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calendar   Saturday - September 20, 2008

IF THERE’S A WAY OUT OF A MESS, AMERICANS CAN FIND IT. A BRIT REPORT ON USA.

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Crisis schmisis - there’s money to be made

By Tom Leonard
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 20/09/2008

The sight of jobless Lehman Brothers staff leaving their Manhattan headquarters clutching cardboard boxes, like a line of leaf-bearing ants, was an arresting one.

But far more startling was the crowd of people waiting to greet them last Tuesday morning. When Americans say - and they often do - that one man’s crisis is another man’s opportunity, they aren’t joking. A pair of bankers from a small - still solvent - Connecticut firm were dressed in pyjamas and dressing gowns waving “Brokers Wanted” placards and shouting, “Tired of the big boys? Get into bed with us”.

A few of the downcast Lehman people even managed to smile. The air was thick with flashing business cards. Recruitment consultants shoved theirs into the hands of anyone in a suit.

The entrepreneurial spirit in action outside Lehman Brothers’ New York offices.

A man seeking staff for a new internet company was doing the same and, although the news of Lehman’s collapse was only a day old, he had already printed a “Wanted For Hire: 7,000 Brothers of Lehman” T-shirt.

“I really want to get into the building and have a good chat with them,” he told me. Didn’t he think he was being a little insensitive? He smiled. Perhaps only a Brit would waste time asking such a question. Yes, he obviously did think that, but frankly so what?

It has been a miserable week in New York and it could get even worse. The bankers and brokers are inconsolable and there is a lot of talk of 1929. In a city so reliant on the financial sector, it is hard to find people who aren’t worried that the banking crisis will trickle down and hit the “little guy” like them; if not taking their job, at least shattering the value of their home. And yet, as the entrepreneurial bunch outside Lehmans illustrated far better than the platitudes coming from John McCain and Barack Obama, Americans are not ones to see a glass half empty.

They don’t tend to stay on the floor too long after they’ve had a kicking. It’s a gritty, ruthlessly pragmatic, sometimes - like the man in the Lehman T-shirt - purely self-interested resilience that is rooted in the country’s can-do psyche and centuries-old belief in self-help. And rooted, too, in America’s belief in itself. Those philosophical ideas of American exceptionalism and the United States’s Manifest Destiny - as the Puritans were first to outline it, that God created America as a “city on the hill” to provide an example to others - smack of chauvinism. But they certainly don’t hurt when a country needs to pull through a gloomy patch.

Of course, that sunny, ingrained optimism that America’s detractors like to dismiss as simple naivety has particular benefits in a crisis that is largely about confidence. Americans just cannot stay downhearted for long; it’s not in their DNA. A CNN presenter summed up that positive spirit yesterday as she introduced a segment on “the financial challenges out there and what folks are doing to meet them”. Weaned on generations of Hollywood disaster movies, in which over-dressed Americans run screaming and helpless from every crisis, foreigners tend to dismiss the real ones as pampered and complacent - missing the gene that governs coping with adversity. It might be true that Americans have grown too attached to an easy lifestyle, but they certainly don’t shrink from a challenge.

Many have written off the US car industry as doomed to extinction because of its reliance on big, gas-guzzling vehicles at a time of soaring petrol prices. And yet, to huge applause, General Motors failed to live down to expectations this week when it unveiled the Volt, a radical new type of electric car that can do 40 miles on one battery charge. Just like in the world wars, Americans have come rather late to the “green revolution”, but - as in 1942, when Sherman tanks rolled off the supply ships in their thousands - they tend to make a difference when they set their minds to something.

(well now hang on there. the sherman tank wasn’t a match for the tiger tank as I’ve read history. but we had the fuel to run ours and the numbers.)

Every week, some West Coast technology company or East Coast laboratory comes up with an ingenious energy-efficient, planet-saving idea that no one in Europe - with its head start - seemed to have thought of. And, it being America, and the green economy being one of the country’s fastest-growing sectors, you can be fairly sure that the bright idea will make it on to the market. Academics have talked in the past of America’s “Promethean creativity” and you can see it now in the way that the country’s creative juices are being channelled into getting through this financial mess. Where there’s a buck to be made, the average American won’t hesitate to make it. This creed may have helped get the country into its current financial problems, but one cannot help feeling it may help get it out of it too.

“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” sang Sinatra in New York, New York. The supreme self-confidence - the sheer puffed-out chestiness of a conviction no doubt shared by the rest of the city - always made me cringe. But it doesn’t stop it being largely true and, as New Yorkers take the vanguard in an American economic fightback on which we all depend, it’s also oddly reassuring.

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Posted by Drew458   United Kingdom  on 09/20/2008 at 01:05 PM   
Filed Under: • Big BusinessEconomicsEditorials •  
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