A New Prosperity

A New Prosperity

 

Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, into each life some rain must fall, some days must be dark and dreary.

 

The Rainy Day – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

A recent book entitled, The End of Prosperity hits the bookshelves as a best seller.  The sense of gloom and uncertainty settles like wisps of ground fog on a region where 16% of jobs are connected to the financial sector, more than twice the average of other parts of the country.  Movies like Revolutionary Road depict affluent suburbs as soulless Edens, corrupted by ambition – a dark land where character and dreams of selfless idealism are sacrificed on the petard of material pursuit.  Prosperity it seems has committed suicide.

 

Prosperity has long been a mysterious and ever changing alchemy whose elemental chart is defined by a society through the building blocks of culture and shared values.

 In Colonial America, a prosperous person was a self reliant individual who had sufficient food, and shelter and land.  As America matured, property and possessions – acreage of arable farmland, livestock, silver and gold, possessions, power, and influence became the weights that tilted the scale of public opinion of a man’s value.  Somewhere along the way, our net worth became synonymous with our total worth.  If one achieves material success, society deifies them for their ability to create and harvest wealth.  For some, this reward of temporal immortality proves a golden calf trap leading to broken promises, lost dreams and shattered interpersonal relationships.  The insatiable pursuit of prosperity drives some people to compromise values and ideals.  The journey of life and the joy of finding one’s cadence and role in society can be preempted by the pressure to engage in reckless sprints and exhausting pushes toward a material mountain top that ultimately proves a false summit. 

 

As we navigate these troubled times, we are confronted with changes that threaten to rearrange our best laid plans in life – OUR best laid plans.  John Lennon said that “life is what happens, while you’re busy making plans” Our definitions of success, community and values are under siege from a perfect storm that is engulfing the entire global economy.  Some are better off than others, piloting more seaworthy craft.  Yet, each day brings a worrisome vigil as we peer through the rain streaked window at a never ending succession of white caps and rough seas that climb and heave around us.  A rogue wave sweeps across a neighbor’s schooner and it melts beneath the surface.  We mutter a silent prayer thanking God for his blessings. “There but for the grace of God go I”. Yet, I wonder if less hardship and pain is indeed grace or the left hand of God temporarily exempting me from the harder shaping that might mold me into the person I am ultimately intended to be.

 

My uncle is a liberal iconoclast and the diametric opposite to his older brother, my father, the entrenched conservative.  Eight years my Dad’s junior, my father’s brother attended the University of California at Berkeley at a time when society was under siege by a generation questioning the course of our country.  He graduated and served for eight years in the US navy as an officer, seeing much of the world, and returned home with a devil’s advocate need to solve for the omnipresent inequities of the world.  He is a brilliant professional water color artist who lives deep in the mist shrouded, lichen covered woods of the Pacific Northwest.  During one of our rare dinners, we were freely skating over the thin ice of politics and religion.  Always the contrarian, he was questioning a slip of my tongue as I described a situation where I had been at grave financial risk and I had been “blessed” when I was spared a bad outcome.  “I suppose to follow your theology to its fullest extent would mean that anyone who does not have financial success is considered not to be blessed?

 

This is where I always get uncomfortable as I do not want to apologize for realizing some of the dividends of my life’s hard work nor am I prepared to voluntarily allow him to redistribute my life savings like a commissar in Zhivago’s Russia.  Yet, he is constantly leading somewhere – always coaxing me out of the shadows of self interest, down a difficult slope into a gentle valley where common humanity and empathy run like streams filled with nuggets of gold.  In this fertile plain, you get what you need, not necessarily what you want. He is always quick to assure me he is not admonishing me nor advocating I divest my holdings, donate them to a non profit so I can realize my true purpose by serving lepers in the gutters of India.  However, he is reminding me that my things are merely accessories to my life and that a prosperous life is a life whose balance sheet is measured in deeds and lives touched.

