Monday, March 02, 2009

There's silver in that cloud-- really.

Just when you think you've seen it all. . . along comes a recession and all the standards and assumptions you've lived by and your whole view of how the world works are suddenly overturned. I never thought I would see the US government taking over multi-billion dollar corporations and banks without so much as a murmur from the American people. And not just one, mind you, but dozens!

Private ownership was such a fundamental tenant of America for me that I'm rocked to the soles of my feet. Yes, I know they say it's temporary. . . but I'm putting that in the same category as a "temporary tax increase." Once it's in place. . .

I am trying, in my usual way, to gain some perspective on what's happening, and it came to me the other day that they called the 80's the Decade of Greed. Remember the famous/infamous Michael Douglas film from the 80's, called "Wall Street?" In it Douglas delivered several iconic speeches that have been quoted down through the years. "Greed is good," was the signature line from his character and from the movie. Never mind that the moral of the movie was basically the opposite, that greed destroys and corrupts. The line that has been remembered is "GREED IS GOOD."

My guess? We have a whole generation of Wall Street movers and shakers who grew up on that movie and repeated that line in their heads again and again. Think about it: the people running the financial world now were in college and newly out in the financial world in the 80's. . . young, hungry, and looking for a rudder to steer by. Michael Douglas gave them one. Greed is Good. He was the PT Barnum of the day, declaring that there was a sucker born every minute

Think that's giving the media-- movies in particular-- too much credit?

How much is the media stirring the economic pot now, including people's fears? Just look back. How much have they driven America's need to earn, to acquire, to grab?

In droves, ambitious young Wall Streeters bought into the lure of money and the specter of power, the irresistible feel of being "inside" the decisions that made billions and--unseen and unacknowledged-- controlled the lives of millions. And they sold it to the rest of us-- we people who were "born every minute." The only sensible way to invest in the future was to buy stock. . . create a 401K. . . put your retirement planning in their hands. . . since, over time, "the market" outperforms every other investment vehicle.

I'd like to complain and blame and throw a tantrum, but I can't. My feeling is that hundreds of thousands of brokers and financial advisors bought into the same ideals as we born-a-minute folks. They're as dumfounded by this meltdown as we are.

But there are people at the hub of the wheel who knew better and who stole others' futures and dreams with both hands, while never suffering a sleepless night. The Bernie Madoff's (may he get what's coming to him, ptew!) of the world. . . big and small. . .their selfishness and greed has brought us face to face with some pretty unpleasant realities.

Back to the silver linings.

Being the optimist I am, I'm also seeing lots of positive in this lousy situation. For the first time in a very long time, it's all right to say something is too expensive or that something is not in the budget. It's fine to clip coupons and buy on sale and resole those comfy old shoes. And there are even commercials on television suggesting that we rethink "bling" and "strength" and "quality time." Even among the panic, there's a feeling of relief that comes from a relaxation of the stress of pretense. The strain of living beyond your means takes a real toll over time, on individuals as well as the overall economy.

"Cutting back" has become not only acceptable, but lauded. The old "cheap" has become the new smart. Saving is--for the moment, anyhow-- as important as spending. And time with the family, simple joys, and basic values are standing strong in the ashes of busy-ness and stress and the pressure to be or at least seem successful.

So, maybe all of this economic meltdown is necessary. The old has to end in order for something new (and hopefully better) to begin.

Lest you get the notion that I am somehow immune to the pain: my once healthy retirement account has taken horrendous hits and I will probably be writing steamy romance into my 90's. . . by then it will be geezer-lit! Book sales and income are down across the board for publishing and for writers. I've heard rumors from reputable agents that in new offers, advances are being halved. [My guess is that anyone who still has $$$$ should buy Amazon and Sony stock. . . because this meltdown may push publishers to fast-track their electronic publishing programs as a cost-saving measure. Bringing about an entirely new publishing paradigm!]

But I'm still seeing silver here, folks. I'm seeing the chance to pare away artificial expectations and decide for ourselves, fresh, what we want to do and be. Maybe it's time to quit worrying about "success" and start thinking about more lasting values and pleasures and contributions. I'm seeing the chance for many of us to declare our independence from Madison Avenue and the dream-salesmen and idea mongers. Maybe it's time to open ourselves to new definitions of "the good life". . . ones that put the emphasis on the "good" part.

What about you? What do you see up ahead in these scary economic times?

Are you learning lessons, changing your ways? Have you reviewed or refined your expectations for life or career? What's YOUR silver lining?


Cindy Gerard said...

