seen too many movies not to turn readily to the end of things.

But the sun still shines and the birds still sing. And my dad, 62, a retired steamfitter and my mom, 61, a secretary, have their pension invested in stocks, but still talk mostly of the trip they're going to take in November to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.

Maybe it's all about trust. Not just in the stock market, its every rise and fall these days a punctuation mark on people's confidence or lack thereof, but also in everything else in our lives.

We get up in the morning, go outside and every move we make is conditional on a certain amount of trust: that drivers will stop at stop lights and cashiers give us correct change; that gravity will work today the same as it did yesterday; and even more fundamentally, whether stock prices go high or low, whether our families or our bodies thrive or diminish.

That there is good in this world and I will have the chance in some way to savour that goodness today. Perhaps that is all the narrative we need.

Jim McDermottJim McDermott SJ is an associate editor at America Magazine, the Jesuit Catholic weekly in the United States. He recently finished a seven month assignment in Australia.


Topic tags: Jim McDermott, market crash, global economic crisis, Manhattan, cratering



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Existing comments

As you say the world still goes on and its a pity that there is so much greed in the world, and maybe this crash is good because people might learn to live within their means - I hope..hope you have a great day and here in Australia the birds are doing the same and people are the same.

Marg Denbrok | 20 October 2008  

We are all affected directly by financial trends and markets,but it seems those excessively wealthy are hurting now and hopefully realising the responsibility which comes with having this greedy and immoral lifestyle.We, the ordinary tax-payers will suffer and those already marginalised and "not in the game"see no way forward other than the day to day despair...It is timely to consider a radical way of living,and look after the poorest countries,reduce our consumption and collectively aim for global peace.and true equity.All of us have the same basic needs... let's start there.

catherine Saniga | 20 October 2008  

At one of Melbourne's many Zen groups sittings are commenced with the chant:

"Greed, hatred and ignorance arise endlessly. I vow to abandon them."

What else can one do but observe the endless arisings of greed and hatred in our very own selves and abandon these tendencies in ourselves. And of course the opposite of ignorance is a prerequisite to observing greed and hatred arising, endlessly.

Will the numbers of bloated babies bellies in the third world, or the homeless on the streets diminish as a consequence of such letting go behaviours? Of course not.

These figures are certain to skyrocket in the years to come. That's a sure bet.

In a month or so we will read: "Local charities hit by belt tightening of cash strapped donors."

Greed, hatred and ignorance are guaranteed to arise endlessly in our collective futures and nowhere more precipitously than in the WEALTHIEST countries on Planet Earth. It's not easy to let go of greed.

My only regret about the vapourised umpteen tens of thousands from my own superannuation is that I didn't give them away a year ago to a worthwhile organisation, my personal favourite being 'Women for Palestine'.

Oh well. Sigh. Bteathing out. Letting go.

As Jim McDermott writes, 'the sun still shines and the birds still sing,' until more and more species become extinct that is, and, 'there is good in this world.'

May we all have some chance in some way to savour that goodness today.

David | 20 October 2008  

I suppose that we'll soon be referring to the 'new poor' on Wall Street as the 'crater critturs'.

Claude Rigney | 20 October 2008  

i liked this essay. i lived and worked in new york from 1973 to 1975. i learned years later that these years were regarded as a time of fairly severe economic recession in the us and the new york economy. but i was not conscious of that at the time. i remember it as a time of relaxation and fun, when lot of younger people had a pretty good experience of living in that great city. somehow money did not seem to matter so much. people got by and enjoyed themselves. i suspect that if australia does go into serious recession next year, we'll find that in our big cities too. people - especially young people - are very adaptable.

tony kevin | 21 October 2008  

thank you, thank you - so thought provoking and timely; how I appreciate Jesuit input and I hope you had a happy time in Australia.

annie clark | 24 October 2008  

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