Notebook

July 31, 2012 7:39 pm

Dust Bowl insights for our Titans

We all should remember the Depression and be more frugal, writes Tom Brokaw

Arriving in London for NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, I was looking forward to staying in what was for me a new neighbourhood: Canary Wharf, the bustling financial district with malls, vest-pocket parks and walkways overlooking the Thames. From my hotel window I could see the gleaming headquarters of JPMorgan-Chase, Citi, Bank of America and Barclays, the dominant names in the big bank universe, each with a portfolio of troubles brought on by overreaching in one form or another.

How, I wondered, have these mistakes affected the mood, especially when Great Britain’s economy is in a double-dip recession. So I went for an early evening walk and for a moment thought I had stumbled into a moveable feast on steroids. The promenades were jammed with the sociable young, laughing and drinking, clustered around buckets of chilled wines and hors d’oeuvres. Surely, this must be a once-a-week ritual, no?

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No. It’s been going on every night since I’ve been here, nearly two weeks, through the news of Britain’s contracting economy and growing worries about the effect of Spain’s debt on the global economy.

In the heart of London, there are matching scenes in the legendary hotels, restaurants and private clubs. Now, I am not Ebenezer Scrooge. I don’t begrudge those who work hard having a good time. Consumers are critical to keeping our economies going but I do wonder what those in financial services will take away from these years, when a keystroke can generate great gains – or losses.

My mother, who died last year at 93, was a product of the Great Plains dust bowl of the Thirties. She was a bright and cheerful girl who wanted to be a journalist but when her father lost the family farm she changed course, marrying my father who came from an even more challenging background. I grew up on their matter-of-fact recitations of life in those difficult days, never told with rancour and almost always with a laugh about shared adventures. They both worked hard, saved something from every pay cheque and gave me everything I needed. They always believed troubles could come again, and they were not wrong.

Banx illustration

Although I am a flawed steward of their frugal ways, I’ve tried always to remember their Depression-era struggles. When this global recession hit hard in Orange county, California where Mother lived out her final years I would often take her to a popular, high end restaurant along the Newport coast. The parking valet stands would be busy with luxury cars and all the tables would be booked from early evening on.

When we walked in I would always say, “So, Mother, this is what the Great Depression was like, right?” She’d frown and say, “Where does all this money come from? What are they thinking?” I’ve thought about her during my strolls in Canary Wharf, trying to imagine what, 50 years from now, will all those fun-loving young men and women share with their children about life and values in the Great Recession.

Whingeing for gold

London is my ninth Olympiad and by now I am familiar with the DNA of the modern games. The essence of the Olympics remains competition across an ever wider spectrum of sports but the infrastructure of the games is a portable city-state with its own economy, culture, architecture and aspirations.

In Beijing, the unofficial motto of the vast Chinese investment in urban improvements and venues was, “Look out world, here we come”. In London, the message seems to be, “Hello. We’re still British. Lovely”.

Personally, I was charmed by the opening ceremony. For an American audience you cannot go wrong if you include the Queen or your other royalty, Paul McCartney and British rock and roll. However, we’re still puzzling over the extended tribute to the National Health Service, and I did tell a British friend, “I always thought colonialism was part of your history. Guess I was wrong.”

My company, NBC, is known as the Olympic network, for good reason. NBC Sports has covered the games since Seoul in 1988. Over the years we’ve become familiar with an unofficial Olympics category, what the British call whingeing. Twitter and other forms of social media have given everyone a microphone to complain about coverage.

It’s the American way but to put it in perspective, at the end of every night since the opening the ratings have been at a record high for our coverage. No whingeing there.

The writer is special correspondent for NBC News

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