Financial Crisis Is Deja Vu Experience

While taking advantage of the various sales to stock up on sports coats, NPR's Martin Kaste recalls the 2002 financial crisis in Argentina — where he was reporting at the time — and compares it to the current financial crisis in the U.S.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

From NPR News, it's Day to Day. Lately, there has been a lot of talk that what this country is going through now is the worst economic crisis since the '30s. But that's an American perspective. Other countries have gone through crises like this one a lot more recently. NPR's Martin Kaste used to be our reporter in South America. And in this Reporter's Notebook, he says this is all beginning to feel a little too familiar.

MARTIN KASTE: The deja vu hits me in the men's department. The store is practically empty. I'm at the cash register. I'm stocking up on sportscoats. They were already pretty cheap last week, and now they are another 50 percent off. Also, I brought a coupon.

And it's right here, as I'm digging for that coupon, this is where the deja vu sets in. The last time I bought sportscoats like this, I was covering the financial crisis in Argentina. That was 2002. The deals in Buenos Aires were fantastic: 50 bucks for a coat, 30 for handmade leather shoes, and the wine, amazing Malbecs for $6 a bottle. Argentina had been expensive in the 1990s, but the country's prosperity was propped up by foreign loans. And that house of cards came down hard in 2001.

The government flailed its way through a series of rescue packages, then froze everybody's bank accounts. For us, the foreign reporters, it was a strange time. We spent the day covering human misery, a middle class forced back down into poverty, lost pensions, whole families out collecting cans, barter markets cropping up in the middle of the city. Then we'd do our stories, upload them by midnight, and it was off to Cafe Dada for a filet mignon, seven bucks. We knew how it looked, like we'd come to loot the place. I tried to play down my purchasing power, at least around my Argentine colleagues, people like Susanna, a local TV reporter I hired as a guide on one of my first visits.

Her own situation was pretty typical. The TV station hadn't paid anybody in months, but she kept showing up for work just to hold onto her job. We got along well and after a while, I loosened up. I mentioned a side trip that my wife and I were planning to Patagonia. Go see the sights - how could we not, I said, with airfare so laughably cheap? Right away, I apologized. But even at the moment, I had to ask to myself, what exactly was I apologizing for? Here in the men's department, six years later, I'm still wondering. I'm also wondering if I can really afford all these sportscoats now that America is having its own economic meltdown. This time around, I don't have the privilege of playing the detached foreign reporter. This time, it's my home we're talking about. The sales clerk gets my attention.

(Soundbite of a sales conversation)

KASTE: He's having trouble scanning in my coupon for the extra 10percent off. Don't bother, I tell him. I've probably had enough discounts as it is. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(Soundbite of music)

COHEN: Stay with us. Day to Day continues.

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