The World Will Miss Our Heyday

American power has been a force for good.

It’s almost like nothing has changed. We don’t talk about it unless someone brings it up — but even then everyone would prefer to discuss the latest on Sarah Palin, or laugh about Tina Fey’s portrayal of her, or to speculate about whether the movie “W” will be accurate or merely comical. So while the economy is hardly an unmentionable, it still is discussed in hushed tones or worse, with forced smiles, like this isn’t really happening. We can’t really be in freefall. Capitalism, at least as we know it, can’t be over.

In New York City, you’d never know that there is a huge problem. It’s still impossible to get a reservation at Per Se, allegedly the best restaurant in America, where a nine-course dinner for two runs over $900 once the wine and waiter have been accounted for. Upscale eateries like Blue Hill and Little Owl are still crowded with customers; people linger on the sidewalks waiting for a table that may become vacant in an hour or two. The more cautious of us are still keeping the French bistros and Italian wine bars in local neighborhoods busy, sipping expensive California Cabernet and Oregon Pinot in outdoor cafes on these remaining balmy nights. It’s still a nightmare to get a taxi in the rain.

While I keep expecting to see sale signs in the fancy lingerie store that sells an Eres bra for $400 or more, or at the home design shop that offers Jonathan Adler candles for $68, instead there are notices in the windows looking for experienced sales staff. Apparently the buying class is active, or even expanding.

Perhaps we are all in shock, because a $700 billion rescue plan — made up of funny money that we are borrowing from the future and anyone else who will give it to us — is an astonishing thing. And secretly, deep down, we all feel in our bones that the likely efficacy is minimal, because it’s hard to bail out oneself. There are bound to be hard times ahead. But for the moment, among those toiling in corporate and creative industries in New York City, there is a desperate need to just hang in there, because really, what else can you do? Unless you worked at Lehman Brothers, you probably still have a job — and apparently even the people at Lehman are still employed under the rubric of Barclays. Heaven knows the lawyers are busier than ever with the mess we’re in. In fact, as the markets unravel, everyone is busy with the business of holding it together.

But how long will we be able to save face? The other night, after the Dow plunged once again, I couldn’t sleep. I don’t own any stock, but my mother, a retiree, has all her money in the market. At four in the morning, I found myself composing a carefully worded email to my mom, instructing her to sell everything and put all her cash either into T-bills (conservatively) or into silver (more riskily). I know nothing about commodities, and about as much about the economy as John McCain, but my cockamamie wisdom was something like: Gold has already spiked, silver has yet to gain, it’s more portable and utilitarian than its more precious counterpart, it’s used in coins and utensils, a good hedge against bad times. At any rate, I just wanted my mother to do something — anything — to be safe. For the first time in my adult life, I was an adult.

But the scary thing is not what will happen to individuals — although a jobless, miserable mass is a very sullen thought — but what this economic crash says about America. Anyone who is not too drunk with despair (or drink) right now knows that this all signals a bigger realignment, that our place — our significance — in the world is diminishing. Eight years of this wastrel, spendthrift administration has bankrupted us of our standing and our capital — it’s all gone. Apparently on Wall Street, the bankers now have a saying: “Dubai, Shanghai, Mumbai or goodbye.” The future is no longer here.

This is a state of affairs that ought to leave not just us, but the entire world, deeply stricken with grief. In the history of empire — or superpower or hyperpower — no country has ever wielded its dominance as gently and judiciously as the United States has. Even those abroad and afar who feel they suffered as a result of American foreign policy ought to know that this planet as a whole will fare far worse under China or whatever country comes next, and would have suffered greatly had the Soviets won the Cold War. The American century from World War II on — really only about 60 years old — has been a very good time for everybody. The world is about to be a much sorrier place.

Miss Wurtzel, an attorney at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, is the author of “Prozac Nation” (Houghton Mifflin, 1994).

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