It’s time to turn my attention away from UBC and journalism, for the time being, and back toward Columbia and business. Last week I booked a return engagement teaching “English for Professional Purposes: Business” this summer in Columbia University’s American Language Program. Thus I spent last night watching “Frontline.”
This week and next, “Frontline” is presenting a two-part, four-hour report titled “Money, Power and Wall Street.” Last year in EPP: Business, as it’s known around ALP, we devoted three full days (out of 15) to Wall Street, plus an afternoon at NASDAQ. “Private tours of New York financial institutions such as the New York Stock Exchange, the Federal Reserve Bank, and other Wall Street landmarks” are among the selling points listed on ALP’s website to attract exceptional students from around the world to this high-end course. (Class night on Broadway, Aug. 9, 2011.) As preparation for our meeting with a vice president at the Fed, we watched “Inside Job,” the Oscar-winning 2010 documentary about the 2008 financial meltdown. But that’s starting to get a little old, given developments in the last year like the Occupy movement, so this summer I thought I might show “Frontline” instead.
The curtain-raiser was an hour on “The Crash of 1929.” Normally I would rather have my fingernails pulled out one by one than hear anything about the Depression, but now, finally, I may be ready.
I grew up in the Depression, even though I wasn’t born until 1955. It was actually my parents who grew up in that terrible time; my father was 17 when the market crashed, my mother 12. Six years later they were married, and a few years after that they had two small mouths to feed. My father had been pulled out of school in the eighth grade to work in a shoe factory, so his job options would have been limited even at a time when the unemployment rate wasn’t 25 percent. Their experience scarred them, well into their later years and their second shift of child-rearing. Though I was growing up in the 1960s, I was held to the rules of the ‘30s: never have a mortgage, never borrow money, never be beholden. No piano lessons, no dance classes, no Girl Scouts — they all cost money. No student loans for an education that would enable me to compete in a field where I had ambitions. Above all, don’t want anything. As a therapist once told me, there’s Depression and then there’s depression.
“In the Depression,” the lecture would go, “we’d have been glad for . . .” whatever hand-me-downs or unpalatable food I was disdaining at the time. (It was my family’s equivalent of the postwar “People are starving in Europe.”) “You kids today — you don’t know. You have it so good.” Decades later, I would hear much the same lecture from my East German friend Steffen Muench (Personal history, Aug. 27, 2010) about his sons, born around the time the Berlin Wall was falling. “Paul and Johann, they don’t understand how it was in GDR time,” he fumed. “That’s right!” I told him. “They can’t understand it. So don’t expect them to.” (Subtext: And be very glad they can’t.) Every generation has its trials; Paul and Johann are sure to have theirs, and Paul’s son, due in July, won’t understand those, either.
As it turned out, “The Crash of 1929” was less about the poverty that followed than the reckless prosperity that preceded it. I chuckled at the line stating that in the 1920s everybody, even shopkeepers, could afford to buy stock; if my grandparents owned any, I never heard about it. Another that caught my ear was how the stock market is governed by two emotions, fear and greed, and how quickly fear can turn into greed. As one documentary led into another, I was struck by how much the margin buying of the 1920s resembled the housing bubble of the 2000s – how much small down payments on stock purchases were like small down payments on homes, and how both sets of investors eventually found themselves underwater and drowning. Then as now, greed and manipulation at the top of the financial chain affected everyone. Is it any wonder people today are so angry at the financial industry that caused the 2008 crisis but emerged mostly unscathed, and at their own gullibility?
My parents went to their graves in 1985 and 1994, probably thinking that the world had made some progress and the kids – by then middle-aged – were all right. They could not have imagined the rise of terrorism that culminated in 9/11, or the shifts in the culture and the economy that brought radical changes to my industry and made my generation no longer welcome. If my parents have any inkling that I walked away from a secure paycheck for such a flimsy reason, they must be spinning.
I’ve long believed that security is no more than an illusion. Security is stasis, but life is change, not all of it for the better. As Gilda Radner said, “It’s always something.” I put it somewhat differently, borrowing the last line from the 1970s version of the musical “Candide,” when the characters have been reunited after a string of personal and historical disasters and seem about to live happily, if modestly, ever after. But then someone notices the cow: “It’s swaying.” “It’s falling.” Dr. Pangloss sizes up the situation: “Ay, me, the pox!” The music swells, the lights go out and life, one way or another, presumably goes on.