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Monday. Chicago O'Hare

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Paul Mason | 13:43 UK time, Monday, 13 April 2009

I'm in the USA making a report about the first 100 days of the Obama administration, and its impact on the economy. I flew to Chicago O'Hare airport on Easter Sunday and am writing this at the Chicago O'Hare branch of a famous business hotel chain. On this trip I'm going to write about my impressions of how the economy is doing but I have to say this particular impression is too off-scale to have any relevance.

The hotel is nearly empty. The swimming pool is a mess of concrete and do not enter signs. I was the only person in the restaurant and the only person at the bar. I have just breakfasted on froot loops and stale toast ($12.50). Apart from that, I do not know what pays the wages of the largely migrant workforce here. They seem incredibly cheerful amid the 1970s-era mushroom coloured decor, piped jazz and pile carpet gloom.

What difference has Obama made? That's what I asked the barmaid. She told me a classic American dream story: came to Chicago from Morocco. Studied accountancy but has given up halfway through her degree. Went on a student protest against the Iraq war and was surprised to find herself treated like an enemy of the people by SWAT teams. Will never go on a protest again. Thinks Obama has made a difference just because of the mood music he's created. Described Michelle Obama's visit to a North London school in great detail. Irrepressibly optimistic. The economy is bouncing back. Using her hands she demonstrates it's fallen fast but has hit some kind of bounce point, which has reassured people it's not going to go "there" - she indicates the shape of a Depression.

This, as it turns out is the big debating point among US economists - with the NYT's Paul Krugman and the perennially pessimistic Nouriel Roubini both saying basically as follows: the fiscal stimulus is too little, because it's predictated on an over-optimistic reading of employment figures. Meanwhile the bank bailout scheme, currently undergoing stress testing, is built to fail and will shovel large amounts of money from the taxpayers to the banks, leaving them unreformed. Both economists think there is a danger that not only the USA but the global economy will go "there", Krugman suggesting that we are at the 1930 stage of the Depression timeline.

I always wanted to visit Chicago but it turns out that on this trip I will not really be going further than O'Hare. My next stop is Gary, Indiana. The old steel town is famous as a song title in the Robert Preston musical "The Music Man" - though in real life think The Wire with no happy endings.

I've been thinking the Music Man currently a decent metaphor for Obama: in the film Robert Preston's con man makes everybody feel better just by ordering new uniforms and instruments for the band, even though nobody can actually play them and they are not intended to arrive. The magic in the film is, of course, that the con turns out to be real; from somewhere - nobody knows - uniforms, instruments and the full 76 Trombones turn up. The irrepressible chutzpah of the hero makes it happen. This is the ultimate tenor of the barmaid's perspectives on the Presidency: it feels better so it will get better.

I'm off now to pick up Newsnight's "recreational vehicle". Me and my crew are officially becoming trailer trash on this trip - a kind of lumpenproletarian parallel to Ethical Man Does America.


  • Comment number 1.

    I might be wrong here, but has Obama done anything he said he wouldn't do or not done anything he said he would do?

    Comparisons with Gordi make Obama look, well, normal and straightforward; is that why Paul feels the need to take the mick - he's grown too cynical?

    Give it a break, Paul; why not just report on what is happening, rather than construct tortuous metaphor, simile and facile comparisons?

    You can and have done better. Maybe it's the froot loops.

  • Comment number 2.

    Nos 1

    You carry on Paul! doing a fine job, maybe use a still's camera, take some pics for us.

    Statement to the house on recent bouts of lunacy.

    Captain Paxman is on an away mission hunting down an elusive starter for ten pair of pants. He was apprehended by pirates while trying to enter Afghanistan with only M&S under pants in his luggage. Suspicion was aroused and Paxman confessed to suffering from obsessive compulsive pants disorder, order - order.

    Lieutenant Commander Wark has absconded with Newsnight and believed to have engaged the cloaking device, is in a holding pattern (exquisite but unseen in flat matt black) over Karbul while she evacuates all the women , Captain Paxman (minus dodgy pants) and prepares to fire a neutron bomb disguised as a tartan clad painting of Emily Pankhurst.

    It is revealed that Paul Staines spent his time in the 90's not only organising dance trance parties but remixing subliminal messages into electronic music thereby hypnotizing and inveigling participants into voluntarily hand over incriminating emails.

  • Comment number 3.

    What a pointles exercise.

    1. Obama's policies will not and can not have had any real impact yet, it will take years before we know what if any effect he has had.

    2. You are asking a failed university student for her opinion? What on eath could she add to any assessment short of how her tip jar is looking?

    3. You are aparently leaving Chicago without speaking to anyone worthwhile.

    4. There was no need to even go to the states to find this stuff out, the american media is plastering all ovr their shows and websites.

    So pelase, come home and stop wasting BBC money on American hotels and airports.

  • Comment number 4.

    I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with #3 at the same time. I agree that if this is a serious enquiry into the effect of Obama's policies then it is far too early to tell.

