The Stages of Death and Dying, Employers and Health Reform

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“Change, before you have to…” Jack Welch

We live in a society that loathes uncertainty – particularly the unintended consequences that sometimes result from a catastrophic event or in the case of PPACA, landmark legislation. Wall Street and the private sector crave predictability and find it difficult in uncertain times to coax capital off the sidelines when the overhang of legislation or geopolitical unrest creates the potential for greater risk. Despite our best energies around forecasting and planning, some consequences, particularly unintended ones – only reveal themselves in time.

In the last decade, employers have endured an inflationary period of rising healthcare costs brought on by a host of social, political, economic and organizational failures.  There was and remains great anticipation and trepidation as Congress continues to contour the new rules of the road for this next generation’s healthcare system. Optimists believe that reform is both a way forward and a way out of a mounting public debt crisis and a bypass for an economy whose arteries are clogged by the high cost of medical waste, fraud and abuse.  Cynics argue reform is merely a Trojan Horse measure that offers an open invitation for employers to drop coverage and for commercial insurers to “hang themselves with their own rope” as costs continue to spiral out of control — leading to an inevitable government takeover of healthcare.

Meanwhile, leading economic indicators are flashing crimson warning signs as recent stop-gap stimulus wears off and long overdue private/public sector deleveraging results in reduced corporate hiring, lower consumer confidence and increased rates of savings.  The symptoms of a prolonged economic malaise can be felt in unemployment stubbornly lingering around 9.2% and a stagnating US economy that is struggling to come to grips with the rising cost of entitlement programs.  Across the Atlantic, the Euro-Zone is teetering as Italy and Spain (which represent more credit exposure than Greece, Portugal and Ireland combined) stumble toward default.  Despite these substantial head winds, US healthcare reform is forging ahead – – right into the teeth of the storm.

Closer to home, states have begun to debate and propose legislative amendments to their own versions of reform as they attempt to reconcile a declining tax base with the soaring obligations of Medicaid and collectively bargained pension and long term care.  Should Congress finally agree to allow an estimated 28% of fee reductions in Medicare provider reimbursement to become law, the private sector could see as much as a 400bps increase in core medical trends resulting from cost shifting – pushing trends back into the mid-teens. Hospital systems, providers and healthcare agencies are bracing for cuts and potentially looking to the private sector as a source for more dollars.  All of this is building at a time when certain industries are nearing a “point of failure” – – an inflection point where healthcare spend as a percentage of revenues and operating profit will either consume earnings or completely erode employee take home pay.

Many are looking ahead to 2012 as a “burning bush” year – a seminal presidential and Congressional election where political results will help clarify the direction of reform – pivoting toward the reinforcement of employer sponsored healthcare as catalyst for market based reforms or merely a cementing of the incentives that seem to encourage the deconstruction of employer based coverage.  With 33 Democratic Senate seats up for reelection and 10 GOP spots up for grabs, the entire composition of our government could change – or perhaps not.  In the interim, the fiscal year 2012 will continue to show 44 states projecting budget deficits totaling $ 112B.

A recent controversial McKinsey study forecasted that as many as 30% of employers or 54m individuals covered under private healthcare would be “dumped” into public exchanges as of 2014.  This number is in sharp contrast to the 12.6mm assumed by the CBO (approximately 7% of 180mm privately covered individuals.)  The influx of 41.4mm unbudgeted insureds – all eligible for federal subsidies of as much as $5,000 – would upend the initial CBO estimate of $ 140B deficit reduction over 10 years and result in an increase in public debt in just six short years.  The ensuing debt arising out of PPACA over the periods 2020 to 2030 could easily eclipse $ 1T of additional public debt.

Any economist can confirm that all unsustainable trends eventually end.  Rising premiums, public to private cost shifting, perverse and unaligned incentives for care, rationing and a host of other stop-gap issues are all doomed to be replaced by a system that either drives efficiency through market reform or through the single payer procurement of healthcare.  It will take at least five more years and three election cycles for this marine layer of debate to lift.  Unlike 1996, there is graveyard silence arising from the private sector.  Employers seem to be stuck in one of the several stages – – often attributable to the dead and dying.

Denial — “This can’t be happening, not to me.” One could argue that this generation of business leaders has drawn the short straw when confronting the decisions we will need to make to keep our businesses viable in a period of sustained high unemployment and economic stagnation.  Many larger employers are nervous regarding reform but somehow feel that reform is more likely to happen to other people – smaller employers and the individual marketplace.

