Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Willem of Antwerp Thinks

You didn't ask me, but I had an interesting conversation with a souvenir-seller in Antwerp recently.

My wife and I had inadvertently chosen to go on holiday to The Netherlands and Belgium during what The Independent described
as "the greatest financial crisis in generations" to hit the US.

When we left our only concern was what the exchange rate between the shaky dollar and the surprisingly shaky Euro would be. We didn't think at the time that we should also be worrying about the total collapse of the US economy. I made the mistake of reading the International Herald Tribune one day while in Antwerp, and discovered that 60,000 + jobs were at stake in NYC alone. All of a sudden I got depressed and decided not to read anything more for the balance of the trip, nor watch the BBC or CNN.

At the time we were enjoying the free perks of the Executive Level Lounge at the Antwerp Hilton (my wife works for a Hilton property and receives truly unbelievable employee rates. When we arrived we were upgraded to the Exec Level with complimentary breakfast, alcoholic drinks and snack food - nice deal!).

So with gratis gin & tonic and white wine in hand and plates full of
hors d'Ĺ“uvre in front of us we settled in and started to read the paper. Our first impression, since unchanged, was that this was a extremely rare Republican program of financial socialism. Bailing out the modern-day market alchemists while burdening you and me with the eventual bill. While the "super-remunerated financiers [who] are the architects of their own misfortune and of the disaster potentially facing the economy" remain unscathed.

Armed with far too much information and absolutely no clarity what-so-ever re the financial collapse in the US, we ventured out for our first full day in Antwerp - to gorge ourselves with all things Rubens and to purchase our beloved refrigerator magnets - a small,
but treasured, token of our travels that we purchase everywhere we go. Our refrigerator doors are laden with them.

We were looking at booths and shops surrounding the Grote Markt when we first met
Willem Claessens. Willem ran a souvenir shop typical of the area - filled with the usual travel tchotchke found everywhere - key chains, plates, lace, wooded shoes, beer mugs, hats, t-shirts, etc, ad naseum. Willem was a late 50'ish, affable, red-checked, portly man with a serious look and an dry wit. We looked around, ask about prices, asked about how business was going, ask him about tourism in Antwerp and generally made small talk for about 15 minutes.

Willem finally asked us where we were from. He had guessed the UK and was surprised when we said "New York City."
He said "Oh, not the USA?" and, smiling away, we said "no, New York City, there is a difference you know!"

That brought a smile to Willem's face and he immediately asked us if we know how much all this mess in the US was costing us. I thought he meant the total cost of the so-called bail-out, the $700 billion number so often quoted. "No," he said, "not that. I mean what it is costing you as a person. Do you know what that figure is?" When we replied no, we did not, he told us that it would cost every man, woman and child in the US $2,000 to bail out the financial services companies that had just failed.

Finally, some one who brings clarity to this.

And Willem would go on for the next half-hour about the financial crisis in the US, it's roots and implications. It never ceases to amaze me how up-to-date Europeans are about US issues, even if they express their opinions about those issues with a certain smugness that may come back to bite them in the ass sooner then they think.

Willem had a heightened interest in finance. He told us that before he had opened his souvenir shop, he had been a accounting manager for a Belgium construction firm that dealt with the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein on new construction projects. He left that field of work due to health issues and now ran this little shop - not without some bitterness about his situation that was apparent from his dismissal of his business as "this is not what I was meant to do!"

Willem said our financial problems were caused by years of greed and excess consumption of the world's resources. He said that the US was a glutton, seemingly unable to sate it's appetite for wealth, no matter the cost to anyone, anywhere.

We left Willem without buying anything that day and made our way to see Rubens' House. Our minds moved away from Wall Street and on to Straats and Plaats and the treasures of Antwerp. We would spend 3 days here and then make our way to Gent and Bruges. On our last day in Antwerp we remembered we never bought that refrigerator magnet.

So it was back to Willem's shop we went. There was one other customer in the shop when we entered and she and Willem were in deep negotiation over a larger lace apron. My wife and I chose the magnet, laid down the money for Willem, and bid him goodbye.

As we were leaving the shop Willem turned from the other customer and said to us, "You know what the real problem is? Your country doesn't make anything. You don't produce anything anymore. Unless you do that it is hopeless. Goodbye and have a nice holiday."

And with that brief summary of the US financial crisis root cause, Willem brought ultimate clarity to the issue.

That's the real problem. We simply don't produce anything anymore.

Just wealth, real and otherwise. Nothing tangible any longer. No shoes, no machines, no steel. No nothing.

I was reminded of this conversation with Willem today when I read Tom Friedman's article in The New York Times, "Green The Bailout." Friedman says it best when he writes:

We need a buildup. We need to get back to making stuff, based on real engineering not just financial engineering. We need to get back to a world where people are able to realize the American Dream — a house with a yard — because they have built something with their hands, not because they got a “liar loan” from an underregulated bank with no money down and nothing to pay for two years.
Just like Willem said - we need to start building things again - pure and simple. And maybe, just maybe, we'll be proud again - and not angry and embarrassed and afraid because the Masters of the Universe have sold us out for a new Ferrari.