    As #1 says, Obama has played it pretty straight up to now - but then, I do wonder whether he has really changed course all that much from the one set by the previous incumbent. Both seem to be throwing money atthe problem. Maybe there is a difference in who is receiving it?

    I disagree with #3, because there is a strange unquantifiable truth that optimism brings success - and maybe the mood music and the views of the "failed university student" (or at least the collective views of a host of them) will actually tell us something important.

    Being more of a pessimist, I still think that we're in too deep a hole for us to simply talk our way out: but there's no doubt that any way out lies at the other side of people believing that there is one.

  • Comment number 5.

    Im guessing there will be more to come on this piece on newsnight or else there would be little to watch newnight for , if you gave us all the gossip here

    For what its worth, I have and still try to give Obama a break considering he has just stepped into the job.

    But, a lot of his promises made on the campaign trail he has gone back on, okay maybe once he had a look and got a feel for what was going on , he may have had to change his mind, but Im afraid even at this early stage, all Obama will bring the USA is optimism and that is all.

    A bit like how the Tories and Labour are here, run by shadowy figures who pay their way.

    To see some of the decisions made by the Senate is beggars belief and they have as much audacity as the Labour Party here have.

    Labour and tripping on banana skin after banana skin as they attempt to try and fool us, and Obama is doing the same, saying the right things but little of substance

    In a way its easier for the working waitress at the bar to be optimistic, as she has less to lose .

    I read and American Trick Drivers forum.

    Drivers are down on miles, sitting for days at truckstops, thousands getting laid off, this is a good barometer as to what is happening.

    They are putting a brave face on it , toughing it out until it picks up. Trouble is we all know it is going to take years to get to the point we were even 5 years ago.

  • Comment number 6.


    "For what its worth, I have and still try to give Obama a break considering he has just stepped into the job."

    Would you feel comfortable in a job you gained by spending more money, and bamaboozling more gullible twits, than the other aspirants? Of course not, but a lawyer would have no qualms. Indeed, we regularly see the crook with the most expensive lawyer, get away with heinous criminality, precisely BECAUSE his lawyer has no qualms (scruples or sleepless nights). What is more, in Lawyerland one is elevated in status by winning, even while achieving injustice (perhaps the more so). Politics, of course, is also about buying (bribing) and 'engineering' a win - regardless. Small wonder a lot of lawyer-minds are found in politics (some, obligingly, now displaying their unique morality).

    Obama is not only (humbly) comfortable in his exalted position, it is clear he KNOWS it is a birthright. Tony was EXACTLY the same.

    Beware of lawyers bearing high office.

  • Comment number 7.


    Can't fake a smile. Can't stop fiddling the books. Can't stop chewing his nails. CAN'T SAY A STRAIGHT SORRY.

    Can't last.

    However, while Westminster continues, un-purged of both its inmates and its ethos, we will just get another one.

    We can't go on like this.

  • Comment number 8.

    With relation to the word 'Hare', I wasn't aware that Chicago had ever had a problem with the population of this little, fast, big- eared furry animal.

    The name O'Hare actually derives from the employment status of those responsible for clearing the farmer's land of them on this side of the Atlantic to protect the crops. Further employment in looking after them for their use in Greyhound racing and coursing followed before they deemed this to be cruel and used a cuddly toy variety instead.

    Did the airport aquire the name from the man who was intitially in charge of it? Chicago Airport that is, of course.

  • Comment number 9.

    3. At 4:15pm on 13 Apr 2009, hackerjack
    What a pointless exercise.

    I think it is explained here:

    ...a kind of lumpenproletarian parallel to Ethical Man Does America.

    Without the need to agonise on the eco-consequences quite so much, evidently.

  • Comment number 10.

    Nice place, Bensenville.

    I hope you enjoy your stay.

  • Comment number 11.

    Message 8 BettyHur

    The hare is common where I live and in my view is not all that small. Their ability to hide in open grassland is astonishing. Superb animals.

    Chicago O'Hare is a former USAF base purchased by the city of Chicago just after the Second World War. They named it O'Hare after a famous US army pilot.

    There are lots of people of Irish origin in Chicago as there are Poles so it is a bit like Kilburn really.

  • Comment number 12.

    Chicago O'Hare...

    The most dreaded pilot's announcement when arriving on a supposedly through flight .. "We have an unscheduled change of equipment" (= you got to change planes!).

    This in my experience at O'Hare always means that whilst you may make the change your checked baggage will not. I just hate the long distance running involved and the hours and days wasted buying new stuff and getting your money back from the airline as your bag never quit catches up with you as you move around the country day-by-day.

    I hate all airports, but reserve special hatred for so called 'hub' airports. So, O'Hare may well be the busiest airport in the World but nothing can make air travel anything but an unpleasant chore (The more the airport is a shopping mall the more the chore).

