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What, Us Worry? Yes, Us Worry

The impending war, the threat of terrorism, and the troubles on Wall Street, in the media business, and with the economy as a whole are creating a perfect storm of anxiety for New Yorkers. Is this a passing phase? Or (gulp) our new reality?

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It is not just one thing. It's the conjunction of so many dismal, sapping events and conditions that now creates a singular moment of waiting for the other shoe to drop in New York.

The collapse of the stock market. The breakdown of the city's two main industries: finance and media. The nation's worst hiring slump in twenty years. The city itself in deep financial extremis. This long, execrable, grinding buildup to war. Orange alerts.

Not just a conjunction but a pileup.

Each element of the oncoming calamity has its own particular velocity. There's no preventing the wreck. Free fall becomes the most prevalent metaphor—even the accepted state of things. ("Oh, yeah, everything is pretty much in free fall." Shrug.) We all wait—some with an effort at coolness, others with rising hysteria—for impact.

The slow motion is the weird, unnerving part.

The economy started to go bad almost exactly three years ago. Since then, against the background narration of possible soft landings and necessary corrections and recoveries and counterintuitive tax relief and now the prospect of ever-more-counterintuitive tax cuts, the hole has stubbornly widened and drawn more and more of us into it. (In the beginning, it seemed to be happening over there, to someone else—to the techies, the corporate flimflammers, and others who might deserve it.) Job insecurity is pandemic. Everyone knows someone who's been canned. For a while, we were being told it was the worst downturn in a decade—back, in other words, to the last Bush-Saddam war. Now it's the worst in two decades. And it seems reasonable to assume that with the uncer-tainties and costs of war—and an all-new big-bang, pay-no-attention-to-that $300 billion hole in the budget—the worst is yet to come. How bad could it be? How dizzyingly bad? Japanese bad? A ten-year-and-counting horizon of going-nowhereness, of sinking-furtherness? Of undoing a generation of prosperity and ambition?

The relentless chug-chug of war has been formally going on for six months now. And really, it has been going on for almost eighteen months—since September 11. Going to war—the complicated and stultifying process of amassing and launching the public-relations artillery—will likely have lasted much longer than the war itself. And the costs of this prefatory foot-stamping in societal distraction, in ideas and projects on hold, in hoarded capital, in personal unease, may be greater than the price of the actual mobilization.

The ritual of making the case, the ritual of righteousness, is strained and desultory—the PowerPoint aspect of it all is a cause of anxiety in itself. It's such a monotonous, enervating argument (there's not even any tonal variety—it's like trying to reason with the dullard school principal and his nasty assistant principals; it's bullying and infantilizing), because you know where it's going to end up. We watch the war come from long perspective, to middle distance, to just about upon us—without any expectation that the end can be avoided, or that there has ever been any real intention to avoid it. It's all been a none-too-clever setup.

Yet, oddly, it takes such a long time to get there on this weeks-not-months schedule.

And likewise, and as tediously, it takes a long time for the Dow to drop, or finish dropping (7,000? 6,500? Lower?). And for the pink slip to arrive. And for the city itself to break down—only ever-so-slowly does the paint start to peel, do the homeless return in force, do the panhandlers get more aggressive, do the museums shutter rooms, and does the garbage accumulate.

We've been here before—at least, many of us of a certain middle age have. It's called the seventies.

When the Middle East—first with the opec nations embargoing oil, then later when Iran went nuts on us—became the abiding preoccupation of the age (an abiding preoccupation that did not seem to yield any more understanding than it does now—who are these people? What do they want from us? Why are they so annoying?). When the economy began a sickening ten-year ebb. When the city went bankrupt.

A magazine story I wrote in 1975, about that year's class of college graduates (my class) arriving in New York to a condition of almost absolute joblessness, is pretty similar to the kind of stories we will shortly again be reading plenty of. Then, as now, all the entitlement and enthusiasm turned out to deflate so easily, so pitiably—a boom, it seems, is built on very fragile egos. All those would-be world-beaters are back living at home. It's just a good economy, it turns out, that makes the difference between ambition and pathos. (The middle-aged parents I know talk not only about how their own children can't get jobs but about how the children of celebrities whom their children know can't get jobs, either, which is the ultimate sign of despair. What is New York when even connections don't help? You can't get colder than that.)

And this mayor, like the mayor then (the similarly hapless and unphotogenic Abe Beame), is once again embarrassingly hat-in-hand. GOVERNOR TO CITY: DROP DEAD. It's 1977, or surely seems soon to be, when the lights went out.

This is, too, as the seventies were, a bleary, guilty, hung-over time.

The aimless, anxious seventies followed, like some retribution, that ever-so-brief sixties baby-boom heaven on earth.

Likewise, little more than three years ago, we were deep in yuppie Jerusalem. Let us recall: Jobs were fungible, new careers transformative—and available to all; every idea was a plausible one; the money flowed.

Now, obviously, all gone. Over with. Kaput.

In May 2000, sitting on a panel (there are a lot fewer panels now, too)—a month after the market had taken its first dive—I got into an argument with Kara Swisher, the "Boom Town" columnist for the Wall Street Journal. It seemed clear to me then, because I had passed this way before, and because I am, by nature, a believer in the worst, that we were leaving our sixties. But Kara's defense was heated and convincing: Innovation was real and catalyzing, capital was plentiful and needed to be invested, fundamental positive economic changes had occurred—what's more, nobody was going to go back to the old way of working and doing business (top-down, centralized, hierarchical, slow, dull).

The funny thing is that the logic was firmly on Kara's side (why should everything have gone bust—what happened to all those big productivity gains?). Whereas I had only superstition, bad vibes, and a perennial glum outlook on mine. And yet, of course, I was entirely right—and strident, optimistic Kara all wrong. And it was not just the excesses of the dear departed decade that would go. Rather, all memory—or at least all positive memory—of that time has been revised, even expelled. Those were unreal, illogical, irrationally exuberant, apparently crooked times—best gone, we think now.

If the madness of crowds was a plausible explanation for what happened then, is the depression of crowds an equally valid explanation for what is happening now?

Surely, we think, September 11 is a legitimate fork in the psychological road.

The casus belli for an age of anxiety.

Or is there, in some sense, with or without the 11th, always the impulse to do penance for an age of excess? Is there always, necessarily, a reversal? (Is cyclical capitalism a psychological as well as an economic condition? After all those millennia of scarcity, Saul Bellow notes, it's hard for human beings to accept all this affluence.)


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