These firms do not want to believe that the myriad unintended consequences associated with reform could impact their bottom line. Denial has been a principle ingredient and willing accomplice to healthcare cost inflation in the last decade.  For many employers, the inability to confront the fact that many of their own business practices – insistence on open access PPO plans, less medical oversight and utilization review, limited appetite for employee disruption, inability to dedicate the time or resources to assess the health risks embedded within their own population of employees – – has them resigned them to a cycle where premiums are increasing faster than wages and corporate earnings. While costs continue to rise, many employers have simply focused on stop-gap year over year cost shifting.  Others prefer to abdicate to commercial insurers who have failed to drive affordability and improved access. It comes down to believing you can make a difference and a willingness to confront the hard choices – choices that could fundamentally drive market-based reforms.

Anger — Many find themselves simmering with resentment, hunting for villains whose feet they would seek to lay all blame: “It’s those damn insurance companies!” “It’s that Socialist in the White House!”” It’s the failure of regulators to do their job in managing the complexities of the healthcare delivery system. “It’s the big hospitals!” “It’s the drug companies!” It’s the rich and their lack of empathy” “It’s the poor and their lack of personal responsibility” The list of culprits could fill a thousand postal office walls.

A polarized Congress, pariah hungry media and a workforce unwilling to understand that access does not equal quality means that change cannot happen without some noses getting out of joint.  Yet, we understand clearly that if we want to reduce our exposure to the coming storm of public to private cost shifting, we must engage and move on from our own anger.  As 35m additional Baby Boomers increase the double the ranks of Medicare to 70mm by 2030, total health spending will near 30% of the GDP and Medicare costs are expected to eclipse $ 32,000 per enrollee up from $12,000 in 2010.  Facing the magnitude of these suffocating entitlement costs, we will either embrace private sector, market-based reforms that fundamentally realign the current delivery system or we will default into a more regulated, lowest common denominator system that will rely on rationed access and reimbursement as a means of controlling cost.

Bargaining —”I’ll do anything for a few more years.” The third stage involves the hope for postponement.   The lion’s share of stakeholders in healthcare can be found milling in this no man’s land of indecision.  While hope is not a strategy, a surprising number of firms are clinging to the dream of “repeal and replace” legislation. Others are merely expecting Washington to do what it does best – prolong debate and delay implementation long enough to afford them enough altitude to pass the problem on to someone else. The tea leaves do not look promising for fundamental legislative intervention that would disrupt the momentum of reform.  Repeal is unlikely. Employers must understand that 2014 will require certain decisions.  Fundamentally employers will have one of four choices:

Take the Money And Run – Do I drop coverage, pay the penalties associated with moving employees into the public exchange and pocket the difference?

Drop Them But Ensure A Safe Landing – Do I drop coverage, grossing all employees up to my current level of subsidization so all might afford coverage in the public exchanges?

Create a Consumer Plan of Your Own – Do I move to a private exchange or defined contribution approach to financing my medical benefits to cap expenditures but remain involved as a sponsor of my benefit programs?

Control Your Own Destiny – Do I continue to offer group based private insurance believing that employer sponsored health coverage is more likely to experience lower trends if properly managed and that medical coverage remains a fundamental part of my company’s ability to attract and retain employees.

Depression — “What’s the point?” The problems we face as a nation and in business can feel overwhelming.  We have the misfortune of having to confront $38T in underfunded Medicare liabilities, $ 14T in public debt, and a potential double dip economic recession arising out of any number of black swan events – – credit defaults abroad, domestic hyper-inflation or a slowing of Chinese GDP.  It seems inevitable that we must head into a period of profound austerity.  Facing the potential of sustained uncertainty can burden any decision maker to the point of inaction.  While some period of reflection is healthy to any organization, people must take a position, plan around the certainty of change, grieve over the passing of an epoch and move forward with a renewed conviction to address the challenges that lay ahead.

Corporate depression may manifest itself in a lack of willingness to engage in the discussions or conduct financial modeling required to understand what scenarios will best benefit your organization.  It is a strange period where we express grief knowing that the traditional employer/employee social contract has changed forever in a hot, crowded, global marketplace.

