Autumn's first few weeks arrived with the alarum of financial crisis. Today I woke early, and noted that the foreign financial markets had fallen once more, as the boom-or-bust mentality of the investors, having careened through the boom of the prior few years, now caroms into the bust of the present.
I personally prefer my Autumns to be a bit more about the changing of the seasons, and a bit less about
financial strife. That fellow William Cullen Bryant appeals to me, because he, like me, was an obscure lawyer who liked to write poetry. I always like his story, because it has an "Anne of Green Gables" quality to its beginning. His father mails in an old poetry fragment to a literary journal on his behalf--and the next thing one knows, "Thanatopsis" is in the school books, and Mr. Bryant moves from being a rural attorney to being editor of a New York literary magazine. I give his biography extra points for his first poem being a meditation on death, with a fancy name.
Bryant understood that October is supposed to be about the joy of transitions and passing things. In his poem, he writes:
"Ay, thou art welcome, heaven's delicious breath,
When woods begin to wear the crimson leaf,
And suns grow meek, and the meek suns grow brief,
And the year smiles as it draws near its death.
Wind of the sunny south! oh still delay
In the gay woods and in the golden air,
Like to a good old age released from care,
Journeying, in long serenity, away.
In such a bright, late quiet, would that I
Might wear out life like thee, mid bowers and brooks,
And, dearer yet, the sunshine of kind looks,
And music of kind voices ever nigh;
And when my last sand twinkled in the glass,
Pass silently from men, as thou dost pass".--"October", by William Cullen Bryant (public domain)
We all face passages in life, and perhaps the current economic news is just the passing of one season, and the coming of another. Maybe rather than getting caught up in the tintinabulation of financial panic, it's a better idea to just see one set of leaves as turning, and to realize that we will be merely something of a winter from the coming of a new Spring.
My breakfasts tend to be breakfast cereal, because through careful cereal selection I ensure that I consume a meal which is not unduly fattening and yet is unduly filling. I'll grant you that I miss the days of my 20s, when a weekend day might be spent at the local breakfast buffet, enjoying mountains of scrambled eggs, sausages in triplicate, and biscuits the size of ocarinas, filled with honey. Yet my own season in bloom found me to have bloomed up to weights that made me look like a large, endangered sea lion. So now I gaze at fat and fiber counts on cereal boxes.
Last night I stopped in the local Dollar Tree store, and for one dollar each obtained three boxes of cereals called "Animal Planet Wild Animal Crunch". The boxes display attractive photos of wild animals--a picture of polar bears, a picture of seals, and a picture of pandas. I sampled a bowl last evening, and found it altogether tasty. The pandas delivered, and I'll bet the meerkats would also have been good.
There is a gentle absurdity in the way that I experience things. In the morning, I read of scientists' advice that many species of mammals are endangered. In the evening, I am eating breakfast cereal which has pictures of disappearing wildlife. The seasons pass all around me, and I sometimes have them for breakfast.
A news article reports a congressional hearing into the fallen fortunes of the insurer AIG. Elected officials express outrage that an AIG life unit spent a small fortune on a spa weekend for its top executives. Although one could credibly argue that one needs a spa treatment more when one's parent company has become a national disgrace, I must admit that the AIG executives, even of a profitable life unit, might have shown better discretion.
I'll be intrigued to see us all enter the transitions that economic changes bring. There will be the superficial cultural things, of course--hemlines will lower, business attire may become more traditional,
and popular music will both become more poignant and become more guitar-oriented.
Yet most of the changes for individual lives will involve not only some adjustment to lessened circumstances, but also useful discipline. People who keep their jobs and adopt thrift and charity may be better for the experience not only morally but also financially.
AM radio in my area, as in many, features a variety of shows which range from wonderful (garden shows on Saturday, a great cultural experience about Texas people) to sublimely awful shows promoting sham medical supplements and political troglodyte thinking. Among the least impressive of the shows was the show which consistently advised people to take out mortgage loans with virtually nothing down, in which the variable rates started at 1 or 2 percent. There is always a patter which goes with such loans--one is to "leverage one's investment" and, at a convenient moment "roll over" into a fixed rate loan. Such are the stuff of sub-prime dreams.
The leaves are turning brown. A radio financial commentator suggested that every debt obligation issued in 2006 and 2007 which was is backed with collateral consisting of sub-prime mortgages is or will be in default. Diogenes, having given up on finding honest men, now walks the streets of lenders hunting for
a prudent loan underwriter.
Yet even as I gaze at the train wreck of my own retirement investment accounts, like a headless railroadman with a ghost light for a lantern, I realize that the things I need to do are good, simple winter preparations.
Save what money I can, donate cans to the local food bank, make minor changes here and there. I do not plan to live like some fearful Easter bunny, waiting for my chocolate ears to be bitten off. I will continue to spend when appropriate and in general to live, and to be thankful for hard work and a thus-far-uninterupted income.
My sense is that this is a time when people can support their local bank, their local merchants, and their local charities. Wall Street has proven once more that small business, rather than large business, is where integrity more often lives. There are worse worlds than a world of Etsy shops, eBay sales, and small-town "festivals". My reading tells me that in Japan, the financial crisis from a similar real estate bubble ended with people learning to increase their savings and decrease going out on limbs for things they could not afford. I suspect that a combination of personal saving and a bit of compassionate giving to those less fortunate is a good part of our own way out.
Perhaps the next financial Spring will be a bit less reckless and heedless than that of the past eight years.
Perhaps rather than an extra 500 square feet of housing, duly over-leveraged, we all just need "the sunshine of kind looks, and music of kind voices ever nigh" upon which Mr. Bryant somewhat archaically expounds. I think that it is time for those of us fortunate enough to have livelihoods to live less in fear than in awareness. As is so often the case, Main Street will now pay for the lapses of Wall Street, with money drawn in essence from one passbook savings account at a time.
Yet even as the financial fortunes may add a few years to my retirement date, and in some worlds deeply affect my livelihood (oddly, for either good or ill), I feel that better times are ahead. I see change on the way. Now it is a matter, though, of cushioning the blow for those buffeted by this particular harsh wind.
It will be a cold January, indeed, if my understanding of the institutional financial news is correct.
A savvy toy company promotes a weekly game night on an advertisement. I love that almost all the classic board games cost less than 20 dollars rather than the 50 dollars/game of some "games consoles". The Wii demonstrated that even a games console can be hip yet slightly less expensive, and the same princple could be used to create a truly inexpensive form of the same idea someday. Ways will exist for the fun to continue, even in a time with less money for ordinary folks.
If the future is that we are in a world in which we live a bit more materially sensibly, and reach to bring up those left behind in the widening gap between rich and poor, then it will be a better world when we are done. The key now is that the way out will not be charts and graphs in board rooms, but a return to Main street fiscal prudence.
The financial leaves this year are turning all kinds of burnt orange and flaming red. I'm interested to read the next chapter in this tale of greed unmasked, and ultimately of virtue re-discovered.