My father would have hated to see this. He went to work for Citigroup right after World War II, when it was called First National City Bank, and they paid tellers like him about $30 a week. My dad never got a college degree, but turned out to be very adept at the banking business, which in those days was mostly about human relationships. He got to know all his customers personally, and liked to brag he never had a person or business default on him. “You’ve got to know who you’re loaning the money to,” he would tell me at the dinner table. “It’s about being a judge of character.” Even after he retired, my father had the kind of loyalty to Citi that almost no one feels now for their employers. He built his life on the foundation the bank provided—bought a home, raised a family, sent his sons to college, built himself and my mom a comfortable retirement. It would have broken his heart to see “his” bank revealed to be just another hollow shell game, reduced to begging for billions to stay in business.
Not much of what an entire generation once believed—once assumed—remains standing. Just consider some of the verities that this manmade tsunami has already swept out to sea, like so many wooden shacks: The stock market is the smartest place for long-term investments. The free market can correct its mistakes without government help. Working hard and saving toward retirement always pays off. And last but not least: Tomorrow is always better than today. Perhaps we can revive that last, treasured belief a few years from now—but only if China doesn’t tire of funding our bailouts.