 

“Michael, I have travelled the world and I have seen levels of poverty that would undermine your faith in humanity.  I have seen communities where neighbors support one another and where no child will ever become orphaned.  I have lived in places where the average person lives on less than a dollar a day and cares for multiple generations of family members.  In these same societies whose life expectancies lag ours by decades, there are fewer incidents of suicide, use of prescription drugs for depression and a higher incidence of faithful religious conviction and tithing than in our most affluent communities.  What exactly is it that makes us believe we are blessed by our ‘quality of life?’ He paused.  He is not affiliated with any church but instead professes a belief in a universal higher power that runs like an aorta through the religions of the world.  “What if, as your King James Bible says, that it is harder for a camel to move through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”.  (I hate it when he does this to me.  It ruins dessert)

 

But as usual, he gets me thinking.  Instead of agonizing over an end to prosperity as a material society might define it, why not be open to a new era of prosperity?  This prosperity will not be defined by a social hierarchy based on financial gain but instead on the deeds that further our aspiration that all that live in America might be free from fear and want.  This does not mean everyone should own a home but it means we should aspire that everyone might have some place to live.

 

 A new prosperity will be characterized by a realignment of values where as Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed, “the content of one’s character” is celebrated over all other visceral measures.  A noble society is what the ancient Greeks described as one where “old men plant trees that they know they will never rest underneath”.  It is where people make provisions for the most frail and vulnerable among us.  It is where people accept responsibility and do not seek to blame someone else for their circumstances.  A new prosperity sweeps away business and political leaders who have been corrupted by power and their myopic pursuit of personal gain and supplants them with leaders who have the courage and restraint to achieve responsible success and who view every employee and their families as assets and investments.   In a great society, we take notice of and make provisions for older citizens whose fixed incomes have been savaged by the collapse of the financial markets and who are terrified over their futures.  We should be celebrating our teachers, peacemakers, civil servants and mentors that work together to prepare a next generation that must shoulder our mistakes and lead us toward sustainable solutions. 

 

We long for fragrant, easy nights and soft pastel days without want or fear.  A great society strives for these things for all its citizens.  It is a time of opportunity and transformation.  Sometimes the very outcome we feel we need is the thing that ultimately threatens to hold us back from a better possibility.  In the words of Tennyson,” Ring out the false pride in place and blood; the civic slander and the spite; Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good. Ring out old shapes of odd disease; ring out the narrowing lust of gold; ring out the thousand wars of old, ring in the thousand years of peace.

 

Now that’s what I call prosperity.

 

The Budget

The Budget

Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship”– Benjamin Franklin

When last October’s Wall Street bombshell tore jagged lacerations in my net worth, I suddenly became conscious of the fact that the bleeding had not abated.  There were myriad fiscal punctures in my lifestyle leaving a trail that even a blind hunter could follow. My frugal spouse was pleased when I suddenly expressed interest in our finances.  It seemed I had finally awakened to smell the financial coffee or at least I had started to count the beans.

I freely admit to not grasping the concept of moderation. More is better and better still, is now.  I have never been a profligate spender but I have not balanced a checkbook or kept an ATM receipt in 15 years.  A budget was simply the absence of deficit spending and taking any surplus and burying it like a jar of pennies in the retirement yard.  My discretionary spending vices are confined to collecting antique lead soldiers and roaming the endless stalls of eBay while in a $ 4 triple latte blackout.  Like many Americans, I pay for convenience and for the ability not to wait in a line or on a line.  I am in fact, the ultimate target consumer for the retail industry.  When I need to update my wardrobe, I buy everything I need for the next 24 months in one store in less than 30 minutes.  The first time my wife went shopping with me she became physically ill from what looked to her like a feeding frenzy of a starved hog.

In these recent hard times, I have become disgusted by my lack of fiscal discipline. I find myself muttering the word,” simplify” as I notice for the first time the price tags on everything, It’s like a witch has put a curse on me: “ You will now clearly see the cost of everything!“  “ No, no, please! Anything but that!”

I daydream of living near Walden Pond in a ramshackle, drafty railroad hut penning manifestos against the materialism, corruption and greed in America. In saner moments, I realize that if I actually did go off by myself into the woods, I would probably have to fold my own laundry – a thought that terrifies me.

I dreamed the other night about our first house – a 1200 square foot cottage, three miles from the beach in Southern California.  Air conditioning was achieved by opening a window.  Heat was achieved by shutting the window.  There was no basement engine room filled with heating units and oil tanks that seem to be in perpetual need of a $ 700 refill.   I am not sure the close quarters of that Newport Beach hobbit hole could accommodate our family of five without a domestic dispute consigning us to the police blotter, but I do recall waking up with the nostalgic longing for that low mortgage payment, small garden and a downsized lifestyle.

I became determined to take action against the rising swarm of enervating expenses that swirled around my head like summer midges.  My first target was America Online. To embolden my efforts, I drank an entire pot of coffee and, with my legs twitching like a second grader in church, I grabbed the telephone.

A few days earlier, I realized I had been paying $25 for an AOL Premium Service that I could essentially get for free.  I was outraged that AOL would take advantage of my ignorance and lethargy.  I called the 800-number and immediately got “ Sam”, an outsourced Eastern European service technician, somewhere in the Carpathian Mountains, grinning through the phone like the Cheshire cat.  At one point in the call, I heard what sounded like automatic gunfire.  I asked Sam if he was in danger of being executed if he did not convince me to keep my premium plan.  Sam laughed and assured me that the staccato hammering was merely construction on his building.  When I explained my situation, Sam was very sympathetic and offered me the $11.99 fee instead of the $ 25.90 fee.  I assured him I just wanted free email.  Sam offered me the $ 9.99 package.  No, Sam, I am.  Green eggs and ham and free email, man.  But Sam was good.  In fact he was hungrier and more determined than this reformed consumer.  After twenty minutes of verbal rope a doping and more information about firewalls and technical support than my over cauliflowered ear could possibly handle, I relented to the $9.99 plan.  I needed to lie down.  Saving ten dollars a month was hard business.

I called the oil company ready to threaten cancellation unless they could offer me the Hugo Chavez super economy rates.  I did not have a back up plan, other than ordering twelve cords of wood to be delivered as soon as possible. The oil company agent was obviously an out of work securitization specialist who detailed a complex algorithm for locking in a rate that involved hedges against Russian wheat and Moroccan olives. The topic shifted uncomfortably to ways that I could cut my utilization costs.  He asked me highly invasive questions about my insulation and energy efficiency.  Was he implying that I was not green?  I have natural insulation but that is not the point.  “I want cheaper rates or else.”  “Or else what?” He asked.  “Or else, …I’ll hang up.”  Just about this time, I felt a 20 degree draft knifing through the living room – coming from the patio door that one of the kids had just left wide open when they got up to take the dog out.  I am quite certain if anyone were to drive by our house with an infrared camera, we would look like Chernobyl as the fuel rods were melting.  Perhaps the price of the oil was not the entire problem.

I graduated to cable, broadband and phone. Between being charged for an Optimum Online voice mail box that is jammed with irretrievable messages dating back to ancient Rome – “ Hail, this is Caesar, please ask Senator Pretorius to send more men and supplies.  I have crossed the Rubicon. (Silence) I hope I am dialing the right numerals” – and 900 activated channels including an entire network dedicated to Latvian folk dancing, I am paying more for cable than I am contributing to my 401k.  However, weaning a couch potato from cable is slow and must be achieved similar to dosage reduction from steroids.  Just moving from hi-definition to non-HDTV makes a person feel as if they have glaucoma.  On second thought, let’s hold off on the cable.

I had my list of other remedies that would help suture my thousand cuts – teenaged I pod charges, gasoline, electricity, vacation expenses, dry cleaning and food.  My scorched earth austerity efforts went on all morning and yielded over $ 300 a month savings.  It was not exactly the greatest return on investment but it felt good.  It was the same feeling you get after cleaning the basement or garage.  Life seemed a little more in equilibrium.

My son walked in with tangled morning hair and stretched his arms, “ Dad, what have you been doing in here?”  I explained my jihad on non-essential spending.  He listened with that bored vacuous expression of a person who is just waiting for an opening to ask for something.  “Dad, all the guys are doing this lacrosse thing and I was hoping I could do it to.”

“ How much does it cost, buddy?”

“I think Teddy and Harry said like $300…”

I laughed out loud.

 

 

The Harvest List

The Harvest List

 

THESE are the times that try men’s souls…. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.  Thomas Paine, The Crisis

 

My good friend was recently thrown into the abyss of unemployment, a casualty of the catastrophic climate changes that have engulfed the financial services community.  He was sharing with me his journey to find employment and how he found himself interviewing at a surviving bank for a position that he had held years earlier in his career.  “I was interviewing with a kid ten years younger than me. When it was over, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to shake his hand or slap him”.  We talked for a long time.  It seemed our summer fields were infinitely more vulnerable to the vagaries of life’s winter storms. I knew that in the next few years, we would see more turbulence, uncertainty and financial insecurity sweep across our land.  The barometer was dropping, twilight had arrived and all we could do was watch as the storm rolled towards us.

 

For many, the current financial crisis is a catastrophic storm wreaking havoc after years of Indian summer – – a placid stretch of warm days and cool nights propped up by a high pressure system of easy credit and leverage.  During periods of fair weather, even the most veteran of farmers can gain a false sense of security and begin to believe in their own power to prevail over the forces of nature. Affluence is a warm wind that lulls us with a sense of independence and a belief that we have gained immunity from misfortune. In periods of abundance we attach enormous value to our “things” and at some level, to ourselves.  When the unexpected occurs, our self-esteem, now lashed to the limbs and stalks of our personal possessions, sometimes breaks at the very time we need courage and fortitude. Fear becomes a tornado touching down indiscriminately, conjured in the depths of our imagination, blocking out all light.  We can give up, or we can carefully replant, giving thanks for the real wealth we have harvested in our lives. 

 

Wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving.” Kahil Gibran

 

In the days of agrarian America, Fall was a time of harvest – – reaping the benefits of good weather and their own hard work of ploughing, planting, gathering, mending and managing.  The harvest was a time to take an inventory of what one had accumulated for his/her efforts and to give thanks. In a period before science and technology had conspired to de-mythologize life and the cosmos, uncertainty was a silent stalker, following each person just out of the corner of their eye. Disease, famine, wars, and economic downturn could sweep unannounced into lives leaving wreckage and devastation in their wake.  People had to cope with tragic events as a condition of human existence.  It was rare to find the man who did not understand his fragile contract with the fates.

 

Society was more religious.  People understood out of necessity that a community bonded by common interest was significantly less vulnerable than a fragile archipelago of self absorbed islands.  Churches and societies became critical affinity groups for people who sought the companionship and support of a larger foundation of shared values.  These groups were defined by principles that advocated service as a framework for survival – – serving each other and in doing so, ensuring that the most at risk did not suffer. In the Great Depression, families were keenly aware of one another circumstances, not out of the human frailty of being preoccupied with another’s misfortune but out of the understanding that “no man is an island” and any family’s failure diminished another.  A mother might gently suggest to her child to invite a particular friend over for dinner, knowing that that child’s family was struggling and that one less mouth to feed might provide some modicum of relief to a family navigating the white water of misfortune.  At dinner, grace was shared to remind everyone of the essential blessings of life, health and community.

 

Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” Cicero

 

Each of us possesses a harvest list.  It’s assets might include the laughter of a child who sees the world as a magical place of endless possibilities.  It’s the warm fire of humanity kindled by a thousand tiny sparks of those who serve others.  It’s a house jammed with friends and family. It’s having somewhere to go and someone to see.  It’s not being alone.  It is knowing someone will always be there for you.  It’s the smell of autumn smoke hanging in the early morning air.  It is seeing someone we love achieve something important.  It is watching a close friend beat an illness.  It is holding hands and waiting for the darkest hours to pass to witness yet another glorious dawn.  It’s having the courage to ask for help and having the magnanimity to offer it.  It is the bounty of a community that cares about one another.  It is generosity.  It is people who serve as the mortar that connects the bricks of our daily lives.

 

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that each person has a choice of either lighting a candle or cursing the dark.  The sand foundations that we all periodically build our lives on eventually destabilize.  The rocks that form the strongest foundations in our lives rest near us.  They elevate us so that we might rise above the clouds of fear and see our possibilities and breathe the deep fresh air of hope.  Those rocks are our family, our church, friends, neighbors and even those whom we have never met but through the act of helping them, they actually enrich us.

 

Life will carry on.  The autumn leaves still play chase across muddy ground, restless after falling from treetops colored from a miraculous divine palette.  The low rock walls predictably curl and duck along narrow roads as dark ponds slowly prepare to for winter.  It’s the perfect time of year to remember that everything happens for a reason and that there is a plan for each of us.  The darkest moments precede the most magnificent personal awakenings.  Fear has no role in the passion play of life.  It disables us and distracts us from realizing our potential.  It causes us to ignore the bounty we have been given.  In this time of loss, change and challenge, our harvest list remains rich. We just need to be sure to take the time to recognize everything that we possess – – physically, intellectually and spiritually.  It’s all there, right underneath our noses, between the lines – – our priceless intangibles that rest on the other side of our temporal ledger. 

Hard Times

(The Depression) The Single Men's Unemployed A...
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Hard Times

“Gore Vidal uses the phrase, the United States of amnesia. Well, I say United States of the big A — Alzheimer’s, because what happened yesterday is forgotten today.” Studs Terkel

Studs Terkel will forever be remembered as an apostle to our past. The actor, radio host and biographer dedicated his life to chronicling diverse aspects of our American experience so that we might not lose sight of ourselves.  Terkel lived the images that he projected – – a child of Russian immigrants, a student of journalism and theatre, a blacklisted artist who would not inform on friends and a present day Tom Joad, advocating for the disenfranchised, bullied and under represented.  In an interview just before his death, Terkel lamented our sound bite society’s inability to reflect and learn from even our most recent current events.

In his award winning oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, Terkel conducted a symphony of history – trumpets, trombones and saxophones of the 1920’s, the melancholy deep bass of the Black Tuesday stock market crash and the chaotic syncopation of economic and social hardships of the 1930’s.

Terkel left us more than narratives, he guided us through heartache, human endurance and history and through this experience, we learned to sing a richer anthem about American living and learning.  His recording of American’s personal Depression stories revealed not only our failings but our triumphs and the human instinct to persevere in the face of great crisis.    Immigrants, minorities, investment bankers, union activists, musicians and working class families all related the ordinary and extraordinary circumstances that carved deep psychological lines into the rouged, youthful cheeks of a nation emerging from the prosperity of the early 20th century.

The Blues of our current economic uncertainty are not unique sounds to our generation.  Every society faces periods of uncertainty that threaten prosperity.  These challenges in hindsight often become the defining moments for a generation.  Those that choose to dismiss the factors that precipitated the Great Depression as singular and unique ignore the past.  CS Lewis referred to this indifference as a “snobbery of chronology”, a syndrome where descendents armed with hindsight often view themselves as impervious to replicating the missteps of their predecessors.  The arrogance that develops as a culture achieves advances in medicine, technology and science often impedes our spiritual and social progress.  The lack of heavy lifting tends to atrophy the muscles of character that people need in times of challenge.

In 1929, the stock market crashed.  Entire fortunes were lost.  People committed suicide rather than face the humiliation of total material ruin.  In the late 20’s, the Dow was soaring. Everyone became a stock speculator and could indulge their irrational exuberance with easy credit and margin purchasing of equities.  Gains were kept of the table to double down on even bigger bets. Consider the echoes of Martin Devries, a prominent Chicago and NY broker as he reflected on Wall Street in 1928.

“There were a great many warnings.  The country was crazy.  Everybody was in the stock market, whether they could afford to be or not.  You had no governmental control of margins, so people could buy on a shoestring.  And when they began to pull the plug..you had a deluge of weakness.  You also had short selling and a lack of rules.   It wasn’t just the brokers involved in margin accounts.  It was the banks.  They had a lot of stinking loans.  The banks worked in as casual a way as the brokers did.”

Herbert Hoover and the Republican party held the White House and governed with laissez faire fiscal policy and a populist view that periodic downturns were the natural fires that needed to be allowed to burn themselves out within the forests of our endlessly promising economy.

By raising taxes at a time of tight unemployment, the US government took more money out of the hands of consumers thereby reducing consumer consumption – which is critical to economic growth.  The Fed’s reaction to the crisis was to tighten policy and drive a kind of Darwinian cleansing of weaker financial institutions.  Confronted with the embarrassment of a sudden financial tailspin, the government under reacted and then overreacted.  When banks failed, the Fed did not lend the failing bank money or afford additional money to other banks to compensate for the shrinkage in money supply.  The Fed instead squeezed monetary policy and tore at the deep fissure in the economy. Lack of credit led to banks failing at an astounding rate. Frenzied queues of depositors attempting to withdraw their savings from uninsured banks “ran” to withdraw savings that were either illiquid or nonexistent.  The lack of liquidity caused mortgage defaults, bankruptcies and financial ruin.

To add insult to injury, in 1932, a Democratic Congress and a worried, willing Republican Hoover administration passed the largest peacetime tax increase in history.  According to web based financial writers Gold Ocean, “Marginal income tax rates were raised from 1.5% to 4% at the low end and from 25% to 63% at the top of the scale. A huge tax increase by any measure.”  As US consumption shrank and unemployment rose, Smoot Hawley was passed to stimulate jobs at home by reducing imports, This lead to a global trade war that debilitated the world economy.  Most historians agree that it was only WWII that got us back on the economic track.

The level of financial hardship was unprecedented. There was no place to hide as our parents and grandparents were pulled down into an economic sink-hole that stretched from China to Chile, and New York to Melbourne.  Families were fractured as fathers left to try to find employment in far off cities.  Some families were never reunited.  Mothers went back to work doing odd jobs while older siblings raised younger brothers and sisters.  Aunts, uncles, and grand parents moved in to offset expenses.  People became infinitely more dependent on one another resulting in stronger, more tightly knit communities of common interest.There was a gracious humility in many towns that hung like the sweet smell of lilacs in spring as people accepted life on life’s terms and understood that gifts were to be shared with those closer to the abyss of poverty.

Life was about making ends meet.  Basic necessities were rationed and would remain precious indulgences for over a decade.  A new sense of social justice emerged in America as dust bowl minstrel Woody Guthrie and social activist/writer John Steinbeck chronicled the inequities and humanity that blossomed in the miasma of depression. The anvil of hardship pounded an entire generation and out of it, there emerged an alloy of American values – – resilience, dedication, community, empathy and equity.  These attributes would be put to good use in 1941 as a generation rose up to defeat global fascism, stand up to communism and to form the foundation for a benevolent world power.  The lessons of the depression taught those who endured it to live within their means, and not take on massive amounts of personal debt.  They understood it meant relying on your own initiative to solve personal problems, not abdicating this responsibility to large government.

We now find ourselves in the midst of another financial crisis.  We are worried.  Oil is at an all time high.  People are losing jobs.  The Dow teeters each day like a four foot Jenga stack.  Most do not remember that it took the Dow until 1954 to match its high of 312 that it had held in 1929.  Credit is tight. Those who watched the missteps of the Fed in the 1930s know that the supply of credit is the issue, not money supply.  We have learned that there can be abundant money in the system, but if a conservative paranoia swings the pendulum too far to where banks hesitate to lend, business can’t expand. With over massive and ever expanding public debt and an economic recovery shored up by rotten timbers of cheap creidt , we know there is more pain to come and that scares us.  Anxiety and lack of faith opens up the Pandora’s box of society’s self interest.  Self-centered fear triggers many character defects – the penchant to hoard, to be selfish, to be ignorant of others in need and to prioritize oneself above all others.  The exact opposite of how history has taught us to survive catastrophe.

If Studs were sitting with us by a summer camp fire, he would surely tell us of hard times and hobos, migrant workers, dust bowl farmers and soup lines.  He would also reassure us with personal stories of compassion and love, attributes that he believes are the ties that lash the broken boats of any society and help protect against the ravages of indifferent dark passages.  He may even suggest as Dickens once mused, that we are in for “the best of times and the worst of times”.  The question is whether we can find critical perspective, strength and wisdom from the words and actions of others who survived the Great Depression or whether we dismiss these personal memorials as trite, gilded nostalgia.  Terkel would urge us to faithfully learn from the past, carefully nurture the present and actively participate in making the future.  Sometimes, he would argue, the things we fear most, are the things we most desperately need.

Character, after all, is found in the hard times.