Summer of Ignorance

In the back of our heads, I think we all knew it was coming. As little as we wanted to admit it, we were all pretty sure. I just made sense — we had had our fun, we had enjoyed our prosperity, and we’d had a pretty good summer break — but it had to end eventually. It just snuck up on us faster than we were ready for it. For a little while, we refused to believe that the days would get shorter and the air colder, but our stubborn innocence couldn’t stave off the onset of winter. The only thing we could do was take a dip in the pool and enjoy what was left of our summer, knowing that it would be the end for quite some time.
I’m not saying we all knew Lehman Brothers would collapse. We didn’t. Some of us had never even heard of Lehman Brothers. But we could be sure that something bad was going to happen. There was something incredibly foreboding in the air, an oncoming panic that we had not felt since Bear Stearns collapsed in mid-March. And understand that we did panic in March — but when that 3 o’clock bell rang in June and school was out for the summer, that panic was buried. We allowed ourselves to forget it all: the subprime mortgage crisis, the mess we had gotten ourselves into, the bubble that would inevitably burst. A period of bliss fell upon us as we all assumed that the fear we had let consume us the day Stearns went down, during the last week of winter, would simply melt under the hot summer sun, its significance gone and its portents forgotten.


Deciding that it was our last chance to savor our favorite time of year, my family and I took a trip on an early September afternoon to visit Uncle Mark and Aunt Cindy, whose backyard pool we had not exploited in months. (Looking back on it, we felt not entirely unlikely Jay Gatsby deciding to make use of his swimming pool after letting it go to waste all summer.) But instead of the trivial summer banter I had gotten used to, our discussions centered on whether or not the federal government needed to intervene and save Lehman. Barely understanding the economic climate that had built up that week, I had only a faint idea of what a Lehman Brothers collapse would mean for me. I endeavored to gain what knowledge I could from Mark, who had made a career for himself in the world of finance. I came to understand that a Lehman collapse would be just the opening act in a series of fiscal boo-boos, and should it happen, investors at home and abroad may begin to lose that intangiblle confidence that keeps our economy afloat five days a week. I found it hard to believe that something as complex as our financial system could run on something as simple as faith, but in a month I wouldn’t have to believe it — because it wouldn’t be true.
Lehman building 9-15-08.jpgOur panic started to amplify as summer turned to fall and suddenly we had to go back to school. That September, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, the 2008 election loomed closer, Brett Favre started his sad last season as an NFL quarterback (doomed, ultimately, to follow sixteen years of stardom in the west with one year of mediocrity in the east), we got to know and love Sarah Palin, the New York Mets somehow managed to pull off a collapse more damning than that of Bear Stearns, and it became evident that we would need a monetary Superman to get us out of the doom that we in our negligence had created. For my family and me, the closest thing to a savior seemed to be a freshman senator from Illinois, whose calming rhetoric and dignified posture may have been enough, we hoped, to avert total disaster.
The fear still looms over us, of course. In the intervening months between The Collapse of American Capitalism and today, our fear has taken other forms, among them denial, remorse, and political grandstanding. As a nation, we try to convince ourselves that if only we can crucify the chairmen of AIG, or point our collective finger at a fiscal scapegoat as it were, somehow we will get a do-over on the economy. As each phase of our perpetual fear ends and ushers in a new one, I feel as though we grow more and more distant from the summer of ’08. Indulgent fear has replaced indulgent bliss as our nation’s collective mindset.
It seems fitting to me that Bear Stearns should have collapsed on the last week of winter and Lehman on the last week of summer. It was not until we were tossed into September, thrown into a crisis before we had time to gather our wits, that we realized the extent of our disaster. It was the last week of our summer of ignorance, and we stood there sleepy and sunburned and confused, wondering how on earth we had let ourselves miss the warning signs. We really ought to have seen it coming.
Noah Levinson is a senior at Glen Ridge High School. This essay originally appeared last spring in the school’s literary magazine. The collapse of Lehman Brothers, which set off the current recession, took place one year ago.
Wikipedia photo of Lehman Brothers by Robert Scoble.

