While I, and many Canadians, spent much of 2008 following Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, the financial crisis that enabled his substantial electoral victory was probably the much more significant event of the year, and its impact will probably be felt throughout much of the next four or five years. And yet, while I could tell you every intricate detail about the campaign, I feel like I know next to nothing about the economic madness that’s swept the United States this past year.
Oh I know the Coles Notes version: the impact of sub-prime lending, the way that consumer behaviour reinforces a drive towards a recession, what a recession means…but I don’t understand how this all ties together into something that affects everyone from the smallest business to the largest auto company.
It’s funny, I’ve spent the past few years pondering the idea of financial investment, given that I actually have an income now and all. And every time I got into the bank, I got scared shitless. Oh I have an RRSP, and actually put a decent amount of money in it, but the rest of the investment game always felt a bit like magic or trickery to me, or some kind of twisted gambling. There’s something of my grandfather in me, I think – from what I’ve been told, he loved the physicality of money, the sense that this $100 bill in front of him represented his labour (plus, he loved throwing around $100 bills). It’s tangible, real.
Though it was released a couple of months before the bottom fell out, and though it has nothing ostensibly to do with the economy other than a few metaphors, Conor Oberst’s “Lenders in the Temple” – from the Bright Eyes’ vocalist’s self-titled record with the Mystic Valley Band – always felt like the right note to soundtrack the Wall Street collapse. The collusion between spirituality and money, its brooding sense of apocalypse, the beautiful and powerful (paper tigers, crystal cities) proving to be nothing more than vacant facades…
But the core of the song is an overwhelming sense of sadness, which feels apt. For all the newsprint and television coverage focused on how “angry” people are, those hit hardest by the economy usually respond by expressing an overwhelming helplessness. They make pick a token enemy – “if you loved me, then that’s your fault” – but the real enemies of a recession are so effuse, so vaporous, that it’s often difficult to focus on them to achieve any sort of action. Invisible CEOs? Faceless Wall Street bankers? Instead, broken people turn inward.
There’s an emptiness to “Lenders in the Temple,” from the drug-induced hook-up stories of its protagonist tells, to the lonely nights watching infomercials in the living room. And though Oberst may never have intended the song to dwell on economics, it feels fitting to pair that emptyness it with a plain, matter-of-fact newscast on the recession, and with John McCain’s famous, tragic reaction to the matter. The media, the maverick…they all turn to vapour.