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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Once Upon a Time

ONCE UPON A TIME, debtors went to prison, cocaine was an ingredient in soft drinks and women could not be trusted to cast an intelligent vote, writes Eric Fry in the Rude Awakening.

But today, debtors go to "loan modification specialists", cocaine vendors go to prison, and NO ONE can be trusted to cast an intelligent vote.

From generation to generation, social conventions change...mostly because the conditions that shape conventions change.

One generation faces adversity; the next generation reads about it. One generation labors; the next generation plays. One generation struggles to accumulate wealth; the next generation squanders it.

Last night, my eldest son tried to exterminate an invasion of ants by spraying them with Axe aftershave. As the potent scent spread through the house like desperate males through a nightclub, his father nearly suffocated.

"Hey Noah!" I yelled downstairs. "What the heck are you doing?! Did you try to kill those ants with Axe?"

"Yeah, but it didn't really work," he replied.

"Duh!" his annoyed father replied. "What were you thinking? Did you think that ANYTHING in an aerosol can would simply work like ant spray?"

"I dunno. I just thought it might work," Noah explained.

For some reason, this little incident reminded me of my grandfather, "Bramp"...and how little Noah resembled the man.

Bramp would never have sprayed ants with cologne. DDT, yes. Cologne, never. He didn't mess around with half-measures. Bramp kept a loaded Colt 45 under his mattress and would not hesitate to draw it at the slightest inexplicable nighttime sound. He was not mean-spirited or paranoid, just hyper-vigilant.

My grandfather guarded his savings as passionately as he guarded his home. Bramp spent 20 years in the Army, and 85 years saving pennies. He cared about saving, protecting, guarding and, in every possible way, hanging on to what was his. He was a cheapskate, yes...but also so much more than that.

Bramp carried more keys on his belt than a locksmith. He locked everything...every door, cabinet, case or hinged item of any kind. He also used to stockpile enormous quantities of canned goods in his garage.

As one of the many millions of Americans who lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression, Bramp had learned to fear deprivation and sub-optimal outcomes. He had learned to shun risk. By contrast, Bramp's great, great grandson, Noah, never gives a thought to deprivation. Why would he? The refrigerator is always full and his dad still draws a paycheck. Noah never worries that his circumstances might change for the worst. Why would he? It hasn't happened him. But circumstances have changed for the worst for millions of Americans.

Nearly one year ago, the financial markets crumbled, government officials warned of a potential economic meltdown, and for the very first time in their lives, an entire generation of Americans began to imagine that things might get worse, not better. An entire generation began to consider the possibility of adverse outcomes. It considered the possibility of job losses, mortgage foreclosures, and yes, even the possibility that the stock market might fall a lot.

For many, many Americans, these horrifying fears actually came to fruition. Millions have lost their houses; millions more have lost their jobs; and tens of millions more have lost large percentages of their savings. These are realities. These are facts.

And yet, many of the geniuses on Wall Street - who would be unemployed geniuses if the federal government had not intervened - say to one another, "Hey, this recession isn't so bad. Looks to me like this whole thing is just about over."

And maybe they're right. Or maybe they just don't realize that failing businesses usually fail. Maybe the Wall Street seers fail to understand that most Americans work for enterprises that the government will NOT rescue.

Thus, Americans are still losing their jobs - day after day, week after week. Americans are still refusing to borrow and spend or invest. They're still incapable of borrowing and investing. They're still saving what they can and spending as little as possible.

These traits, dear investor, are not the traits that typify and nurture an economic recovery. Rather, these are the characteristics of an economy in distress - the kind of economy that tempts ham- fisted Washington bureaucrats to "solve" the problem but pouring newly minted Dollars into the economy.

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