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37 COMMENTS

  1. What “we” White man?
    Tell me how the ordinary citizen was “supposed” to see this coming? This is a wee bit overwrought….
    Other than the simple fact that markets go up, markets go down…
    But wasn’t the “savior from Illinois” the same one stroking the fear with all his Depression talk?
    So now since the depression never happened and a year later, things are looking brighter, I’m “supposed” to feel what?
    Understand, the Great Depression lated 10 YEARS. We had 25% unemployment.
    And while I feel for all those who are out of work, some, just a little, perspective is needed here.
    (But I don’t “feel” for those who bit off more than they could chew, thinking they were getting over and now find themselves on the losing end. As Bruce said: “it’s just winners and losers and don’t get caught on the wrong side of that line…”)

  2. Not sure how an ordinary citizen could have seen this coming. Certainly, Dick (what an appropriate name!) Fuld could see it coming. I cringe everytime I read one of those stories in the media about osctacized he feels and that the poor man is down to a mere four mansions. Cry me a river!

  3. A wonderful essay, Noah.
    Dear Fellow Baristanet Posters: Noah is Debbie’s son.
    Can we not all share a bit of pride in the fact that she and Mr. Barista (and the Glen Ridge school system) have raised a smart, articulate, curious young man? And I might add brave, as the unpleasant comment by herbeverschmel proves.
    I also applaud Profwilliams for adding to Noah’s discussion (without being needlessly nasty).

  4. As I tell my students, the moment you put your work out there, expect criticism. If you can’t hack it, don’t put it out there.
    So, while I appreciate being applauded for not being mean;) I won’t simple feel good because a kid can write something.
    Is the bar so low or is the praising of, as Chris Rock said, stuff you supposed to do, so pervasive that one must give a kudo to anything our kids do?
    Again, I won’t treat this any different than any other piece I read. It commands the same energy. It will be evaluated the same.
    One of my great Art teachers told me something long ago, whenever you show your work, you are competing with every artist who ever came before.
    That said, it was very nicely written with a non-judgmental tone– that’s hard to do. Way to go kid!!

  5. “The fear still looms over us, of course. In the intervening months between The Collapse of American Capitalism and today, our fear has taken other forms, among them denial, remorse, and political grandstanding.”
    While this essay was well written, this young adult knows little about Capitalism and how it effects his everyday life. And to make inflammatory statements like the one above only leads me to think that teaching in public schools about this very topic is possibly skewed. Capitalism is not dead, and if it was the United States of America would have died with it. Morality and teaching it is whats wrong with people. Incestuous greed and lack of compassion for others is what drives people. The system works its proven for almost 250yrs and given opportunity for Billions of Americans and Immigrants to prosper and live better lives, also brought in an age of innovation in thousands of industries that change our everyday lives. Whether its medical technology, car safety, this internet and blog, solar power, wind power, airplanes, cars, trains, and millions of other products and services created because of DEMAND which leads to innovation through new and better SUPPLY.
    Why must we bash a system that has given us the wealth and opportunity to help millions and millions across the world gain better access to food, health services, roads, water systems, EDUCATION, and even free will. We have liberal film maker Michael Moore making movies on the terrible aspects of what he thinks is wrong with Capitalism, giving the claim that it makes people greedy and power hungry causing them to take advantage of the system at the expense of others. This goes back to my point, that its the American Person, not the American System that is broken. Corruption, political and corporate, are ruining our country and its system. We should be teaching our children and even adults that capitalism is successful, but even before being intellectually ready for that we need to be instilling better moral standards and understanding of what it means to be a good person.
    While I congratulate Noah, I implore his parents and all parents to share their life long experiences in the United States that lead them to be able to offer their kids and them the lives they live today. Share with them, the struggles and hard work and dedication it took to be successful. This country is based on the principal of free will, that is what makes Capitalism alive today and will always be successful in the USA.

