Monday, October 27, 2008

Flirting with disaster

In the Old West I would have been a scout. Early life experiences taught me the value of looking ahead for the big picture. You could waste an enormous amount of time doing homework if the next day was a snow day, for example. On a more serious level, I learned that you couldn't rely on authority figures to give you the big picture. When my little brother was sick in the hospital with leukemia my parents forgot to mention he was there because he was dying. An older child might have guessed this but I was only 8. At that age I still thought hospitals made you better. So when he died I was totally unprepared.

From that devastating experience I concluded at a very young age that other people don't always tell you what you need to know. The experience of being surprised by disaster is one to avoid. Navigating the road of life is difficult enough. Being misled just makes it worse. I was still just a child when I learned to treasure the reliable reporter, the truth teller, the authentic personality.

That's why I recommend that friends read Charles Hugh Smith today. He is different from most of the bloggers who writes about the current financial firestorm that is engulfing us. He knows the numbers and the charts but he also knows how to tell the forest from the trees. He gives you the numbers to prove his point but he is able to write in general terms that anyone can understand and appreciate.

Charles Hugh Smith sometimes reminds me of an earlier social commentator, Paul Fussell. Fussell wrote a book in 1983 called Class - A guide through the American status systems. Fussell defined nine levels of American society according to their experience of money. He called out all the usual suspects: the very, very top, like the banking families who own the Federal Reserve, then the millionaires, including trust fund babies, who play the stock market and don't have to work, then rich people who do have to work, like surgeons and lawyers, and on through various degrees of middle and lower class, down to the very bottom of society, the "out of sight", those who live out of a shopping cart.

Fussell thought there was another group composed of artists, writers, musicians, and some professors, creative thinkers who didn't fit into the American caste system. Members of Fussell's Category X live off the financial grid by choice or necessity as much as possible because they aspire to something different than the mainstream. Category X people tend to preserve an independent point of view as observers of society. I suspect Charles Hugh Smith himself fits solidly into Category X.

When I first started reading Smith my reaction was, "Who is this guy living somewhere in Hawaii and how is it that he speaks to the heart of the social matter with such relentless accuracy?" In today's blog post Smith is writing about how our society exploits our need to be seen as individuals by manufacturing aspirations that will ensure our uniqueness, even as we all herd into our club of choice. He suggests that we are all victims of these manufactured aspirations, even many of the Category X types who have become members of the Empty Dreams Tribe:

You might aspire to be an "artist" in which case you are drawn to wearing black clothing and getting tattoos... You discover you have accepted penury within a teeming mass of aspirants, the vast majority of whom work for cruelly low wages in what is essentially a vast, diffused sweatshop for dreamy over-educated types who rejected Corporate America, the Nannie State and even the Black-Clothed Artist tribes.

Manufactured aspirations create a demand for manufactured personas. I first started thinking about the roles we choose to play in a "capitalist" society when I read the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm some years ago. Fromm's books critiqued modern society and its ills, a society in which he said the individual had to create a people-pleasing persona in order to "sell" him or herself in the marketplace.

Starting back in the Sixties when I was beginning a long career as "art student" I'd noticed that many successful Category X types created personas of rebellion , ennui, tragic addiction, and so on, while maintaining a sufficient degree of charisma and physical attractiveness to still be "people-pleasing".

Flirting with disaster was the road to great monetary reward for these successful artists and performers. Yet as someone who had actually grown up poor during the years my parents were struggling to pay my brother's doctor bills, I was sceptical. There was nothing glamorous about disaster at all. Disaster easily led to poverty and real, genuine poverty is grim. Flirting with disaster was a dangerous game.

As a kid who scrounged for dry macaroni from the kitchen cupboards because there was nothing else to eat in the house, I never thought playing at poverty held much entertainment. I have met wannabe writers who thought drinking beer from the bottle made them authentic and gritty. Their idea of poverty was rooted in ideas of class, rather than generated from any actual experience.

