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Maybe Our Parents Had it Right All Along
by Fred Wistow
Once upon a time, in the '50s and '60s, we were told there were two kinds of people: there were the rich people (out there, somewhere) and then, well, us. The rich people lived on the other side of a fence. We couldn't see it, but we knew it was there. And we knew it was impregnable. If we studied hard and worked hard, we'd eventually become improved, wealthier versions of what we already were, but it was also clear, though unstated, that we'd never manage to get to the other side. It wasn't prejudice that would keep us in our place. It was just the way things were, a law of the universe: the land on the other side of the fence was promised to others.
As we became what are loosely called "adults," the culture evolved (or did it "devolve"?) and we began to put first our toes, then our feet, and, soon enough, what the hell, we bellyflopped our way into the previously forbidden realm of the stock market. With the help of a bull market fueled by speculation, frenzy, and, as we'd later learn, an enormous amount of smoke and mirrors, fraud, greed, and irresponsibility, one day we looked up and discovered, by God, we were getting rich!
We now had mutual fund portfolios. Mutual fund portfolios?!?!? Whoever heard of mutual fund portfolios? Once upon a time, the Kennedys and Rockefellers maybe, but now stocks and bonds had become as omnipresent in our lives as e-mail, and houses with values that made our net worth soar way beyond whatever we'd fantasized the future might bring now seemed our birthright. We were afloat on a rising tide of unendable wealth. (At the same time, though, while we weren't looking, another fence had, of course, gone up—this one, certainly, forever out of reach—on the other side of which multimillionaires, now billionaires, were doing quite well, thank you very much.)
Then, toward the end of last year, a breathtaking realignment of our consciousness began to take place. This magical fairy tale that had somehow become reality started fading back into make believe. Just when we thought we were going to live happily ever after with no twists or turns in the golden road that lay before us, the carriage turned into a pumpkin. Our fairy godmothers—those super-brilliant Masters of the Universe who'd been paid astronomical sums to run the vast engines of finance, who we naively thought were watching the store—turned out to be no more masterful (and probably a lot less so) than the Wizard of Oz. Like him, they'd been manipulating symbols and images of omnipotence and, like us, they didn't have the slightest handle on what was really going on or what the consequences of their astonishing wheeling and dealing might be. The engines we thought they were at the helm of had spun wildly out of control, and each time we turned around, what we thought we were worth had sunk still further, while the engines kept (and keep) speeding downhill. Banks and investment houses and pillars of capitalism that we'd put our faith and money in continued (and continue) to announce one unimaginable loss after another. And the failures the media kept (and keep) informing us about weren't some pie-in-the-sky swamplands in Florida or uranium mines in Africa, but the backbone of what we once thought of as the economy. The curtain had been pulled back to reveal Citicorp, General Motors, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, and so many other brand-name institutions to be no more than near-figments of our imaginations.