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Elizabeth on the Economy

I had my first lesson in personal economics at five years old when a man with a pony showed up on Todd Street in Mountain View, California, where I grew up. This was not something that happened every day in our neighborhood, so a crowd of children quickly gathered to gawk at the animal and reach out to pet it. We learned in short order that the man intended to offer rides on the pony for twenty-five cents, a sum of money that would take a child from the Jensens’ house across the street from where I lived up to the first drain in the gutter, a distance of some thirty yards or less.

Now, in the piggy bank in my bedroom, I had those twenty-five cents, but there was no way on earth I would ever have spent that money without my mother’s permission to do so. I raced home and told her about the pony rides, all afire to have one for myself. She was standing in the kitchen doing some dishes and she thought about the situation for a moment before saying, “If that’s what you want to do with your money, Susan…” letting her voice drift off meaningfully.

I was an astute reader of my mother’s every nuance, even as a five-year-old. I knew that, for whatever reason, she did not want me to ride that pony. I also knew that I would not be pleasing her if I did so. I was caught between desire and consequence, but it did not matter to me in that moment. I intended to ride the pony. So I scooped up my twenty-five cents and went out to join the line of waiting children, but I have to say that knowing I had my mother’s disapproval the entire time did not enhance my experience once I finally found myself on the pony’s back. We went up the street, we came down the street, it was over, the twenty-five cents was gone.

I’ve always wondered why my mother didn’t say, “Wow! A pony! You take that ride and enjoy it, sweetie, ‘cause you’ve got the money and it’s yours to spend!” but this is simply not who my mom was. Born into a poor Italian family in 1914, left without a father by the time she was ten, she did not take the subject of money lightly, and she didn’t want me to do that either. She firmly believed that money was meant to be saved if it hadn’t already been spent on essentials, so while I would have vastly preferred it had she run outside in her apron to cheer me on my pony ride, this was simply not her nature. She saw the ride as frivolous and if her daughter was choosing to be frivolous, she certainly wasn’t going to applaud or encourage that.

Somewhere along the line, this natural caution of people towards their finances got lost, and I think the reason for this might be that objects—consumer goods—began to take on an importance that had nothing to do with what these goods actually were. Indeed, I believe that our failure as a society in the area of spending has been to allow objects to take on an importance they do not inherently possess. It seems to me that, as individuals, we’ve done this without exploring how these possessions have come to mean so much to so many people.

In the past two weeks you’ve no doubt noticed that the word greed has been bandied about a great deal: on television, on the radio, in newspapers, in magazines. I’ve personally heard about Wall Street greed, corporate greed, CEO greed, brokerage house greed, and investment banking greed. And while greed is likely part of what created the economic situation we find ourselves in right now, to me greed is only the symptom. It is very far from being the disease.

For a few years in Huntington Beach, California, I had a neighbor who could not stop buying things. Over time her front yard became a veritable mass of statues, fountains, benches, and lights; each week there was something added. The interior of her house was a nightmare of possessions: from knickknacks on every surface to vast collections of china laid out on her dining room table as if in the expectation of a score of visitors at any moment. She had wildly inappropriate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and ornate silver serving dishes in glass-fronted cabinets. She walked her dog in the evenings attired in a mink coat and black Tahitian pearls, and please believe me when I say that the last piece of apparel one needs in Southern California is a mink coat. It seemed obvious to me that there was something very wrong with this woman, yet at heart she was a completely decent soul who loved her husband, her sons, and her dog. I say was because one day when she was fifty-three years old, she had a cerebral incident, which rendered her almost immediately brain dead. She was kept on life support for three months, but the family finally realized that she needed to be allowed to die because there was no brain activity and she’d made her wishes perfectly clear in a legal document. She was unplugged; she summarily died. And that was it.

I think that there’s a very good chance that this woman died without ever questioning what was driving her to amass so many possessions. On the surface we can say she was greedy to have things, but I don’t believe that was actually the case. I believe that she suffered from what a good many people suffer from in our society and that is a desperate need to fill a void within themselves that cannot possibly ever be filled with a concrete object anyway. This need to fill the void looks like greed, but it’s desperation, and merely quelling desperation doesn’t lead to fulfillment.

We’re taught to believe that there are things out there—objects, possessions, plain old stuff—that are going to make us feel better about ourselves if only we own them. The pursuit of these objects casts us headlong into what I’ve long called an “if only” world. If only I had a new car, or an iPod, or an iPhone, or an SUV, or a new pair of skis, or that pair of boots, or whatever else I’ve seen in a magazine ad or a television commercial….If only I had this thing, I would be fine, I would feel better, I would be full. If nothing else, I would definitely feel different from how I feel right now when I’m considering buying it. And after we make that purchase of whatever it is, we do feel different for a bit of time, but the difference fades because it doesn’t address the problem of why we feel that we need to purchase a thing to make us feel different in the first place. We don’t stop to think that buying something and feeling something bear no real relation to each other. We don’t stop to ask if we’re buying what we need or buying what we merely want or merely buying because we want. As complex creatures, we attempt to understand ourselves in simplistic ways. In other words, it’s far easier to purchase a string of black Tahitian pearls to add to everything else we’ve purchased than to question why we feel such an imperative to purchase the pearls in the first place.

This, to me, is what’s at the core of the economic mess we find ourselves in. When “supply side economics” was what was adhered to in the 1980s, the market was flooded with products because the theory was that if you flood the market with goods and create a need for these goods and cut taxes so that people can buy these goods, then that will create a booming economy. Ultimately, supply side economics didn’t work, not because people didn’t rush out to buy whatever it was that was being touted as the very next thing but because the government cut those taxes while continuing to spend money on armaments in order to “defeat” the Soviet Union. I’m not an economist, but that pony ride when I was five years old tells me that when you spend money, the money is gone and when you particularly spend money that you don’t have (that would be the government, armaments, and the 1980s), you end up in a hole.

The hole we’re currently in has come about for a different reason, this one having to do with congressional leaders deciding over time that government regulation of investment banking—rules and oversight, that is—is a bad thing. Personally, I don’t really get this way of thinking because I see government as the entity that’s supposed to protect citizens from situations just like the one we find ourselves in now. When an entire industry is deregulated then what we end up with is what Blanche DuBois kept talking about in Streetcar Named Desire. We dedicate ourselves to relying “on the kindness of strangers” and those strangers are the people in charge of the investment banks, the brokerage houses, the mortgage industry etc. Now, this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing except some of those people are afflicted by the disease that my neighbor in Huntington Beach had, the disease whose symptom is greed. They’re after more and more and to get it they bend the rules…except there aren’t rules, are there, because the industry doesn’t have them because there is no regulation because regulation means Big Government and that is evidently a Very Bad Thing.

Now, we can bail out the entire financial industry in order to keep the economy afloat, and I suppose that has to be done. But at some point we’re going to have to take a hard look at the reasons we are where we are today. We’re going to have to ask ourselves what’s more important to us: having more or being more. To my way of thinking, when the government stands aside and bows to the pressure of those who believe the only manner in which we can grow as individuals is to amass fortunes at the expense of nearly everything that has intrinsic value, we’re in serious trouble as a society.

At heart I think we all know that now. The question is: Which Presidential candidate seems to be heading in a direction that can change all this.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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