THERE ONCE were some people who came to a land that was vast and
abundantly endowed in natural riches. Through hard work, enthusiasm and a
unique mojo called "Yankee Ingenuity," the people spread out across the land
(sometimes booting out other folks already living there) and put down roots.
They built great cities, cultivated bountiful farms and generally prospered
at a speed -- and to a depth of the population -- that was unprecidented in
the history of humankind.
In fact, in the time it takes most people just to develop a monetary system
and design a flag, these people became the political, military and economic
super-power of the whole world. By their third century, life -- materially
speaking -- was about as good as it gets. Folks who called themselves "Middle
Class" lived in big, fine houses and bought (or leased) vehicles that cost
twice as much money as many "Lower Class" folks (a.k.a. "the working poor")
earned in an entire year.
The houses held equally fine furniture and accessories, from cappuccino
makers and giant-screen TVs to handpainted dinnerware and computers that let
everyone (even the kids) make snappy looking movies of themselves. Once-in-a-
lifetime vacations were taken every year.
Of course, without a thin little rectangle of plastic, lots of these people
could not take such trips or acquire such fine furniture and fun gadgets. And
without a nation-wide system of legalized gambling known as "The Stock Market,
" many would not have acquired their houses or cars. At least not such big,
The Stock Market was a relatively recent phenomenon in the short history of
these people. In only two generations, participation had grown from about 5
percent of the people to more than half. For many, the way into The Stock
Market had been through their offices and factories, through a door marked,
Everyone loved the 401K. The people's employers no longer had to set up
"Conventional Pensions" (money for employees to live on when they got old) and
employees got an annual "Tax Break" on all income they socked away in a 401K.
Meanwhile, The Stock Market grew like some gargantuan tick with an endless
supply of dogs. People without 401Ks felt compelled to join in -- or else be
thought "Schlumps." A large number actually used their thin little plastic
rectangles to gamble when their "Real Money" ran out.
For a few years, it was one big party. The standard of living rose beyond
anyone's wildest dream. All but the bottom of the barrel acquired more things
than folks in many nations would need 10 lifetimes to collect. Luxuries, such
as cellular phones and clothes with "Tommy Hilfiger" on them, became overnight
Even the Lower Class/Working Poor got caught up in the fever. Shut out of
The Stock Market, they had no trouble getting hold of the thin little
rectangles of plastic. The government even let them pay their Taxes with the
Were the people of the vast, young land the happiest on the face of the
But nothing made them stop. Experts and amateurs warned that perpetual
expansion of anything, including an economy, is impossible. They pointed to
all the unpaid plastic rectangle bills and to the tangible worthlessness of
new companies that drew stock investors like ants to a Tootsie Roll.
The Stock Market answered, "New Paradigm," "Old Economy."
Everyone said "the bubble has to burst," but they kept living as though it
never would. And, the truth is, it didn't. It just started to dissolve: $2.5
trillion-worth in eight weeks.
The people were scared. They cried and moaned and counted their losses (on
paper and in Real Money). They spoke gravely about bad times ahead. They had
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle