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.
Our 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.