The sense of urgency to explore alternatives to traditional employer sponsored coverage will led by retail, agriculture and hospitality while professional services, technology and collectively bargained public sector plans may feel more obligated to remain on a course of employer sponsored coverage.  Planning prior to 2014 is essential to be position a firm to react to opportunities that may present themselves.  Should a key industry competitor choose to discontinue coverage and use operating overhead reductions to drive down prices, what will you do?  Many have promised to not be first but not be third in line to change.

Acceptance — “I can’t fight it, so I better prepare for the inevitable.”  2014 will mark the beginning of a movement toward or away from employer-sponsored healthcare.  It is more likely that most will be carefully weighing election results, the first two years of public exchange performance and the actions of their competitors to determine a course forward.

2014 is forcing discussions over the will of the private sector to drive market-based reforms, and the review of decades-old beliefs regarding direct and indirect compensation plans.  Employers that have navigated these phases of change and are now aggressively accepting the new normal of healthcare and will most likely end up as self insured, in touch and aware of their own population risks, directing patients to primary care based system that reward providers based on quality and efficiency and are committed to driving healthier behaviors and personal compliance with to reduce chronic illness.  Employers will realize returns on these efforts as aggressively managed plans will likely experience lower single digit medical trends.  These firms will be reticent to abdicate management of healthcare costs to a public exchange but instead focus on educating and activating their workforce to the personal and corporate dividends of change.

Some employers may convert to defined contribution plan designs such as cafeteria plans to allow for a more diversified workforce to allocate finite dollars to purchase coverage that make most sense for their unique needs.  Health benefits may become part of an overall defined contribution approach to retirement and benefit planning – affording each employee to allocate their dollars to their circumstances and in doing so, accept their circumstances more freely because they have choice in where they spend their dollars.

Reform is a process and like many of the vagaries in life, every person and each business will react differently to the stimulus of change.  Every problem is a disguised opportunity and with it, comes the added dividend of using change as a catalyst for reassessing your strategies to attract and retain employees. It’s about making decisions by commission rather than omission.  And, the sooner an employer navigates these stages of change, the more likely it is that healthcare reform will happen for them – instead of happening to them.

The Nocturnal Misadventures of Mr T.

The Nocturnal Misadventures of Mr T.

 

“So what can I do for you?”

 

“Well doctor, I have been having these really weird nightmares.  The images are pretty disturbing.  It’s gone way past the ‘waking up in high school math class just before my final exams in my underwear’ stuff.

 

“Well lie down and let’s discuss your most recent incubus.”

 

I plopped down on a leather chaise and began to describe my prior evening’s phantasms.  “I dreamed I was lost in a rundown part of New York City. It was cold – really cold – and I could see down by the East River some fires burning in trash cans in a makeshift camp. It looked like a Depression era Hooverville. I saw men shuffling and stomping their feet to keep warm while one man stoked the fire with small scraps of papers. As I got closer, I saw the bum was feeding the fire with hundred dollar bills and when he turned around, I saw it was my financial advisor.  He looked terrible. When he saw me, he shrugged saying, “I know I should have taken you out of equities and into cash but I figured we’d just ride this out.  Here, help me burn the rest of your money, will you?”  Well at this point, I got mad and tried to grab a handful of my retirement dollars but everyone became hostile saying they needed to burn my money to stay warm.  One guy that looked like Hank Greenberg threatened me with an AIG paper weight.  Can you imagine?  So, I ran toward the river and a guy yells, “Hey buddy, get in!” So I jumped into what looked like one of those New York Harbor sightseeing boats. That’s when things started to get really weird.

 

I plopped into an open seat and the three guys in front of me turned around. They were the CEOs of the Big 3 automakers – Mulally, Nardeau and Wagoner and for some reason, they were giving me a dirty look.  “You drive an Audi, don’t you?” hissed Wagoner.  I could not resist.  “You run a crappy company, don’t you?”  He reached out to grab me but his buddy restrained him.  “Come on, Rick, we don’t need any more negative press.”  Waggoner held two fingers up to his eyes and then pointed at me and mouthed,

“I’m watching you.”

 

To my left was Barney Frank wearing water wings and reading Pravda. The boat’s tour guide got on the PA system, “Welcome to post-apocalypse Wall Street, folks.  The water may get rough up ahead so please put on your life jackets.” Someone threw me a life jacket.  It would only fit a small child.  “That’s all you get,” someone snickered.  Barney Frank thought that was very funny and giggled his Elmer Fudd laugh.  “We’re all screwed,” mumbled the guy behind me.  It was Joe Wurzelbacher, aka Joe The Plumber.  He perked up when our eyes met, “Hey, you want to buy my new book?” 

