Random Thoughts About This Whole Big Thing We’re Going Through

With regard to the economy, the big picture remains elusive, but here are some details.

Columns From: 4/24/2009 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Peter Zelinski

Peter Zelinski

It doesn’t even have a name yet—this calamity affecting most of the economies of the world.

To name it, we would have to have a better idea of what it is, or at least know what its outlines are. Once we know that, we’ll be well on our way to getting past it. Thus, it will be a while before the “Great Something” gets a name that will stick.

In the meantime, I am—like you, like government—still trying to figure out what it all means.

Here are a few separate, only slightly connected thoughts on the subject:

Could a basic cultural difference account for one of the deeper roots of the trouble? The world economy got so unsustainably lopsided in part because of China’s efforts to obtain and save U.S. dollars. All of the savings seeking a return encouraged easy credit throughout the system. I doubt whether Americans would ever have been inclined to accumulate so much money without spending it. True, one country has democracy and one does not. However, authoritarian regimes are not necessarily frugal and elected regimes are not necessarily spendthrift, so there must be more to it than that.

Companies are devices. They can’t be faulted for pushing the rules, because a company that doesn’t push the rules is put out of business by competitors that do. In fact, when the rules are sufficiently complex, companies have to defer to the stance of regulators to know what the rules mean in practice. The notion that companies acted “irresponsibly” is a bit absurd, because only people can be responsible. For companies, the boundaries are set by law and law enforcement, and companies will always cover all of the area contained within those bounds.

Retirement as we understood it through most of the 20th century—meaning a definite and predictable endpoint to working life—might now be over. Both the stock market and housing prices have been crushed. If these two prime sources of middle-class wealth do not quickly recover, then many baby boomers will stay in the workforce longer than they once anticipated. Enough of them will do so that we will come to see it as commonplace for people to remain in paying work well past 65 or 70. Our perceptions will change. I think retirement will be replaced by a highly individualized process of scaling back or gradually demoting oneself through the later years of working life.

It is easy to worry about the questions of just how big the macroeconomic problems are, how fragile our system really is, and how much more might fail. To answer these worries, it helps to get out. I am writing these words in an airport, where—in the security line just now—a stack of bins toppled from a cart. I caught them with my free hand while the man behind me, who had bags in both hands, used his foot to brace the cart so I could push the stack back up. The hint that came to me out of the small encounter is this: Institutions might fail, but at the level of the citizen, we will still work together to patch through whatever temporary difficulties come along. Meanwhile, though this airport is less crowded than I’ve seen it, it’s still bustling. Ours is a huge and elaborately fruitful society that continues to surge ahead.

• In addition to getting out, it also helps to tune out. A person could stay informed by checking in with current events just once per month. Instead, we tend to trap ourselves in daily pits with our choices in “news.” It’s worth examining whether the news sources to which we give our attention in this way are truly concerned with informing us. Another agenda (beyond even a political aim) is to keep us emotionally engaged instead of just intellectually engaged, so we keep on coming back routinely.

Good things will happen. Believe it. When anticipating the future, it is part of human nature to assign high probability to the bad we can imagine, while fearing to invest much hope in the good. Yet good fortune is going to be part of what befalls us, too. Causes for optimism will come from unexpected places, visionary minds will reveal new possibilities, and some of the most correct decisions will be made for entirely accidental reasons. Thus, though things might get worse, they won’t be as bad as the worst predictions. And while we might undergo a difficult transformation, the transformation will still be gentler than our roughest anticipation of it. Perhaps Wall Street lay in wreckage for now. However, on January 15, on the river that runs closest to Wall Street, a seemingly doomed airplane landed safely on the surface of the water. A person can be forgiven for seeing something like that as a reminder that there is more going on than just our fears.

 

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