Monday morning, 11:30:39 Eastern Standard Time, and I had just hit send. I was in a wide-body 767, high above the continent. “This is so exciting,” I wrote to a friend. “I am on an airplane going over the Rockies. I am sending you an email. Down there the settlers went in covered wagons. Up here on American Airlines flight something to L.A., I am surfing the Internet. There are ruts baked into the soil down there from the heavy wagons pushing west. I have never been on Wi-Fi on a plane before. I am looking down at the Rockies. ‘These are the days of miracles and wonders.’ “ My friend, an Internet pioneer, a brave and steely-eyed entrepreneur, shot back a reply: “We fly higher than mere birds can fly.” When I got home, I taped our exchange to a bookcase near my desk. In hard times we should not forget the magic of life, and the mystery.
I thought on the plane, for the first time in a long time, of the feeling of awe I had in 1990 and ‘91 and ‘92. I heard a man named Nathan Myhrvold speak of a thing called Microsoft. I saw a young man named Steve Jobs prowl a New York stage and unveil a computer that then we thought tiny and today we’d call huge. A man named Steve Wozniak became a household god as my son reported his visionary ways. It was a time so full of genius and dynamism that it went beyond words like “breakthrough” and summoned words like “revolution.” If you were paying attention, if you understood you were witnessing something great, the invention of a new age, the computer age, it caught at your throat. It was like hearing great music. People literally said what had been said in the age of Thomas Edison: “What will they think of next?” What a buoyant era.
And for a moment, as I sent and received my first airborne Wi-Fi emails, I was back there. And I was moved because I realized how much I missed it, how much we all do, that “There are no walls” feeling. “Think different.” “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’ “ That was 25 years ago. The world was on fire.
It has cooled. And the essential problem with the crash we’re in is no one can imagine quite feeling that way again. People can remember it, but they can’t quite resummon it.
This isn’t like the stock market crash of 1987 or the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001. People are not feeling passing anger or disappointment, they’re feeling truly frightened.
This isn’t stock market heebie-jeebies, it’s systemic collapse.
It’s not just here, it’s global.
It’s not only economic, but political. It wasn’t only mortgage companies that acted up and acted out, so did our government, all the governments of the West, spending what they didn’t have, for a decade at least.
And at the center of the drama is your house—its worth, or its ability to see you through retirement, or your ability to hold onto it. An extra added angst bonus: Those thinking now about retirement are just old enough to remember America before the abundance, before everyone was rich, rich being defined as plenty to eat, a stable place to live, and some left over for fun and pleasure. For them, the crash has released old memories. And it’s spooking people.
Have you witnessed a foreclosure, or seen the growing log of pictures on the Internet? It happened to my family when I was a kid, and I didn’t know how much it was with me until a woman in Los Angeles the other day mentioned she had a new chocolate Lab she’d adopted from a shelter. He’d been left behind when a family was foreclosed on. “They left him in the house with a bowl of water and a tennis ball.” A neighbor heard him, saved him, and now he was hers. This story hurt like an old wound. There are a lot of such wounds out there. It’s part of why people are hunkering down.
The best report on how the young are experiencing it all came this week from the Web site Boing Boing, from the writer Cory Doctorow, who asked readers, “How are you coping with collapse-anxiety?” He wrote, “For me, I think it’s the suspense that’s the killer. What institutions will survive? Which ones are already doomed? Which of the items in my calendar are likely never to come to pass? Will my bank last?” He continued, “What are you telling yourself? How are you all sleeping at night? Are you hedging your bets with canned goods and shotguns, or plans for urban communal farming? Are you starting a business? Restructuring through bankruptcy? Moving back in with your parents?”
His readers wrote back, creating a stunning thread that said, essentially, all of the above, and more. They went from the wry—one reader is “drinking more . . . feeling disconnected from reality . . . watching more TV and movies”—to the tough—one said, “When the world turns crazy the crazy turn pro.” A number were moving in with relatives. In fact it sounded like the old days, before the abundance. Some were planting gardens. One said he was learning the ukulele so he could be a wandering minstrel. Mr. Doctorow told me the reaction was “stupendous” not only in terms of numbers but in terms of seriousness: These were people truly sharing their anxieties.
All of this hunkering down has stopped the great churning, the buying, selling and buying that was at the heart of our prosperity. In private equity firms, the churning was life. They bought a company, removed the fat, sold it at a profit, and bought another one. They kept moving. That’s over. No one is buying now, and no one can sell.
Perhaps the biggest factor behind the new pessimism is the knowledge that the crisis is not only economic but political, that we’ll have to change both cultures, economic and political, to turn the mess around. That’s a tall order, and won’t happen quickly. One thing for sure: Our political leaders for at least a decade, really more, have by and large been men and women who had fortunate lives, who always seemed to expect nice things to happen and happiness to occur. And so they could overspend, overcommit and overextend the military, and it would all turn out fine. They claimed to be quintessentially optimistic, but it was a cheap optimism, based more on sunny personal experience than any particular faith, and void of an understanding of how dark and gritty life can be, and has been for most of human history.
I end with a hunch that is not an unhappy one. Dynamism has been leached from our system for now, but not from the human brain or heart. Just as our political regeneration will happen locally, in counties and states that learn how to control themselves and demonstrate how to govern effectively in a time of limits, so will our economic regeneration. That will begin in someone’s garage, somebody’s kitchen, as it did in the case of Messrs. Jobs and Wozniak. The comeback will be from the ground up and will start with innovation. No one trusts big anymore. In the future everything will be local. That’s where the magic will be. And no amount of pessimism will stop it once it starts.