Looking back at today


These were the days when the credit markets stood still, the days where Wall Street turned its weary eyes toward Washington for rescue from an indefinable menace. These were the days when big banks failed, when billion-dollar bailouts became second page news to trillion-dollar prayers, when Governor Sarah Palin, the much-maligned Republican Vice Presidential candidate, suddenly seemed lucid with her prognostication that the Credit Crisis of 2008 could be as dreadful as the Great Depression. These were the days when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr., hailed as “King Henry” by Newsweek at the beginning of the week, knelt before the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, by the end of it, begging for a resolution to a crisis that saw no end.

In the midst of a saga reminiscent of a soap opera but played out on soapboxes on Capitol Hill, the race for the presidency continued. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) jostled for position amidst the carnage of the government bailout plan. For the first time in history, it appeared that the carefully orchestrated series of Presidential Debates, scheduled to begin on Friday, September 26, would also fall victim to the credit crunch. The debate went on, and by Sunday it appeared that the usual shrill pitch of bipartisan rancor had been stilled by the face of crisis and that an economic rescue package was imminent. However, as the roll call began in Washington, traders in New York soon became aware of a previously unimaginable truth: the bill was not going to pass. The Dow Jones Industrial Average sank 777 points, defying the belief that emergency short-selling restrictions, instituted by the Securities and Exchange Commission only weeks earlier, would prevent panic selling.

For those of us at the law school, there was the palpable sense that we were living too much history. We had witnessed the most destructive attack on American soil in two centuries, after which, we all knew, the world would never be the same. 9/11 was a generational event, or so it seemed at the time. 9/11 would challenge our commitment to freedom and civil liberties, our relations with other nations, and our understanding of the need for renewable energy. But even as the market dropped 700 points on the first day of trading following 9/11, there was a calm solemnity in America. The New York Times declared, “Never before has a day in which the stock market tumbled so far seemed like a good day.” As cruel as Al Qaeda was, we knew we could not be defeated. The American people would not allow a group of Islamist radicals to become anything resembling an existential threat to life, as we knew it.

Little did we know that eight years later, President Bush, whose approval ratings soared to the highest levels in history in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, would hold the lowest approval rating of all-time, and would tell the American people that as a result of the economic turmoil, “our entire economy is in danger.” French President Nicolas Sarkozy took the rhetoric one step further, stating, “A certain idea of globalization is drawing to a close.” And on September 29, 2008, as the stock market plunged, the New York Times reported the frightening thoughts of one trader, “You just felt like the world was unraveling…People started to sell and they sold hard. It didn’t matter what you had – you sold.”

History teaches us that by the time we realize that the final chapter is being penned about our world, we are usually deep into the epilogue. Does the fall of global capitalism begin now or was it well underway as we reaped the rewards of an inflated housing market? Can the U.S. save the system or will its efforts be treated as futile attempts to resist the unyielding tide of time? Some may say that the story is already written and merely bides its time to be revealed. But those of us who inhabit this moment of history do not have the luxury of presuming the inevitability of our demise. Instead, we must act, like the authors of history before us, to confront those ills we know and those we know not of. These were the days.

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