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Saturday, September 21

The Weavers


On August 7, 2012, a very rare snowfall took Johannesburg, South Africa by surprise, delighting the residents of the city. There to capture the magical moment with a camera was Associated Press reporter Jon Gambrell; from the kind of office I.D. she's wearing the woman dancing in in the snow could be a coworker of his. But [laughing] is that a can of Coca-Cola she's holding, or a local version?


"It's not coming back"

Shortly after the financial meltdown I was channel surfing for news on the crisis and came across an interview that a gaggle of 30-Something panelists on CNBC financial cable were reverentially conducting with a Sage of Wall Street. I didn't catch his name. He looked to be in his early 90s and had a face like a road map and a mane of snow white hair. With understatement he was not a TV interview-friendly type, never having cared to learn the technique of appealing to a Demographic Cross-section.

I think he must have been born on Orchard Street and working at his family's garment pushcart by the time he was five. In any case, he worked his way up through the ranks of New York's garment industry, which in that era was the center of the trade, eventually became rich, then a very successful Wall Street investor who specializes in retail clothing stores with emphasis on the high end stores.

The CNBC crew wanted him to explain the import of the financial crisis for the garment trade. He replied in a Yiddish New York accent so thick it could butter a bagel, "It's not coming back."

The 30-Somethings exchanged glances then one asked, "What's not coming back, sir?"

He raised his voice, as if the listeners were deaf, and repeated, "It's not coming back."

"Wha-wha-what's not coming back?" ventured another panelist.

He thundered, "None of it! It's not coming back! Saks, Neiman Marcus, none of it. It's over! Gone!"

After a station break the 30-Somethings recovered by assuring each other that things wouldn't be that bad, and while they didn't outright say, ' The Fed will save us,' their conversation implied that hope.

The Federal Reserve did save Wall Street, and in the process created a 'wealth effect' that saved some of the high end stores. But the sage was right about the big picture. An era that had launched more than a century earlier had come to an end. So while the financial crisis had specific triggers, chief among them tsunamis of money flooding the planet, the crisis was on track to happen in one way or another.

It was an ending that no government, no central bank, and certainly no industry or public had been prepared for. This, even though everyone had been predicting since the 1990s that a world era was coming to end. However, only a few -- the 'oil patch' salesmen whose passport visa pages are as thick as the Bible, the key midlevel managers in far-flung global enterprises, the currency traders for the biggest banks and oil companies -- knew for certain the era had already ended. For the rest of us, the present era would end someday, somehow, just not right now.

When the historic financial crisis of 2008 signaled that now had finally happened, it came as a terrible shock.

Since then governments and central banks have struggled to pick up the pieces even though they know that Humpty Dumpty can't be put back together again. Meanwhile some kind of order must be established and maintained as the world adjusts to the new fact of its existence: the rise of middle classes all over the globe, all clamoring for the same things that the American middle class had laid claim to for more than half a century. And with nouveau riche in umpteen languages making markets in everything you can think of and touching off speculative bubbles in the process.

"There's too much liquidity in the world, " intoned a German finance ministry official recently, stating the obvious.

The Triumph of the Entrepreneurs

By this year the United Nations was reporting that obesity, not malnutrition, was world's number one health crisis, as middle classes all over the globe wolf down the same kind of stuff that turned the American middle class fat.  So if you want to get a real feel for the new era, a good intuitive grasp of what it's like, watch the cable Travel Channel's rollicking, globe-trotting series, Fast Food Gone Global.

With urban workforces the world over no longer content to simply eat Kentucky Fried Chicken, Domino's Pizza and Mickey D's burgers, the franchises for those American fast food companies and others have added refinements to their food to suit the tastes of the local food consumers. The results are often so delicious to any palate that American tourists who eat in those places are now telling U.S. versions to carry the same menus.

And local entrepreneurs in Asian, African, European, and Latin American countries have come up with their own takes on the classic American fast food joint. Many of their improvisations on American fast food are so mouthwatering to look at I swear you can put on pounds just watching the series.

And Coca-Cola! Remember the Superbowl Coke ad that was so weird Americans couldn't figure out the point? The point was revealed in a segment of the Travel Channel show. The company hasn't only been selling standard Coke brands to foreign consumers; it's been going around the world, asking people in different cultures, 'What's your favorite nonalcoholic drink?' then making Coke versions, several of which are actually [lowering her voice] healthy

Some of the concoctions are also delicious to American taste buds, and now that Americans have gotten a look at them via the travel show there will surely be clamors in this country for them. Of course the locals are countering with their own improvisations on Coke's improvisations on local drinks.

So Fast Food Gone Global is not just about fast food and soft drinks. It's also a reiteration that peoples the world over have taken up much of the American way and are adding their unique refinements to make it their own. Yet all of this has been happening in a natural, unforced way. It's just millions upon millions of people saying 'I like this,' or 'I don't like that,' and 'I like this but with this addition or that change.' And it's millions of entrepreneurs from every culture you can think of, figuring ways to profit from preferences.

Weavers, all, weaving the ancient ways of the world into the fabric of the present.

The show reminded me of a National Geographic photo essay that showed how over the centuries African and other ancient tribes had woven 'modern' materials into traditional tribal ornamental patterns. From a distance the weave patterns look as they looked thousands of years ago; it's only when the camera comes in close does it reveal that the weaves are made of, say, bottle caps from the 19th century. Extraordinary essay, extraordinary photographs -- works of art in themselves. It was published decades ago.

I'm very sorry I lost my copy of the issue so I can't tell you the year it was published. But my recollection of the weaves prompts me to voice a caution to my government. It is just because the American Way has been taken into so many hearts that now America's government must tread very lightly in the world. The financial crash exposed the many severe weaknesses in our society. This is an era for Americans to work on themselves and trust that the rest of the world is watching and taking notes.

It never went away

My recollection of the weaves also reminds me that nothing we humans value can be lost beyond finding. Many things are not coming back, but all that's right and good about our race never went away, never will go away.
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