    Even more so now that holes in one's socks are a subject for mirth at security! My advice is just say no and avoid travelling to all countries that take away the joy of travel! Includes all USA airports and many more around the World - why should be be all treated as criminals and terrorists! Enough is enough just boycott any country or airport that gives you grief.

    Don't go just use the internet!

    As for Obama: - Paul you were a mug to accept the job if you don't like airports - you should have hidden in the office and used the news wires - a new Caesar always has to a large extent dress in Caesar's mantle when he/she takes office.

  • Comment number 13.

    The hotel was probnably empty due to lack of business travellers over Easter I suspect....and the global downturn.

    There are a few raised eyebrows on here wrt your 'largesse' with our lisence fee.

    From my point of view you seem to be the only one who goes 'undercover' to have a dig at what is going on beneath the 'expert opinion' and political spin.

    Your crew travelling in a camper van is ideal, perhaps you should follow the migration route of ' The Grapes of Wrath' and make a comparison 'road to wigan pier style'?

    Keep it up, the nature of the complaints on here seems to suggest to me you are doing something right not wrong, they have a whiff of lobbying about them.

    Your Sunday Times article was on the right track and the sooner it is realised the better, all we are watching are the bankers and their lobbyists and political allies hanging on by their fingernails to the gravy train before it passes on by for another 3 generations (hopefully forever this time).

    One thing intrigued me though , I dont get the same sense of opinion from you when you report for the BBC. Why is that ?


  • Comment number 14.

    What an exciting post!


    It would be more useful if, instead of getting the views of a migrant bartender (at our expense) who, by the focus on handsigns has limited English anyway - so less likely to know what is going on - you were uncovering to what extent the banks that we have put all that money into, in the UK, are lending it overseas. As they can.

    And you fail to at least consider that if the Moroccan wasn't employed then perhaps a US person could be, thoguh maybe not as cheaply.

    And to apply that here???

    This is not a dress rehearsal.

  • Comment number 15.

    chicago? should have looked up Ira Epstein [a trader with 40 years in the biz]. he could have given you a guided tour of the exchanges and the word on the inside?

    forget the damian day child's teddy bear in the [delete as appropriate] ex-steel/ex-mining/ex-mill town. Unless going for the Steinbeck award too ;)

    maybe this is be better at demonstrating the power of fear and greed?

  • Comment number 16.

    if you need a laugh in what sounds a grim hotel ....

  • Comment number 17.

    How was the airport for you?

    Sounds like the sort of hotel that should not survive another day.

    As trailer trash myself, please keep us informed on the plight of US campsites, which has been the only growth area in British tourism.
    Are US trailer parks full of unemployed bankers and car workers rather than accommodating touring tourists.

    Motohomes offer freedom, accommodation, transport for you and your crew's stuff, instant loo, cafe, washing facilities, communication points, and must be kinder on the BBC's travel budget when on an investigating jolly.

  • Comment number 18.


    Great blog, informative and entertaining but..

    When the former chier economist to the IMF, Simon Johnson, releases an article in a quality publication, The Atlantic, describing exactly how our current economic woes are directly related to the grip that our very own oligarchs have on the US and UK economies and particularly the politicians that nominally represent we, the people, why does the BBC Economics team not find that fit for comment?

    Amazing. Chief Economist at IMF uncovers the reasons behind the credit crunch and the related distortions in our democratic system, and plots pathway to recovery - break the oligarchies power. Yet the BBC does not find that worthy of comment.

    Look beyond your current political masters, and remember its us - the license payers - and yourselves for that matter, i assume you have a TV, who are your paymasters. We deserve to know the truth. Give people a chance. Get truth out

  • Comment number 19.

    #18 Marksmith1981

    I followed your suggestion and tracked down professor Johnsons article.

    This is a seminal piece and condenses into one essay many of the points salient to the followers of this blog.

    Professor Johnson identifes structures and hegemonies he believes are at the bottom of the crisis. He also points to a way out.

    The nagging question for me lies in professor Johnson's presupposition of an economy ultimately free of oligarcy, political hegemony and an underlying metaphysical belief system.

    Has there ever been or will there ever be such an economy ?

    My guess is that Barack Obama will be employed to sustain the beliefs that underpin the American Dream and sustain those in elite positions at the diffused cost to the many.

    Of course this will entail the professor's fears of sustained downturn.

    However if Obama can get America, (and China ) to believe in the "dream" hard enough and long enough it may indeed become self fulfilling, thereby proving Simon Johnson wrong .

    Paul, I recommend Simon Johnson's article to you and all the bloggers.

  • Comment number 20.

    Why is the BBC wasting time and money to look at Obamas 100 days in office when it has such a cynical view of his administration. Comparing him to the music man is indeed unkind and poor journalism. The BBC did a good job in talking up our current plight in the UK and I don't see it doing much to alter people's outlook. However i notice that it still has those stupid house auction programmes on in the daytime despite the BBC entertainment dept not realising that there has been a housing crash in the UK.

  • Comment number 21.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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