Saturday, February 7, 2009

My Piece of the Mess, Part II

I do want to be a good citizen.

I am old enough to remember JFK's challenge to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." While I think "country" is a rather arbitrary boundary - think family, neighborhood, community, or world - I take what he said seriously. I remember thinking about what he said when, about a year later, I signed up to register voters in the South during a summer while I was in Law School only to be called in by the Dean (the only time I talked with him in my three years there) and told not to go because it would hurt my future career. Impressionable and immature as I was, I am embarrassed to say, I took his advice.

I try to do the little things that make me feel like a contributor and not just a bloodsucking taker. We donate an appropriate tithe to charity. I buy those funny-looking energy-saving bulbs. I donate time on a couple of non-profit Boards. I fill up the sink when shaving, rather than let the water keep running. I run around turning off lights. I usually tip generously. Occasionally, but only occasionally, I even do pro bono what I otherwise get paid to do.

But now it is different. What is a good citizen to do in these times? Do I save money in a bank so that they can - but probably won't - make more loans? Do I go out and spend so those restaurants and retailers can make it through and my dollars help fuel the recovery? Do I volunteer time helping those much worse off than me? Do I write my Congressperson asking for a raise in taxes that I can probably afford? Do I give back my Social Security check to reduce the national debt or help keep the Social Security system solvent? Do I fly only on US airlines? The economists, even the micro-economists who should know about this stuff, seem without good guidance or at least a clear consensus.

If I had really big cohones, I would take a chunk of our accessible cash and buy some more stock. That might help the confidence index and the Dow and, in the end, if I live long enough, enable me to do well as well as do good. But that's a big "if".

Most everyone I know, however deeply they have been affected by the economic meltdown, have responded best as they can by hunkering down, trying to cut back expenses, save what they can if they can (not putting dollar bills under the pillow, but getting close to that), and hoping that it will all blow over.

I'm really confused. What would have us JFK do? What are you doing?


Debbie said...

Hi Marty,

It is not any easier for those of us who saw a meltdown coming. I am only somewhat better prepared than those who worship infinite growth on a finite planet. I may hold more assets as cash, but cash can be devalued overnight. We all depend on social order and without it, no amount of stockpiled food, gold, or guns will spare us.

My frustration is that we will sink more time and resources into supporting a lifestyle and belief system that is ecologically bankrupt—continuing to give transfusions to our taker lifestyle. We are just as predisposed to building stone statues and sacrificing virgins as any of our ancient relatives. We continue to be fooled by the narrative, ignoring the empirical evidence piling up around us.

All wealth comes from nature. Money is a claim on resources. Our resources are diminishing in value, quality, quantity and access. Our population is growing exponentially. Technology is NOT a resource—it is a means to an end. Technology is not energy, it is not soil, it is not water, it is not air. But technology does enable us to consume them more quickly and completely. First and foremost we need an economic model that is grounded in ecology.

I suspect that those who read my post will dismiss me as swiftly as my friends who ignored my advice last year to stay away from real estate, gas guzzling vehicles, taking on debt, or leaving a secure job. But I can console myself in the fact that they are still my friends…as are you.


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