Somewhere along recent decades, despite the deep-seated American terror of poverty, "poor" equated with "genuine". I think this was a reassuring bed-time story for Americans who were beginning to suspect they were slipping downward off the prosperity ladder. Too many people were accumulating too much debt at too rapid a rate in recent years not to be already experiencing nightmares of system failure.

Smith says there are four main rules that govern our choice of economic roles:

  • One key tenet of Manufactured Aspirations is that being poor is a fate worse than death, a shameful failure which you should cloak at all costs with the simulacrum of wealth.
  • The second key tenet is that to escape this shame you need only enter the golden gates of the Empire of Debt.
  • The third key tenet is that your identity is constructed entirely out of your physical possessions, your appearance and your status within one of the Manufactured Aspirations/Empty Dreams tribes
  • ...the fourth and most pernicious tenet: that even as you surrender your identity to a Manufactured Aspiration, you will stoutly believe you are an Individual (capital "I") making a decision in your own self-interest via Free Will
Now examine these tenets in light of Fromm's five basic human psychological needs:
  • Relatedness - relationships with others, care, respect, knowledge;
  • Transcendence - creativity, develop a loving and interesting life;
  • Rootedness - feeling of belonging;
  • Sense of Identity - see ourselves as a unique person and part of a social group.
  • A frame of orientation - the need to understand the world and our place in it.
Our sense of ourselves is reflected in our culture's fun-house mirror. How easy that makes it to exploit our insecurities! Especially since a lot of our calculations in life are unconscious. Every day we make trade-offs based on what we feel we can afford. What I find fascinating is that at a time in history when we had the best set of tools of any generation in history we made such disastrously bad calculations! My intuitive sense of how this could have happened lies in the vast gulf that exists between the tenets of Manufactured Aspirations as described by Charles Hugh Smith and Fromm's five basic human needs.

Imagine this. Our society was so wealthy we actually thought we could afford to define ourselves by our tastes. I remember both my mother and my mother-in-law treated the New Yorker magazine as the Bible of taste. The ads were the best part of the New Yorker, suggesting a genteel world where delicate tastes were catered to by sublimely discreet servants.

In their later years my parents grew wealthy and spent much money defining themselves by taste. I think it was an idea that we Babyboomers bought into, too, as if wearing bell bottoms and mini skirts meant we were really unique. And Charles Hugh Smith observes that today's "rebels" signify their superior tastes and ecological awareness by driving a Volvo or Prius.

What happened to the country in which driving a classic 1960s VW Bug would signify even more taste and ecological awareness? That would be true,wouldn't it? But the great common status denominator that matters today is how much did you spend. The classic 1960s VW Bug costs $5,000, the Volvo and Prius more like 6 times that amount to purchase. Assuming one buys the Volvo outright and doesn't get an auto loan, in which case, add many thousands of dollars in interest costs. And add maintenance and get the picture.

What is rotten is that much of what has gone wrong will now feel very painful and real, yet much of what caused this situation was arbitrary and unreal. We're stuck with the baggage of indulging taste for several decades. Our economic future will feel as if you walked into a Sun City thrift store and seeing all the "treasures" on display, the chrome yellow dinette, the upholstered divan covered in plastic, and the gold cupid lamp with its velvet shade,you were handed a bill and told you will be paying through the nose for these gems for the rest of your life. And your children will, and your grandchildren will. The retro, hip nature of yesterday's taste quickly loses its charms if you are forced to pay for it forever at a cost you can never afford.

I have real doubts as to how this will play out once people figure this out. How will this new servitude remotely make us feel special and unique? Will we become a new version of Amish, embracing frugality and raise our own chickens and vegetables? And since the frugal life takes time where will the time come from? The good news? It's up to us to figure it out. Read Charles Hugh Smith ( and get some interesting perspective on how we might reinvent ourselves with a little creativity and authenticity.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Scream Inside

I suspect most people feel a sense of outrage at what is going on. Inside we feel this scream emerging.

