Some of us have been watching the recent financial news with more worry than others.
Consider these snippets from a dinner party at my house last week: "My portfolio took such a hit!” “I didn’t buy gold in time!!” “It’s tragic, I’m going to lose the yacht!” Then we clink our glasses of cheap red and cackle maniacally.
Obviously, none of us own any stock. Or mutual funds, or retirement accounts, or even a house or a car. We are the renters, the commuters, the great barely-washed masses who toil well above the poverty line in Tokyo but so very, very far from the expat banker life that we might as well be in different universes. So it’s bizarre to watch our well-heeled acquaintances take such a tumble and not really feel it ourselves.
I ought to have compassion. I certainly worry. I know that the most vulnerable are not the out-of-work bankers but those of us who depend on their discretionary income to buy our products and services. This situation is temporary; we’ll all feel it soon enough. But I am secretly thinking, “Neener, neener, neeeeener!!!!” and sticking out my tongue.
I am ashamed of this juvenile schadenfreude — usually it sleeps in a closet, out of sight and tucked away. But it is out now, and it is roaring. In general, I have nothing against rich people. By most of the world’s yardstick, I am wealthy myself. Some of my adored friends make more — as in, several zeroes more — than I do. I have no problem with this, right up until the point where it turns out that the financial whiz kids in the U.S. have been stealing the savings of ordinary people.
There is a certain social comedy in this small community of foreigners, where people who might never meet in an American or European city find themselves at the same cocktail parties. Part of the Tokyo quirk is that here, I actually know real live bankers. I am sure that none of them have been paying themselves enormous bonuses while their clients’ assets dwindle on the eve of a massive collapse. I don’t actually know, though, because I get their business cards but cannot decipher what their titles mean or what they do. I admire their lovely homes, however, where my entire apartment could fit into the bathroom. Literally.
I have friends who work in finance, and friends who are married to those who work in finance; I know that there are real people with families and dreams and obligations who have been hurt, who have lost their jobs, who are feeling despair. And I know that the individual bankers I encounter can’t be held accountable for the failure of an entire financial system just because they benefited from it.
That wouldn’t be fair. That would be like blaming me personally for Bush’s evil wars just because I am American. Definitely, obviously, clearly not fair.
But if it comes to that, how much responsibility does each one of us carry? We may wish that a few resolute financiers had stood up with a megaphone and advocated for the little guy. But I watched Bush’s presidency happen. I didn’t stop it. In a few years, we Americans may well wonder why we didn’t go set ourselves on fire on the steps of the Capitol. In hindsight, that may seem like a perfectly reasonable response to utter madness. I can vividly imagine the day when my daughter asks me, incredulous, “You were alive during all that and you didn’t DO anything?!?” There is nothing I can say. Guilty as charged.
I feel helpless because I am so removed, physically and politically. How did all this happen? I don’t know the Americans who voted Republican. I really, truly, personally only know two. I’m mystified by the last two elections. Similarly, I’d guess that when you work within the convoluted plumbing of the financial system, it’s difficult to see how you personally could change the course of a charging alligator with a wrench and some caulking.
But here is what I can do. I can vote. Some days I feel passionately patriotic; I watch "The West Wing" and send money to the Obama campaign. On darker days, I think that if Americans elect another Republican, particularly this extremely wealthy Republican who personally greased the political wheels for this particular financial mess, then they deserve what they get, and I’ll never, ever, ever move back.
There is another way to look at all this. Maybe this will be the tipping point that will galvanize Americans into anger and action. Maybe this will be the age of the common folk. Small businesses, unions, universal health care and good public schools. Now that’s something that I could feel patriotic about. If there’s one resource that is endlessly renewable, it is Americans’ ability to shoulder through hard times, yank on those fabled bootstraps, and demand the same of their leaders. It’s easy to bash Americans. They elected Bush twice. But if they issued stock in the American people, I for one would buy it. I would put everything I had into it, because it’s the real thing.
The writer is a consultant and narrator in Tokyo.© Japan Today