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Monday, March 2, 2009

Bear Market Blues

Another day, another drop in the Dow. We had an interesting discussion as a family yesterday: how to cut back on expenses to save as much money as possible. Laura and I told the kids about our investments, and how along with everybody else in this country we are suffering from this vicious, relentless decline in equities. We are okay, and I have never invested in anything fancy with the small portfolio of stocks I have, mostly in healthcare. Our portfolio has done better than the S&P 500 over the past fourteen months, yet it’s little solace to be down 35 percent even if the market is down 50 percent. The kids suggested turning off more lights to save electricity and eliminating cable and just watching TV on the Internet. I suspect many families across the country are having these discussions, and I know many are making much tougher decisions than whether or not to keep cable.

I wonder how this deep recession will affect our long-term attitudes. We have never been big spenders, and I have always paid off my credit card balances at the end of the month. I don’t like the punishing interest rates or late fees from plastic. I pay our mortgage fifteen days early each month; I try to be responsible. In our living room, I still have the speakers I had in college twenty-five years ago, but we do spend heavily on books and about once a week I buy a few culinary treats from Zabar’s. This economic downturn has forced me to ask myself many questions. Have we been careful enough with our finances? Are we ready for a long-term decline in the economy, in the stock market? Should we have saved even more money, and invested it even more conservatively, so that our kids can afford college in four years?

There is a great deal of self-doubt, self-assessment occurring in my head. I know I have not been reckless with our family’s finances. In comparison to what I hear in the news, of people investing in mortgages with teaser rates, of credit-card holders paying only the minimum with exorbitant interest rates on massive balances, of spenders who did not save much for many years but instead took out home-equity lines of credit, I know I did none of these things. We spent what we needed; Laura and I have saved 10-20 percent of our income each year; and I invested it. My friends and family have assured me I have been conservative with our finances, and yet I still feel I am failing. I simply want my family to be okay; I want my children to go to whatever college they want in four years.

Besides questioning myself, I am also angry. Angry at the ridiculous 21st Century version of American democracy. I find it more akin to several mobs shouting at each other, trying to sway the middle who simply wants to live in peace and with a modest prosperity. The democratic political and economic discussion to solve our problems, I have always believed, would only be as good as the character of the participants in this discussion. But what happens when ‘character’ is defined and warped by the means of communicating your message? We are losing newspaper editors and reporters every year, but TV pundits and braggarts on the radio, both experts of pithy sound bytes, define, ambush, and drive ‘political discussion.’

What will happen when we don’t even remember that there used to be a time when careful, self-critical, and even profound political debate defined at least a significant part of what occurred in the great American conversation to solve our problems? When we don’t even have the memory of a better political discussion, I believe we will become more mob-like, and less democratic. I believe we will be prone to radical influences with simplistic solutions, which in reality solve nothing. Be careful whom you pay attention to: the more you pay attention to them, the less you will be able to decide for yourself why you began to pay attention to them in the first place.

These are sobering times. Will we get sober leaders to help us out of this mess? Will we even have the capacity to listen to them anymore? I don’t know, but I am still hopeful.

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