But the things that are of value still have value. For too long our sense of self-worth has been measured by our dollar value more than anything else. Hence the feelings of entitlement by some. The people who party with taxpayer bailout money do so because they know they deserve it. I mean, they know it in their bones. They have been getting the big dollars, so they must have big value.

But what about the rest us? The feeling of wealth bought with credit has disappeared as E-Z credit evaporates. No more monster trucks, no more electric toys, no more McMansions built from wallboard and chicken wire. All the stuff that reassured people that they had value is now worthless junk no one can give away.

And people are mad.

Pepe Escobar wrote in the October 17th Asia Times:

But the whole scenario gets more dangerous. As McCain inexorably implodes, an extremely angry Republican party in most of its strands rears its ugly head - the extraordinary levels of hate at recent McCain-Palin rallies are just the tip of the iceberg. This correspondent has seen the mob become really brown-shirt scary, brandishing "Obama bin Lyin" placards or yelling "Kill him!"

I say this is the anger that grows from self-hatred, the most dangerous kind. This is the kind of anger that must look for a scapegoat, must find someone to blame for one's own failings and disappointments.
That never goes anywhere good.

I've been thinking about this because my own anger was making me depressed. Then I started asking why? When did I ever wait for someone to tell me what to think or how to act? I follow my own sense of what's right. I don't let other people set up obstacles in my way. If they knock me down I pick myself up. I think a little whining among friends is okay. But I'm not going to let these arrogant fools define me. My confidence doesn't depend on them.
Time to pick up the pieces and move forward.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Bring on the Clowns

Fall arrived for a few days, took a look around, and left. That's depressing.
Now we're going to have another 95-degree day. No matter what the clowns in charge do, life must go on. One of our cats is bugging me, climbing up the back of my chair and sitting on my shoulder like a parrot.
I feel like this picture when I read the news. Watched the debate last night. Why does JMac keep smirking? It just seemed very rude. If someone did that to me while I was talking, I'd be offended. Obama kept his cool. The Republicans are running around screeching that Obama will put us all on the collective. Right. We are already there.
I hate to be all doom and gloom. But there's a downward spiral to what is happening in the economy. And if you can hand out money to banks then we feel you can hand out money to us, too. The fatuous myth of trickle down economics has been pretty well-revealed by now. We know what's trickling down and it ain't money.
Dave Ramsey was on his radio show claiming the stock market fell yesterday because Obama is going to raise taxes. Uh, Dave, the stock market fell because the bailout isn't working. You know, the bailout where our government "guarantees" every bank in the world?
There's this little thing called a credit crunch, Dave. We gave the banks a whole lot of taxpayer dollars so they would loan money so imported stuff won't sit on docks and people won't get laid off when companies can't make payroll. Only the banks decided to keep the money. They aren't loaning it out. So the credit crunch continues. Ha, ha, joke's on us. I'm missing the part where Obama has anything to do with this, Dave.
Well, have to get going. The cat says feed me. Cats get it.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Big Picture

Being an artist type I like to look for the big picture. Here's one for you. The government is taxing our money and then loaning it back to us with interest. That's my take on all this. Sounds like a joke. Well, it is, sort of. A joke at our expense. Are we laughing yet?

I had an intuitive picture recently, from something you see here in the summer. A pond or river dries up. All the little critters that live in the water find themselves sucking mud.
The mud turns to dirt and the critters have nowhere to go. That's what I see happening in the near future. Sounds like deflation, doesn't it? The Dustbowl during the Great Depression is a very powerful archetype that sticks in one's mind during times like these.

Here's another archetypal picture, the little piggy sitting down to eat. I love the expressions in this illustration. And what exactly is Mama Piggy serving? Is this a scene of porcine cannibalism? Notice the look on the face of the piggy at the window. I can't tell if he is disgusted or thinking why wasn't I invited to the meal? "What am I? Chopped liver?" Probably! I think Mama Pig is the government and Son Pig is like the banks. And who is that at the window? That must be the taxpayer!

