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Down and out in Tokyo

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By Anna Kunnecke

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.

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9 Comments
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don't know about that. Americans accidentally shoot themselves and run themselves over. America has been dumbed down for so long I hope I'm wrong but their inspired ignorance is not exactly a stellar indicator. I wonder how long the author has lived in Japan?

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If people really understood the cds market they would be even more angry. Imagine a 20 Million bet on a 1 Billion debt default. For some reason the company's debt rating goes down (default looks more eminent). I sell my cds to another for 40 million (I make 20M) and they then sell it to another for 80M and they trade it to another. =Betting on someone to default.

But too many cds's were traded 400-500B worth and the companies couldn't pay off the bets they had traded between themselves.

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the author seems not to realize her inability to weigh both sides of an issue is what is preventing Americans from holding their government accountable.

these indoctrinated fools exist on both sides of the political spectrum and tend to cancel each other out leaving the decision to vote for the lesser of two evils to independents. Unfortunately, independents have to rely on misinformation from the media who in effect are largely just mouth pieces for the political parties.

If ms kunnecke doesn't want to let her daughter down, i suggest she examine how her liberal indoctrination contributes to the madness.

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Yes partisan politics is a huge part of the problem. It's not my fault, I voted democrat. Or (when a democrat has screwed things up royally), It's not my fault, I voted republican.

Have you not noticed how your media polarizes issues - left, right; good, evil? Do you not understand how you are led to accept 4 years of badness so that you can receive righteousness in the next election (regardless of which party you support)? Heads or tails, it's still the same coin.

But what can you do? You can vote! But, I'll put it to you that this is the least you could do. In fact, it's hard to understand when rubbing shoulders with the ultra-mega-rich, but you are, in fact, the rich of the world. The median salary in the world is only a few hundred dollars a year. Just enough to feed yourself -- maybe.

You've got food, clothes, shelter, heat, entertainment, luxury -- all in excess of your needs. So you are rich. And you have freedom. With your wealth you can make choices for your life. Hate your job? Get another. Don't like the scenery? Move.

But with your wealth and freedom you've got power. So why not use it? I don't mean donating money to some far away cause. I simply mean, walking down to the end of your street, noticing something that needs doing and doing it. Find someone who is suffering and help them. Notice something falling apart and fix it.

Do it now while you are rich and free. Now that you have more than you can use, just help the people around you. When things get tight, you'll be glad you did. And don't worry so much about the shining white heroes in the government who are going to save you from the evil men. You have a community right here that needs your help.

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It was an interesting article until it descended into cheap party politics. Haven´t we had enough of this? There won´t be an end to financial croockery in an Obama government; quite the contrary actually. Why can´t she leave well alone without the cheap plug for her personal election choice.

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sorry but I really don't get the point of this article - i'll look out for her in the hello work queue

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Anna misses the point, if she set fire to herself on the steps of the white house the occupants would just use her to light their cigars.

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Ok, so the author believes in the American people, good for her. So do I and I hope most Americans understand Obama will be the better president in these horrible financial times.

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Nice blog... Wait wasn't I trying to read the news?

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