 

The announcer spoke up, “If you look over there you will see High Yield Towers. As you can see, there is a fire on the top three floors.  Normally there is no more than a 3 percent default rate of junk bonds.  We expect that as many as 10 percent or over $150 billion of junk to default.”   I watched the fire burn.  No one was trying to extinguish it.  “Now this area coming up is dangerous.  Keep your hands and feet in the boat.” The water had started to swirl and pitch.  The boat was picking up momentum.  There were empty homes everywhere.  It was as if suburban America had been picked clean by aliens or some form of the Andromeda Strain. “We have 12 million homes with an average negative equity of $ 40,000.  Unless we find a way to buy out this negative equity, these homeowners will default, sending the market into a free fall.  

 

I looked at Joe and said, “I think I am going to be sick.”  Joe was gone.  I was sitting next to Hank Paulson, lame duck Treasury Secretary.  He just stared ahead like a combat veteran and said, “You don’t know what sick is.”  The boat drifted under the soft light of an illuminated waterside boardwalk. We pulled up to a dock and Ben Bernanke jumped out to run to the bathroom.  “Alan Greenspan had a much bigger bladder than this guy,” Paulson said sardonically. I took the opportunity to also disembark.  I just wanted to wake up.  This was the worst nightmare I had experienced in years.  In the distance, I could still see my financial advisor and his derelict friends, illuminated by the scabrous dancing shadows of the burning money.  My phone rang.  I fumbled for it and dropped it on the ground.  A man wearing a white cowboy hat walked over ,picked it up and handed it to me.  “You dropped this, partner.” I looked up and I was staring into the serene face of Warren Buffett.  “ Thank you, Mr. …” 

 

“Just call me Stranger.”

 

“So Stranger, do you think we will ever recover?”

 

He though for a long time and sighed.  “Oh, we will come back, but not until we as a society learn to live within our means.  Americans want something for nothing.  We have gotten fat, lazy and insulated. We have produced a whole generation of kids who have never experienced hardship, workers who believe a job is an entitlement and mediocre CEOs who are incented to create the very bubbles that always burst. We were harvesting money out of a gold mine propped up by the rotting timbers of easy credit, toxic financial instruments, inept rating agencies and pathetic regulators. When the forces of the free market caused a cave in, we braced the affected area instead of correcting the engineering flaws or allowing nature to run its course. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. My guess is the Dow will drop to 7,000. Businesses will go under while unemployment rates, high-yield bonds and mortgage defaults will soar.  We will go through a deep recession which will shape us into a leaner, tougher nation capable of competing in the century ahead. But it won’t be fun and there will be casualties.  Ultimately, we will prevail as we are a great nation of innovators and creators.” He looked out toward the bum’s camp and started to hum.  “You hear that music, son?  It’s the lonely anthem of a country waking up to its worst financial hangover since 1931.  You seem like a nice guy.  There is a stock you can buy that should allow you to recover your lost savings.  It’s a great company that will surely rise like the Phoenix out of these ashes of failure.  Their stock exchange symbol is…’

 

I looked at the doctor and said, “And that is where I wake up every time. I am going nuts.”  He thought for a moment and left the room.  “Hold that thought,” he quipped as he raised a finger and stuck his head out the door to speak with his assistant. He turned back to me.

 

“Well, it’s clear you have a lot of anxiety. This is all symbolism – a manifestation of unrealized guilt over your failure to take action during the recent economic meltdown as well as your ambivalence toward the public figures who you feel are culpable for the mess and its remediation.  I would recommend the following: Do not pick up the business section, watch any stock market indices or listen to Jim Cramer for six months.  Consider firing your investment advisor as he should have protected your downside risk and failed. If anyone attempts to engage you or ask your opinion on the economy, just respond, ‘You could be right.’  Then go home and watch old Three Stooges reruns. Get plenty of exercise and do not eat pizza after 5 p.m.”  I thanked him and turned to leave.

 

“Oh and just one other thing, you must try to remember the name of the stock that Warren Buffet told you.  It will help your recovery.  Think…HARD!”

 

A secretary appeared.  “Doctor, your stockbroker is on line two!”

 

“Tell him to wait a moment, Anne.  Now think, Mr Turpin. What was the name of that stock?”

 

 

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.