I find that looking at these old pictures always cheers me up. They seem very wise to me. So now, yes, I am laughing.
Such is life.

Monday, October 13, 2008

No Country for Babies

It was during the Carter years that I first experienced how the economy can make you feel like
you're living in a horror movie.

A Time magazine story from March of 1980 reported: "Inflation and interest rates, both topping 18%, are so far beyond anything that Americans have experienced in peacetime —and so far beyond anything that U.S. financial markets are set up to handle —as to inspire a contagion of fear."

March of 1980 was the same month I learned I was pregnant with my one and only. My husband and I both had good jobs, he as an engineer, me as a tech artist. Yet it seemed as if we were continually log-rolling financially. I was worried if we could afford this baby and at the same time I heard the clock ticking. My intuition had recently given me the green light and now I was constantly throwing up with the worst morning sickness ever.

Nothing like bringing a life into the world to make you start paying attention to the people who make decisions for you. I listened closely when Carter addressed the inflation mess. He said it could be traced largely to "our failure in Government, as individuals and as a society to live within our means."

I remember this line to this day. Like many other people back then I resented the implication that we personally had been living high on the hog during his regime. That wasn't my world. It seemed to me all we did was work and go to school. On the weekends we occasionally went to a club and had a beer while listening to live jazz. Mostly we hung out with friends. No one I knew was living beyond their means. We didn't travel, didn't drive flash cars, didn't own a home, didn't buy expensive toys.

Here we are almost 30 years later and same baloney, different package. It depresses me no end to see that our children will have to go through another financial mess that could have been avoided. As Carter himself said back in 1980:
"Nothing will work until the Federal Government has demonstrated that it can discipline its own spending and its own borrowing."

Yeah, tell it to the judge.

Every day I read many of the blogs that discuss our current economic and financial woes. The take-away message I get from these is that our country has been playing the "fake it to make it" game during most of my adult life. I find myself wondering if this latest "crisis" isn't just the same old crisis that never went away. I feel paranoid enough to wonder if this latest "meltdown" isn't designed to drive us Babyboomers sick with worry and stress and then peace out into an early grave. Don't have to pay Social Security to dead people.

How is that any less crazy to believe than that over thirty years our best and
brightest leaders have handed us nothing but a giant, steaming cow patty financial-wise?
That they created strange housing loans designed to fail and handed them out like candy the last couple of years? That they took hard-earned capital and spun that out like cotton candy into trillions of dollars of "derivatives" so large no one even knows how large they are?

Here's what I think is the biggest problem facing us: the basic social platform upon which one raises a family has become rotten to the core. Which is why I think Demographics are going to bite us in the long run. The primary reason governments encourage immigration, legal, or otherwise, is to keep the population numbers up. The credit crunch everyone is screeching about in DC isn't going to matter if the young keep believing this is no country for babies.

It's no accident that McCain picked a fertile Mrytle for his running mate. She may be ditsy but she popped out a bunch of cute rugrats. Large families are great if you can afford them. I suspect that on the Far Right there is a belief that Americans should have large families out of patriotic duty. Never mind that they can't afford them. The Waltons turned out okay, didn't they? Six kids sharing a room is homey when seen through a Kindcaid-painted blur of nostalgia.

The truth is more and more Americans are having one child or no child or putting off having a child until they have to rent-a-womb. All the talk about money in the abstract distracts us from the fact that our numbers are melting away like ice cream dropped on the sidewalk in July.

Are we going to keep letting the quality of our lives be manipulated by bankers and politicians and advertisers who are only interested in the immediate gain? I'm so tired of living under one crisis regime after another. Tired of wondering what stupid crap The Man is calling dinner tonight. Tired of financial log-rolling where no matter how fast you spin your feet you are always one step away from falling in the river. Tired of feeling that we are not building any kind of future at all. Before dancing off with the Grim Reaper someday I'd like to see a hope of a future for the kids. Is that too much to ask?

