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Helpless, as the world gambles your money away

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
Traders do business on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Traders do business on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
  • Bob Greene says as leaders scuffled over debt deal, Merck was announcing layoffs
  • He says workers' lives to be upended because Merck drug losing patent protection
  • He says our economy is a financial casino where others gamble with our fate
  • Greene: Money doesn't feel real anymore; other people outside our lives control ours

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a bestselling author whose books include "Late Edition: A Love Story" and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- How do dry economic numbers translate into real human pain?

Here's one way.

Almost lost in the wall-to-wall news coverage of the battle in Washington over the debt ceiling and the convulsions of the stock market was this item:

Merck & Co., the huge pharmaceutical manufacturer, announced that it will be eliminating up to 13,000 jobs through the end of the year 2015. This is in addition to 17,000 job cuts that were previously announced.

That's thousands of families who will newly be cast adrift. The Wall Street Journal explained that "35% to 40% of the new work-force reductions will be in the U.S., while Merck will continue to hire new employees in 'growth areas,' including emerging markets such as China."

And why will those thousands of families be thrust into uncertainty and, perhaps, despair, in an economy where jobs are so scarce? Is it because Merck has been losing money?

Apparently not. The Journal noted that "For the quarter, Merck reported a profit of $2.02 billion, or 65 cents a share, up from $752 million, or 24 cents a share, a year earlier. Revenue increased 7% to $12.15 billion."

So what is the reason that the thousands of families will feel the floor drop out from beneath them? Is there something the workers did wrong?

No. The thousands of people are being cut loose in large part because a big-selling prescription asthma medication is about to lose its patent protection, and become available for generic formulation by other manufacturers. Forces the employees had nothing to do with are costing them their livelihoods and sense of security.

That helplessness against unseen economic forces is a familiar feeling these days, and it's dangerous for the country. It is what lay just beneath the surface of the national anger during the fight over the debt ceiling, and the fears about the market plunge.

Sometimes it seems as if we are all trapped in some big casino where the lights are garish and the noise is bright and constant. Yet in a real casino -- in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City, aboard all those so-called riverboats around the country -- no one is required to play. The people risking their money do so by their own choice; if you stay away from the place, you can't lose. The casino that is the worldwide economic market offers no such comfort. Even if you don't own a single share of stock, you can be wiped out by rolls of the dice taken by others, and by the devastating ripples that follow.

We are supposed to regard money at face value. "Sound as a dollar," and all that. But increasingly, money is beginning to feel like something ephemeral and illusory, a series of glowing, dancing shapes on countless computer screens in brokerage offices and investment-bank headquarters.

In an essay here in the CNN Opinion section during the debt debate in Congress, Yale Law School professor Jack M. Balkin made a novel suggestion for resolving the problem at hand: Simply have the secretary of the Treasury order that two platinum coins, each with a face value of a trillion dollars, be minted. Instantly, the U.S. would have an extra $2 trillion to pay down the debt, just like that. The idea didn't seem much more outlandish than the thought that the country was, in fact, $14 trillion in debt.

Is money real, or not? Our grandparents and great-grandparents who went through the Great Depression learned that what seems substantial and solid one day can be gone the next, without them having done a thing to bring on the disaster. In the recent HBO movie "Too Big to Fail," based on the bestselling book by Andrew Ross Sorkin, there is a moment when one of the major characters makes the observation that there likely isn't a bank in the world that has enough money -- actual cash money -- in its vaults to pay all of its depositors. This, in the story, is taken as a given by the powerful men at the apex of the economic pyramid: the heads of the investment banks and the top officials at the U.S. Treasury and the Federal Reserve.

Money as a theory; money as a symbolic piece on a game board upon which only those behind closed doors in rarefied offices are privileged enough to seriously play. The newspaper Financial Times reported last week just before the market dive and the downgrading by Standard & Poor's of the United States' credit rating: "Investors worldwide sold out of equities amid widespread worries of stalling global growth. ... Bond yields in Germany, the U.S. and the U.K. fell to record lows whilst their Italian and Spanish counterparts climbed to euro-era highs. ... The Swiss franc surged the most in at least two years, to a fresh high against the euro and a new peak against the dollar."

All of that esoterica seems to have nothing, and everything, to do with citizens here in the U.S. who hope against hope that somehow, there will soon be jobs that allow them to begin providing properly for their families again.

The chaplain of the U.S. Senate, retired Navy Adm. Barry C. Black, appeared to understand the enormity of all this. He opened a session of the Senate during the rancorous debt debate with this extraordinary prayer of invocation directed at the members:

"Lord, help them to comprehend the global repercussions of some poor decisions, and the irreversibility of some tragic consequences. Quicken their ears to hear, their eyes to see, their hearts to believe and their wills to obey you. Before it is too late."

The question is:

Was it already too late?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.