TOPICS > Economy

Value’s Meaning Shines Through as Economy Falters

January 30, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING, NewsHour essayist: What was Bernard Madoff thinking? A kindly man, they say, nice to employees, generous to charities, but one who for methodical years seduced money out of people in a game of malevolent monopoly.

Perhaps as much as $50 billion he lost, playing with people’s lifelong savings, their foundations, unable to see the humanity of those he duped. They simply weren’t real to him.

That’s the malady and the question. What is real? Who is real, $50 billion here, $700 billion there? More billions appear like magic on a Fed balance sheet. A bailout here, a shotgun marriage there, all to save us from those we thought were our best and brightest.

An aura of unreality hangs over the past stretch of months. Many of us, in fairness, played our own unreal games, sinking our hard-earned cash into the financial markets without really realizing the risks we were taking. I did it, too.

Many lived on credit

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Not to mention those who wishfully bought into crazy mortgages they couldn't afford and lived on credit card debt they couldn't repay. What were they thinking?

Of course, very few of us see much cash anymore. Our paychecks are automatically deposited in our bank accounts, some scraped off to go into pension or health funds. Everything is done invisibly. Even our morning coffee is bought with debit cards.

The whole notion of what money looks like, and feels like, and smells like, not to mention how much time and effort it takes to earn it, has been lost.

How ironic, then, that our TV of choice during this period was reality TV, so-called, because nothing could be more fake than survivors on some island pretending to subsist on worms when there was a catering truck just out of camera range.

Escapist entertainment favored

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: We colluded in our own deception as if something real were at stake, something other than prize money. It was like one big emotional Ponzi scheme, and we played along.

Perhaps we took refuge in the fakeness, knowing that the pictures of hunger and slaughter from other places, like Darfur, were all too real, just as are our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But there were no catering trucks just out of camera range in those countries.

How ironic, too, that our recent books of choice have been memoirs, supposedly true tales from an assortment of the wise and wounded and wacky. In fairness, some of the memoirs have been luminous, but some were flat-out fake.

What were those prevaricators thinking, that truth didn't matter, that we, the audience, wouldn't find out or wouldn't care, that life is reality TV?

DAVID LETTERMAN, host, "Late Show": It's time for tonight's "Top Ten List."

ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Did we all get too hip for our own good, to in on the joke, as it were, everything refracted through a Letterman-esque wink into the camera?

Maybe that's why Jon Stewart has been such a success. He is the post-Letterman, winking at the winkers, making us admit that we don't care what's really real anymore, as long as it makes us laugh or makes us rich.

But the mortgages have come due. There will be more foreclosures, more layoffs, more companies going bust. Everything is getting very, very real.

I'm Anne Taylor Fleming.