Tuesday, March 10, 2009

So, now what....?

We the people are nuts. Including me.

We swing wildly from one extreme to another.  When there are layoffs down the block, we imagine we have already lost our job.  Can’t afford to travel to the Caribbean this season?  Let’s have a barbecue in the park, then.  Don’t spend a dollar if a dime will do.

Cheap is chic now. Manhattan real estate brokers have traded in their Bentleys for Buicks. Advertisers are all on the 'less is more' bandwagon (a sure sign that this is only a trend).  Today's Times reports on the Atlanta socialite who is making do with dresses she bought five years ago. Poor thing.  And compulsive shoppers are suddenly rediscovering the virtues of home, family, and closet shopping instead of grabbing for that $5,000 handbag.  Hmmm…this won’t last.

The economic indicators are awful, and yes, millions are hurting.  I saw a segment on NBC News last night about a tent city outside Sacramento that totally broke my heart.  Relatives and friends are losing their jobs.  My business is slowing down.  Yet, it's worth noting that bad news always migrates to the top of the broadcast, above the fold on the webpage, or to the newspaper front page, while the good news often dissolves into the ether.  'IBM hires 150 engineers for new supercomputing division'  is not headline material in these days of doom and gloom.  And that’s understandable, of course.  But the obsessive hand-wringing from the pundits and politicians and blogosphere is getting on my nerves. After reading this past Sunday's opinion pieces in the NYT, I was tempted to take that long walk off a short pier.

Is this the end of the world as we know it?  A lot of us are behaving as if it were so.

OK I admit to a fairly high level of skepticism, mixed with cynicism, about people's ability to change. So much of what I'm reading and hearing sounds like the preachings of the newly converted or the addict who is in the first 90 days of recovery. Better yet, I'm reminded of the Cowardly Lion: 'I do believe in ghosts, I do, I do, I do.'

Prudence and common sense support significant belt tightening, and it seems that, for now, consumers are not going to lead us to the Promised Land. Fine. I am doing what everyone else is doing along these lines.  But why such wild swings---from fun to dysfunctional in less than 90 days.

I am skeptical of  'end of an era’ punditry and consumers who swear off their profligate ways—forever—and folks like Warren Buffet, whose prognostications and prescriptions derive from financial self interest. Beware of solutions from those who got us into this mess.

The future is a big unknown, of course.  And the Catastrophe gives us all an opportunity to re-evaluate and re-calibrate.  What seems lacking in the national conversation about what to do is the notion of balance—an idea that my friends have been castigating me about for years.  Guilty, as charged.  Besides more concrete specifics about the action steps toward financial recovery, the Obamites need to point the way to a future of prosperity, but one in which status is defined not solely by what we have but who we are and what we care about.  This is no time to snuff out the American Dream---we have to shape it for a 5-10 year rebuilding effort.  And that’s as much a moral and philosophical challenge as an economic one.

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