  6. I wish I’d been this articulate when I was a high school senior, but I graduated from high school in 1983. Americans were more clueless back then. 😀

  7. It’s a bit of a stretch to call what we have a capitalist system given all the facilities supporting (and limiting) various industries. Capitalism requires a dispassionate free market, showing no more favor to a corporations than to the environment, nor expressing sentimentality for an array of “American industries” — farming, automobiles — through a web of subsidies and trade protections. Car safety, for instance, was forced on industry by anticapitalist regulation.
    We do have a great country, but “the system” we have was arranged by, and to the preferences and benefit of, European Christian slave-owning male landowners 200+ years ago and its goalposts have been shifting ever since.

  8. It’s even more of a stretch (respectfully) to be inspired while swimming in a family member’s private built-in pool to write an essay on Mom’s advertising supported blog that “capitalism has collapsed”.

  9. “Car safety, for instance, was forced on industry by anticapitalist regulation.”
    No Gov’t forced anyone to invent Anti-Lock Brakes or Airbags or SideAir Bags. Did Gov’t tell car manufacturers to build fuel injectors, hybrid vehicles, electric cars. NO
    Gov’t is a regulator, that is the power afforded to them by us the people.
    “We do have a great country, but “the system” we have was arranged by, and to the preferences and benefit of, European Christian slave-owning male landowners 200+ years ago and its goalposts have been shifting ever since.”
    I believe and will always believe that:
    George Washington, James Madison, and Ben Franklin are more intelligent than you and I and created the greatest country/system in the world!
    So many slave owners left in the US huh!
    Millions of families lifted out of poverty for the last 200 years.

  10. It’s an interesting & well expressed POV. I for one am curious as to where the fear that he mentions repeatedly comes from. Is it simply a product of youth & not having seen economic cycles before? Is it the result of what Noah’s been fed by whatever media he follows?
    I had no fear when Lehmann collapsed. That still seems trivial compared with what collapsed on another September day 7 years earlier.

  11. G2G,
    I guarantee you do not protest President’s Day or Independence Day which honor those European Christian slave-owning male landowners like
    George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Samuel Adams, John Hanncock, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Jefferson, John Penn, Alexander Hamilton or William Chase.
    Most of which signed the Declaration of Independence or Constitution.
    Your comments are almost Un-American!

  12. I like living in a capitalistic system but like everything else, you need checks and balances or you end up with Dick Fulds, Bernie Madoffs, Kenneth Lays and others like them. As for socialistic and communistic systems, well, we all know how they turned out.

  13. John Adams did not own slaves. His cousin Samuel Adams was given a slave as a gift and by some accounts he freed her immediately. At any rate the slave remained in his home as a cook for many years after slavery was made illegal in Massachusetts via a bill he wrote himself.

  14. I knew Noah is Debbie’s son. That makes it hard to criticize here. I also recognize there’s a certain amount of cunning here in such an essay coming from anybody’s kid, as if the mere qualification of relative youth should rightly stave off criticism.
    But this is not at at all (despite the posts above of a loyally predictable few) an essay evincing great, generationally transcending “wisdom.” Instead, it is an essay feigning angst and world-weariness of an especially annoying sort. It is certainly not the sort of essay I expect from a 17-year-old, yes, which is probably why some will applaud it. And because it is well-done in a particular sense it would probably get high marks from a teacher.
    But really, the kid was concerned about Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers last March? Myself, I was more worried about the NFL draft and whether “Friday Night Lights” would get renewed. So his use above of “we” and “our” is somewhat disconcerting. Economics may have been properly termed the “dismal science,” but to sound so concernedly dismal as a high school senior, particularly one trying to do his best to sound like a craggy, despairing old sweat of an economist, is a bit much.
    This sort of articulate despair should flee before the prospect of the prom come spring, or the football team’s fortunes, if only because economic booms and busts will come many times during Noah’s lifetime. But high school and its sheer promise of joys to come and be shared with classmates is but a one time thing. That is generally the point of being 17 or 18, after all. One which even Marx and Engels would probably have concurred on alongside John Locke and Adam Smith. Somehow, however, Noah Levinson winds up instead sounding like a suburban, affluent (hat tip to ROC’s post above) VH1 version of Thomas Hobbes.
    So could we have more coverage of local high school football, please? And fewer attempts at youthful pensiveness?
    (Were I marking this essay, too, the completely gratuitous and deep left field reference to Jay Gatsby would have cost the author an entire letter grade. Got to nip such over-reaching in the bud BEFORE college-level expository writing classes.)