Betina, you are brilliant. What an intriguing post. And thanks for the silver lining. All the news is so dismal these days - my dh and I look at our life savings being cut by 1/2 right at a time when we were looking forward to his retirement. BUT, the silver lining for us is, in our discussions, he confessed that he really wasn't ready to retire yet and has been worried about how all the idle time would affect him. My hubby is a doer - he has to constantly have something to do or he goes crazy. So, in some ways, I think the thought of retirement was an unwelcome pressure for him. As much as I'd like him to retire, he'll be happier working for a few years yet, which is a good thing at this point. Hopefully the markets will start a recovery process by then and we will be able to salvage some of our losses. So, thanks, Betina, for the reminder that some good can come from those big ole black clouds

Michele Hauf said...

Hear, hear, Betina! But I don't like to put all the blame on the big-wigs. We consumers were as much to blame as well. EVeryone living beyond their means. It kills me when they feature a 'family soon to lose everything' on the nightly news, and yet, they live in a half million dollar home and own four cars and have closets full of stuff. Sell the stuff and buy and apartment! Get real, people.

Our retirement account took a dive as well. It's not fun seeing half your money just...gone. And while I admit this recession hit us not so hard because I've been doing the 'no stuff' thing for a long time now and don't need to shop or have things, the hubby is currently unemployed, so that's a tough one. We are no a zero-income family. Try that one on for size? Well, it's a very tight fit. I need to sell books. And the hubby, who works construction (one of the hardest hit jobs in the country) is crossing his fingers.

The silver lining? Well, you wouldn't think having the hubby home every day would be such a joy. Trust me, it's not. But then, it is. He's here. We've been doing more things together. We're sort of rolling with our situation and supporting one another. It's a good thing. For now.

Betina Krahn said...

Cindy, I'm glad to hear the post made sense for you. I think you and your dear hubs are in good company! Lots of our generation are looking at approaching retirement with mixed feelings. Down here in FLA-la-land I see so many people with plenty of income but very little "life." They got to "retire early" but now don't know what to do with themselves.

I've heard it said that you shouldn't retire FROM something, until you can retire TO something. We shouldn't retire until we have a plan for making our lives productive and full after our career days are over.

Michele, You're so right that we're partly to blame for it all. We bought into the "wealth" thing and believed the hype. Too much debt, too many McMansions, too much wastefulness. Maybe this will give us a chance to mend our ways and start valuing things like time with loved ones. . . including hubbies at home!

This economic stuff is causing convulsions in the marketplace and in our lives, but it's not the end of the world. . . it's a chance for a new beginning. Sometimes we have to be forced to change for our own good. Maybe we'll emerge from this into a greener, saner world.

lois greiman said...

Thanks Betina, you are, as always, a beacon in the dark. :)

And yup, times, they are a changing. We're paring down, tightening up. We don't go out with our family anymore. We invite them over. We don't vacation. We camp. And all that is fine. But there are things that are really tough. Tuition, for instance. Those colleges really like to be paid. And medical school...yikes. I'd really like to help out with that...but I can't. Then again, maybe it's good for kids to make their own way in the world.

I believe in silver linings. I just can't see them sometimes.

Kathleen Eagle said...

I'm dealing with the hard lessons right now. I look forward to the other side of the learning process because these are painful lessons. Like Lois, I believe in the silver lining. I know it's there. I wish my parents were still with me because I'm pretty sure we're experiencing something similar to what they went through--albeit they were children at the time.

I know I took some things for granted, career-wise. For many years I was able to sell everything I proposed and make slow but steady progress with one contact after another forming the steps. I considered my progress to be slow but sure. I was able to write what I believed in and build on that.

Like the rest of the business world, publishing is in a state of flux. I understand the writing part of what I do, but I have trouble with the business part.

One lesson: second guessing is a waste of time. Another lesson: I can't afford to waste much time. A third lesson: Gotta forget about the eggs I hatched successfully in past seasons. Those birds have left the next. Spring's just around the corner, and I must tend this year's nest.

Helen Brenna said...

Oh, boy!

Since my dh is a stock broker/wealth manager I have a LOT to say on this topic, but not enough room in this comment box!

Betina, as always, your positive outlook is a nice big breath of fresh air. Once we're over the hump I do think there will be some very positive outcomes from this mess.

I heard this morning a statistic that personal savings are up for the first time in years! It's already starting.

Kathleen Eagle said...

The theme that savings and retirement funds have been hit hard is a common thread here. One change brought about by the Great Depression was the implementation of a couple of safety nets for retirement--first Social Security and later Medicare. My parents' generation--people now in their 80's--were able to retire because their parents' generation suffered so greatly from the Depression and applied the lessons. Lots of changes came about through those hard times. Some of the safeguards in banking and finance were dropped along the way, but at least we've managed to hang onto the basic social safety nets. One lesson to be learned from the "greed is good" era--besides the obvious truth about greed--is that common sense isn't all that common. We have to accept some regulation for the common good.

Christie Ridgway said...

Not everyone lived beyond their means--my dad was an accountant until he retired and we grew up hearing a lot about not doing that! Thanks, Dad.

