Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What The Hell Happened?

As a Boomer, life was great in the 80s and 90s, now I look back on it as if it were a dream, wondering “how did it all go so badly, so quickly?”. Alas, the 90′s were a mirage. Everyone (including myself) was trading stocks online finding that you could actually make some money with little effort. Business was good, jobs were plentiful and promotions and raises happened like clockwork.  It seemed that it would never end, but we didn’t know that we were building on sand; not only as individuals, but businesses as well. All it would eventually take was a tremor to bring it all down.

On 9/11, the tremor came. The ripples that went through the economy revealed the shallow, and speculative nature of our “bubble economy” and those ripples became waves that toppled the castles of sand that we thought was a stable economy. The upshot for me was that a 30 year career was ended by downsizing in 2004 and, at 50, I had to compete with much younger people who had not yet built a “lifestyle” based upon the “arc of continued success”. The arc, unfortunately, was an assumption based upon what proved to be a flawed vision of the American Dream.

Yeah, I made it for a few years, starting over in a new industry and using what I had left of my youthful ambition, combined with a bit of wisdom and experience. Nothing turned out as planned but, in the end, due to having saved some and resisted the urge to overly indebt myself, I’ll likely be OK.  Some of us, however, will not.  Shattered dreams litter the landscape as testament to misplaced trust in those willingly and maliciously betrayed it.

I curse those politicians, of both parties, and latter-day robber barons who chose expediency and unrealistic growth projections, funded by debt, over long-term solidity. Their American dream has been realized by way of exorbitant salaries paid for trashing the companies that paid them, while many of ours lat asunder. I curse the boards of directors who paid these scallywags, and the politicians that put the good of their own careers ahead of that of the American people and the American economic system. There’s a lot of cursing to go around, and it goes back for more than a half a century.

America's mistake has been in thinking only about the present as though the future “will just take care of itself”. We’ve kicked so many cans down the road, for so long, that those cans are now confronting us as past-due bills owed by generations not yet born.

A perfect example is Social Security. 60-70 years ago we knew that, eventually, the big chunk of humanity called the Baby Boomers would eventually retire. We went to school and there was a building boom of new schools and, thereafter, we impacted American society with every stage of our lives, just by the sheer numbers of us.  Would not retirement and the need for adequate Social Security have been a reasonable assumption?

Decades ago, plans should have been made, but no, the big chunk of money that was being reaped from our paychecks was being squandered on other things. It was like taking what you have in your 401K and buying a Corvette at 35, then wondering where your retirement went when you're 65. That thinking, coupled with absolutely ignoring the fact that Boomers were a time bomb, with the full knowledge of when it was going to explode, is political malpractice of the first order.

Systemically, at the political and corporate level, short-term thinking may well be the most significant reason for our current problems. Politically, it’s all about getting elected, and in the private sector, it’s all about having a better year than the last.

The solution? Well, one would like to think that staring into the abyss would teach us a valuable lesson, but I’m not convinced. Once the “crisis” has been averted, people tend to just fall back into their old habits rather than thinking about the systemic failures that created the crisis in the first place. 9/11 is a perfect example of that.

Some real suffering in the present as a result of the political and corporate failures of the past may well do the trick. Experience is a strern, taskmaster of a teacher, but she’s effective. After the Depression, there were a lot of lessons learned, by some, on a personal level. Politically, however, it saddled us with a burgeoning welfare mentality that has grown into the unmanageable beast we have today. Alas, FDR saw it as an opportunity that does not come often and he seized upon it. If we continue down the road that we are currently traveling, that same malevolent “opportunity” may well avail itself again, and I can only hope that it can be used to make real changes and not repeat the same mistakes.

We need only look to places like Allentown, PA, Detroit and Lansing, MI, to see the ruins of a once great industrial power laid to waste by incompetence and greed at the corporate level, and short-sightedness and expediency at the political level.

Internationally, the once great leader is no more than a follower, being lectured by nations who, just 70 years ago, we decimated in war, then rebuilt into prosperous nations. The irony is that their lectures are sound and their message is correct, but it's falling on deaf ears.

WE, and our insatiable thirst for “easy money” has done what no nation has been able to do in our history; it has reduced us to our knees. Many, such as myself, were raised by parents who weathered the Great Depression as well as World War II. They told us there was “no free lunch” They told us that the quest for “easy money” was a fool’s errand. But we didn’t listen, we just didn’t listen.

We’re listening now.  Or are we?


1389 said...

Tell me about it! The beginning of this blog post explains a little about what's happened to me, and it isn't pretty. The rest of the blog post explains somewhat about what has happened to the US and the EU in the meantime...all tragic.

Dale Weeks said...

Thanks for directing me to your site; great post and delightful insight!

Sometimes it seems as though everything that's dear is crashing down around us. I spent most of my life devoting myself to the business world, only to find that it didn't love me nearly as much as I loved it. There have been fundamental changes at all levels and none of them good.

I'm at the end of the "career" portion of my life due to health issues, and maybe it's just as well. To paraphrase Reagan "I didn't leave business, business left me".

Thanks for visiting!