27th February 2009
There’s an electronic sign on the corner of 43rd street and Avenue of the Americas that displays the current US national debt. Racing north at an alarming, rate when I reached the curb it showed a figure so large I didn’t even know how to say it: $10,724,133,490,489. Underneath it announced, ‘Amount owed by each family: $90,089.’ By the time the lights had changed and I could cross, the total figure had increased by half a million. The following day when I passed the same spot each family owed another grand.
It’s hard to escape the economy here. Everyone is talking about it: my friends in bars, my contacts in meetings, and the president in congress, who last night told the watching world that despite sanctioning a 1.4 trillion dollar deficit for 2009 (four times greater than any before) the US would rebuild, would become stronger, would recover. Time will tell. Today with no morning meetings to attend I walked all 70 blocks from midtown to the financial district and took a look at Wall Street. I don’t know why, I’m not sure what I expected to see... ruined bankers throwing themselves from the 30th floor of their corporate towers? I suppose I just thought this is actually where history is happening right now and I want to see it. But of course it was business as usual, maybe a few more film crews than there otherwise might have been, but apart from that all appeared normal. So what are people saying, what’s the word from over here? It seems as though everyone’s as confused as they are at home. Just like in the UK there seems to be something of a phoney war going on, a waiting game, with people hoping things won’t get much worse, that things will start to recover soon, but realising also it could just be the calm before the storm. My old friend Kip, an artist of immense talent, told me people are still buying his work and although he knows some people that have lost their jobs they were shit anyway and probably deserved to. Tom, a film maker I met in Pakistan in 2003, agrees, albeit in a slightly more cautious way. ‘What that sign doesn’t tell you is the current national assets, which would presumably swamp the figure they do show.’ Good point. ‘But the thing that worries me is people seeing signs like that panicking and stopping their spending. That will be really devastating.’ Alana, who is also involved in travel, had dinner with some bankers the other night and they all reckon the recession hasn’t even started yet, that we may not be more that 30% in. And most alarmingly from my point of view wasthe worrying assessment of the editor of one of the US’s leading top-end travel magazines, as he thinks in worrying economic times, people stay closer to home and nest. I certainly hope not.
From Wall Street I took a ferry over to Liberty Island to take a close up look at the icon of freedom. Although security was tighter than at any airport I’ve travelled through, the jetty was packed with tourists who all seemed in high spirits. The Apple shop on 5th Avenue I went to later was doing good trade, every restaurant I’ve been to has been packed. Words on a T-Shirt I saw said the following, ‘In times of economic hardship, some will land on their feet,... others in the Hudson.’ I liked that. A phoney war is probably about right, the recession is here but so far it’s happening to someone else, someplace else. The question is, for how much longer? Off to Chile now for some real adventure.