Here's my silver lining: Those big expensive purses annoyed me. I never bought one and I never thought they were pretty (though a diaper bag!). No longer do I have to feel guilty for not ever aspiring to own one.

Kylie said...

I think, more than anything, the economy reminds me to be grateful. Grateful I work two jobs (sob) and that at least one of them is secure. Grateful my husband does the same and one of *those* is stable. Grateful that one of my under-employed sons just landed a plum job with his dream company when so many are searching.

And grateful that I enjoy teaching and writing since it looks like I'll be doing both for the foreseeable future.

Let's hear it for geezer-lit!

Betina Krahn said...

Lois, here's hoping there's some help for your students in that-thar stimulus bill! And medical school- yikes-- the kids have mortgage themselves for years to come to pay for it. Something has to be done!

Meanwhile, Kathy, I'm right with you on the tough lessons. I'm still writing, and publishing, but in a very different way than I ever exxpected. I'm finding unexpected bonuses in it, however. I'm learning a lot about writing by having to write "short." And Harlequin has been soooo good to me. I'm concentrating on being grateful for the things I have and trying not to get too caught up in the things I've lost.

Helen, your dear hubby is one of the white hats, here, I know. I'm sure it's hard on him and by association, on you. I know several folks in the biz and they're at the edge of endurance over their clients' losses.

I'm convinced we'll learn the lessons we needed-- just like Kathy said our parents' families had to learn after the big Depression in the 30's. It may be painful at times, but I do believe we'll make it through.

but then, I did have two great grandmothers named Pollyanna.

Betina Krahn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Playground Monitor said...

Fabulous post! When my husband and I bought a new house 4 years ago, we went to the mortgage company to get pre-approved. We presented our financial data and showed them the info on the house we wanted to buy. "Oh my," the broker said, and my heart sank because I liked the house and really thought we could afford it. "Are you sure you want this house?" she asked. "You qualify for twice as much mortgage as you're asking for. Don't you want to buy a half-million dollar McMansion in Got-Rocks Hills instead?"

Sadly too many people fell for this line (like the folks who used to own the house beside us and moved out in the middle of the night when their sub-prime mortgage adjusted and their monthly payment ballooned) and got themselves in trouble. I fault the buyers and the moneylenders both. Pure greed.

"Nope," we said. "That's all the house we need."

Our retirement accounts have taken hits too. I've been a bargain shopper for ever. I love getting a good deal like the Nautica fleece men's pullover at Goodwill for $6 or the LL Bean women's fleece pullover at the Rescue Mission thrift shop for $3.

I've told my husband for years that he cannot retire until he has a full-time hobby and have suggested several things he can do to take up part of his time -- bookkeeping for small businesses that can't afford a big CPA firm for one. I've also told him he should get certified nationally as a volleyball ref and he could travel and referee tournaments. Or he could take over the cooking and cleaning. ::grin::

Let me know when that geezer-lit book comes out cause I'll be there to read it. And I agree there is no hell hot enough for Bernie Madoff and the others like him.


Betina Krahn said...

Christie, your dad was a peach-- he had to have been to produce a daughter like you! And a wise man, at that. My parents weren't the cleverest managers, but they worked hard and always lived within their means. I wish when we were growing up we'd had someone who was "money savvy" to teach us how to manage and save. That's a lesson all kids need to learn. . . how to handle money.

Helen, I'm still thinking about your and your hubs. Didn't mean to step on any toes with this post.

Kylie, I think GRATEFUL is the new watchword at my house. We're lucky to have food and shelter and enough to see a movie on Friday evenings. Time with family. . . the health, the kids. . .those are what really count. When I'm 90 I'll contact you and we can put in a proposal for a geezeer-lit anthology!

And Marilyn, it sounds like your a gal with a plan and the hubby to go with it. It's amazing what people can do on the downhill side of 50. . . or even 60. there's so much to investigate and try and contribute! Personally, I'd like to become a sculptor. But that means I'll have to learn to sculpt.

Kathleen Eagle said...

I love a bargain. One of hubby's nicknames for me is Coupon Kathy. I get a rush when I have a coupons for sale items--especially on double coupon day! Ah, the joy of the hunt.

Jeanne said...

When you listen to what's going on "out there" too much--or too seriously--you forget that what's most important is to pay attention to "that still small voice" that talks to you, encourages you to try something creative and new. Right now, when we see those BIG corporate doors closing, we need to believe that there's always a window somewhere nearby that might be opened to allow the next super-great idea into our lives. You watch: we're all going to recognize the value of starting a small, home-based business venture again so those whose souls have been yearning to do, say, sew, paint, write, or build can express/inspire/flourish solo without threats of diminishing head-count, wobbly stock values, and squishy bottom lines.

Keep the faith. Be the peace and inspiration we're all looking for...

Remember what Mark Twain said? "I'm an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."