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.
Record-breaking job losses, savings wiped out, families losing their homes, stomach-churning drops in the stock market, banks failing—it all had a familiar ring. Wasn’t this the very nightmare that had traumatized our parents and grandparents, the nightmare they kept harping on, tiresomely reinvoking, the blah-blah-blah we kept brushing off as something that could have been avoided by those people back then if only they’d been a little less stupid? The Depression had marked them for life, rigidified their fear and trembling, and turned them into the timid and conservative non-risk-takers that most of them became. Was 2008 telling us that they were right, that living a circumscribed life was actually not only the safest but the wisest way to live? Hadn’t they spent their lives endlessly reminding us that certain things—like gambling on the stock market—were for rich people, not us? How many stories and fables and movies and books and historical precedents had been shoved down our throats that we failed to remember or heed?
The Emperor has no clothes, dammit. Never did. Never will. In a way, we’d never grown up. Our guards lowered, blindly—stupidly—trusting, we were, let’s face it, children, eager to be blissfully seduced by the ever-sweeter melodies we heard being played by the Pied Piper of our times: the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And by not listening to or learning from all those cautionary tales, we wound up repeating history—except in this installment, we’ve managed to lose more money in a few months than most of our parents made in their entire lives.
Reassuringly, the current economic mess isn’t one we find only ourselves in. Unlike most mistakes we make in life, this one isn’t the result of a misguided individual decision. It’s not just “me,” thank God. Everybody fucked up. The whole world fucked up. It’s a lot easier to deal with “I’m poorer” when almost everyone you know is saying the same thing. Misery certainly loves company, yet at the same time, it’s terribly frightening that everyone’s an idiot; that the people we thought were taking care
of us, the experts, knew nothing. The money managers knew nothing. The financial advisors knew nothing. The people who said to diversify knew nothing. The guys who ran the banks, the mutual funds, the government—they all knew nothing. This explosion had been building for years, and yet nothing was done until the fireworks started. And while it’s reassuring that the government is attempting to take charge and spend money to get things moving again—to do something—it’s eerily unreassuring that most of the people in charge of doing something not only don’t know—can’t know—what the hell will work, but also are the very same people who helped drive the whole thing into the ground.
It’s insane, isn’t it? How so much of our lives is spent in the pursuit of money—working insane hours in order to get it in order to buy things or in order to feel “secure” (about being able to buy things in the future) or to feel a sense of accomplishment or self-esteem? And how crippling—how all-encompassing—our worries are when the money we have isn’t enough (is it ever enough?) to achieve those goals. But most of all, it’s insane how little attention we paid to preserving, or understanding how to preserve, the very thing we spend most of our lives pursuing, and how we put our trust and our futures in the hands of people whose competence has been proven to be so questionable.
Bit by bit, day by day, we watch as our wealth continues to disappear. Like the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s melting. Yet, even as we fear the future and regret our stupidity and pine for our losses, can’t we also simultaneously detect a strange and perverse comfort in the notion that maybe this wrenching course correction we’re experiencing is sending us back to a place we’re more at ease in—to a place where we may even belong? Being rich was definitely nice while it lasted, but now, with our eyes rudely reopened, we can see that we’d been deluding ourselves, participants and dupes in one mass global hallucination. And now? We’re finally back in Kansas. And while the ground may be shaky, it’s also familiar: we’re on the side of the fence we started out from.
There’s no place like home.
Fred Wistow is a former contributing editor to the Psychotherapy Networker and lives in New York City.