We're not even officially in a recession, and already the culture czars over at New York have dubbed the economic crisis precipitated by our financial system's collapse The Greatest Depression! Such hyperbole, I know! So what makes the tag feel so goddamn right? Other than the fact that I think it is really great I don't have to write about subprime celebrities anymore? I found five things that are basically all the same thing and formed a little listicle!1. Because money is overrated! We know this. We know it so well. And just to prove it we pay billions of dollars to science to prove it to us, year after year after year. And yet. As a society we totally live and die (no not really, we just act like we live and die!) by the tiny nuances of the trajectory of the aggregate of all the flows of all that money, as if it Really Totally Matters. We do this, obviously, because we're obsessed with making comparisons - am I at least doing as well as last year? Am I really smarter than his last girlfriend? Shouldn't I buy a house now that all my friends are doing it? - because it is just so much easier than the Is This Bringing Me Joy question that seems so totally sappy and sentimental we find it to be a hilarious joke when some little Third World country like Bhutan pragmatically invents a Gross National Happiness Index because no one actually thought of that first. But as the Times reminds us today:
Research has shown a significant level of depression, for example, among lottery winners. Other research has shown that above a household income of $50,000, there is little or no correlation between income and happiness.
2. Because It is already making New York
more fun funner! Nick wanted me to point out that the Great Depression was good or some industries - electrical engineering, film - that are maybe more worthwhile and exciting than the freaking stock market, but that brings me to a larger point. On Saturday I got this email from a friend who is a specialist on the New York Stock Exchange:
Last week was one of the most exciting weeks of my life. I think traders who had previously taken psychedelics had an unfair advantage.
Which kind of neatly underscores an important truth of this city: we are here for the "action." We are not here for the riches or because Guiliani made it so tidy and safe and Singaporean like our relatives always annoyingly assume when we so graciously leave it to endure family gatherings. I mean, if our relatives ever visited us they would know that New York is still fundamentally gross, and THAT'S SORT OF WHY WE'RE HERE. It is fucked up, but we chose to live among the tenements and the rats and all that once-proud peeling buckling infrastructure and all those whiffs of strangers' body odor because something about it makes us feel alive, even as the constant unquenchable thirst for that feeling also exposes the parts of our insides that we're slowly choking to death. But look! The New York Observer reports people are actually talking to strangers on the subway again. It's a paradox, and creative destruction, and possibly sector rotation - so the action leaves the Street for a little while, it will return in some gross new neighborhood the haters will instantly hate just as much. In the meantime, it's like that time all the power went out! Everyone loved that, remember? Oh and remember the subway strike? People loved that too. Shit, they probably secretly loved the cholera epidemic. Moral of story: we love that the economy is as fucked-up as we are. Like, there is a reason they call it "depression" duh! 3. Because Haters are tired of Hating! I am not such a hater that I did not find it touching how right after 9/11 the Two Americas united to declare War On Haters. Petey Pablo penned that patriotic remix of his "North Carolina" song and Ja Rule and Kid Rock hung out together at some military base, etc. etc. Fast forward seven years, and the New York Times brings us the amusing news that Sarah Palin actually refers to her critics as "haters." This nonsense rapper concept reached all the way out to Alaska! Can we kill it now? It turns out yes! Because the very next week, following comparisons of the professional stock market haters known as shorts to terrorists and homicide bombers, the SEC actually outlawed short-selling! It outlawed hate. You would think this action would have gotten more hate from the shorts, but I have a theory: Haters really like nothing more that to be put out of their Hating-Ass Misery, at least for a few weeks. (Remember 9/11?) And this way they got to be proven right in the process, which is really all they care about. In any case, the Depression will sort of force Hateration Nation to acknowledge the symbiotic nature of its relationship with the Plutocrats, Jocks, Preachers, Republicans, Bloviating Public Intellectuals, Venture Capitalists and Self-Help Gurus that Make This Country "Great" and vice versa. Fittingly, this grudging detente was prophesied by the rapper Maino in the remix to his song Hi Hater. 4. Because everyone feels a lot better about capitalism now that Warren Buffet is the guy who will be making another few billion dollars profiting off its near-collapse! If you are a capitalist, Warren Buffet was your hero when you were, like, eight. By the time you started your first private equity internship or whatever you were more like "Ah, Buffet, sentimental old sucker, making his money the hard way like that." Why? Because Warren Buffet made $62 billion over a six decade career investing in real companies over the Very Long Term, and that is just so unnecessary when you can make like at least a billion dollars in like a year just by taking a 20% fee on some money you got from rich folks plus a whole lot more money you got to borrow from banks at superlow rates, and throwing all that into some algorithm whereby the money makes a gazillion trades a day on some supercomplex financial instruments made up by bankers who got bored of collecting fees splitting up and re-packaging the weary pieces of the American economy and in any case, now you somehow make a half penny on the dollar every time some ratio goes below pi and none of it requires any entanglements with companies that actually produce stuff at all (thank god because that would be awkward.) Well, putting all that money through all that pointless action was not for Warren Buffet. Not because he worries about detachment from labor or any of that Marxist crap, but because it actually did just seem so pointless. (Buffet once said of gold: "It gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace. Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.") Anyhow, so all this madness goes on for a few decades, generates a little "liquidity crisis" and suddenly Goldman Sachs has to become a real bank, which basically means the Smartest Richest Most Elite Motherfuckers on Wall Street are forced to sit acknowledge the existence of the Actual Economy. Put a wonkier way: Exchange Value, Meet Use Value! And Buffet sees that investors are worried about this, but he knows it's a good plan for the Long Term everyone laughed at him for caring about, so he plows $5 billion into it at supergood terms and suddenly everyone's like, "Damn, that Buffet, he really is pretty smart." And smart turns out not to be incompatible with good! 5. Because there is a reason they call it the "Dismal" Science! At some point the economists of America got sick of no one listening to their earnest well-intentioned prescriptions for making globalization not so shitty, so they launched a hostile takeover of psychology and wrote ninety different books full of highly detailed "analyses" of why people do the things they do. The message of these books was generally: "Hey, Starbucks Is Smart And Other Crazy Ideas!" These books became bestsellers because in times like these there is a huge market for books that state true facts without being totally depressing or resorting to "self-help," which is to say they basically amounted to self-help, which is to say they kind of dumbed down the profession. Well, here is a true fact: last week chief Freakonomist Steve Levitt made the following admission on his own damn Freakonomics blog:
As an economist, I am supposed to have something intelligent to say about the current financial crisis. To be honest, however, I haven't got the foggiest idea what this all means.
Anyway, the point is, the fiftieth anniversary of The Affluent Society came and went and no economist managed to write a more relevant book about the economy. Although The Affluent Society author John Kenneth Gabraith's son James is apparently trying to do that now!