  15. Well written Noah! I love the “got to know and love Sarah Palin” line.
    The issue is not capitalism, it is unchecked capitalism, with all the money to buy off politicians and all the power to avoid even the most basic of regulation.

  16. (Git2itGal: I LOVE your handle. It really is one of the coolest here. Not sure I agree with you often, no matter, I smile when I see Git2itGal.)

  17. G2G,
    You should respect the people that fought and died to create the greatest country in world; which you obviously take for granted!
    Un-Patriotic to say the least…………

  18. Noah seems like a thoughtful and intelligent young man, but perhaps he’d profit in taking to heart the words of another thoughtful and intelligent man:
    The weight of this sad time we must obey, speak what we feel, not what we ought to say:
    The oldest hath borne most; we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.
    I think that in future Noah could use a fistful of twenties, an American Express card, and directions to spring break.

  19. Cathar,
    This one got my first genuine laugh of the day. I depend on Barista threads for at least one or two guffaws. Lord knows work doesn’t supply very many.
    Kudos to Noah for being a published writer.
    Hey Noah, why don’t you write an essay about day to day life in GR High School. Whenever I pass that school I imagine golden auras surrounding all of the lively, attractive kids. God, what I would have given to attend a school like that. Perhaps my unfullfilled longing for a happy childhood is coloring my perception here. “What’s the story Jerry!

  20. Did I miss the nation-wide referendum that named Kyle M as the arbiter of all that is patriotic and “American”?
    Is it too late to submit an absentee ballot?

  21. It’s a beautifully written piece, a precocious coming of age essay by a young man with an old man’s worldview. I’d love to read more posts like this.
    It’s far more enjoyable than some troglodyte’s sententious defense of capitalism, or a wannabee writer’s criticism.
    I shared Noah’s sense of foreboding. His essay resonates. I truly hope he keeps it up.

  22. Oh, Kit Schackner, you’re absolutely right, it is very much a “precocious coming of age essay” of a sort.
    Just not a very good sort. It was written by someone too young, and seemingly too much resident, too rooted, in too sheltered and too affluent an environment, who may not have ever even seen a railroad boxcar full of “travelers” let alone hopped one himself, to have quite “come of age” yet. I mean, fond memories of those halcyon poolside days when certain investment banks still existed is not exactly akin to Steinbeck’s memories of the Depression, is it?
    This was not, say, Nelson Algren’s “Walk On The Wild Side” or James Michener’s first novel, “The Fires Of Spring.” And it certainly wasn’t “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” either, for all its trying to be.
    I wonder, too, how this sort of preciousness plays out in the halls of GR High School. God but I’m going to be disappointed yet again in the youth of America if it turns out they all moon and swan around locally like this.

  23. While I appreciate the support theproblemtoo, I’m afraid that, in this country, “mental defectives” are still prohibited from voting.

  24. I think Noah’s essay was excellent and well-written.
    Crank commented on this particular paragraph that he didn’t feel fear about this situation.
    “The fear still looms over us, of course. In the intervening months between The Collapse of American Capitalism and today, our fear has taken other forms, among them denial, remorse, and political grandstanding.”
    Well, Crank may not have felt fear but I think a lot of us did – I know I was one of them. No, not the same as 9/11, but still, that question loomed, was this going to be another Depression?
    Some of the others have said that Noah should be worrying about the prom and football, etc. Well, I’m sure he has plenty of fun in his life too. Doesn’t mean he can’t think about serious subjects. Looking back on it, I think I took much of life a lot more seriously when I was young than I do now. Perspective changes your perceptions I guess. As Bob Dylan said, “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

  25. One would have to be a pompous ass or personality-challenged or both to hold a 17 or 18 year old to the same standard of writing content as an older, more mature writer. Jane Austen’s juvenalia doesn’t compare to the skill of her later work, but had she not received some encouragement in her youth, we might have been deprived of her later masterpieces.

  26. “It’s far more enjoyable than some troglodyte’s…”
    “One would have to be a pompous ass or personality-challenged…”
    You have a way with words Kit Schackner.

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