Saturday, October 11, 2008

KC's Degringalade

This French word "degringolade" means a quick deterioration, things suddenly falling apart...So I appropriated it for myself as "degringalade", a little pun on gringa , that's me.

Are things really falling suddenly apart? I get that feeling often now. How often have we seen our fearless leader's latest inf0-mercial? It seems like every few days in recent weeks. After 8 years of no contact this feels like a relative who suddenly asks you to wire money. These days I feel a migraine approaching when I hear the President is going to give the nation a little pep talk.
I don't feel reassured at all, if anything, it has the opposite effect.

And living in Phoenix adds to my general sense of disruption. After the S&L crisis, suddenly, following years of stagnant growth, there was real appreciation in home values here. Finally. Many of us who lived here for the last several decades thought the rise in property values was long overdue. Compared to neighboring California Phoenix was still dirt cheap.

Then, just as suddenly, the gains vanished. Homes in my downtown 'hood were selling in the 400s to 450s in 2005 and in 2008 started dropping to 300 and sinking lower. These are really nice dwellings, older homes with character, many with tree-lined streets, large yards, and located near the Capitol.

While the downtown had started to experience some resurgence
the housing developers found more profit in creating little Potemkin villages on the outskirts of Phoenix metropolitan, turning the desert into Shangri-La for working families. For many the city was seen as a risky place to live. A woman in Scottsdale once said to me when I told her I lived downtown, "Oh, yes, all those artsy types!", spitting the words with utter contempt. The conventional wisdom believed the far Valley was a safe choice to buy.

If you've lived here long enough you know the desert quickly consumes any dwelling that is neglected for more than a week. Dust covers every surface, creosote supplants century plants and mesquite trees in no time, after a monsoon storm jagged cracks appear in the surface stucco, and when the earth sighs, the freshly laid concrete foundations of new homes begin to tear apart. Degringolade, indeed.

The new homes were built quickly and many communities appeared overnight.
The people who bought these structures soon began to complain of shoddy construction. In some towns developers promised to build schools that never materialized.

Today if you drive around far Queen Creek or Florence you can find almost new two-story homes that are now for sale in the low 70s and which sold a few years ago for 3 0r 4 times that much. I thought, perhaps we should look at these "bargains", might be good for retirement someday. So we drove out to the far East Valley one Saturday morning. And drove. And drove. What were people thinking I wondered? Who would ever want this kind of commute? It cost us $30 in gas and that was just one round-trip.

The houses we saw were very typical, two-story, stucco, stacked very close to each other, five feet to the property line in most cases. That's too close. You will hear every argument, every TV as if it were in your own living room. Many people were using their garages as porches sheltered from the withering sun. As a result cars were parked half on the streets, half on the sidewalks. Children darted out into the street, where they preferred to play rather than in the pocket park that lay at the far end of the development.

An evacuated wasp nest, the kind you find fallen to the ground in autumn, has a homier feeling than these places. Empty wasp nests have served a purpose and do not reek of despair. My take on these developments is that they depend on strict enforcement of home owners covenants to keep up appearances. If cars are kept parked in the driveway it is less obvious that the streets are too narrow. If weeds are kept under control and the fake lakes kept filled it is less obvious that they occupy the relentless desert.

I'd like to see Phoenix create a strong core in the central city. I'd like to see people live closer to where they work. A long commute is brutal here, even when gas costs aren't skyrocketing. Huge SUVs and truck are popular in Phoenix because the big engines provide better air conditioning. Sitting in traffic at rush hour when it is 117 degrees takes a toll.

The biggest mistake people make when moving to Phoenix is thinking they are somewhere else.
The earlier generation of developers thought they could mold Phoenix into an image of Iowa. The latest model was Southern California. Neither fits the reality of this climate or ecology.

It's become pretty clear that we can't let the leaders mind the store while we live our lives. I'm worried that the bailout is "grab and go" money for the elite. Some days it feels like the rest of us are locked in the hold
of the Titanic. I doubt things are really that bad but the rude awakening is real: the people at the top want their profit today and don't care about our tomorrow.