I had an odd sensation today, sitting in a meeting, talking about how our university is hunkering down for the ongoing financial crisis. Hiring freeze, budget reductions, program cuts, firing the masseuse in the faculty day-spa, that sort of thing.
My thoughts on the economic crisis have been the thoughts of someone mostly isolated from its effects. We don’t own a home. We don’t have a crazy mortgage. Most of our money is in a good old-fashioned savings account from ING, earning a very respectible 3%. Where we are invested in the market, it’s in stocks and funds that are positioned against the market, so when the dips happen, we are protected.
More than that, I find myself employed in jobs that are not likely to be impacted by the economy. When times get bad, and when people are in crisis or transition, they often look to long-forgotten childhood faith, to the hope and community it provides. When people are laid off, some of them choose to go back to school to complete unfinished degrees, to explore new careers, or to advance in their field. I feel fortunate that I’m not out hustling a car lot, or managing a retail store, or trying to run a company these days.
All of this taken together means that most of my thoughts about the economy are the thoughts of a slightly smug, self-righteous and disinterested observer.
Something changed today though. I’ve had a growing sense of impending doom. The US markets dropped almost 9% today, giving back all of the irrational exuberence it exhibited over Thanksgiving. The Asian markets followed suit, down almost 8% and still falling, and investors are already hedging on a European tumble when those markets begin to trade in the next few minutes.
Banks have stopped making loans. Housing prices are tumbling. New cars are piling up at the Port of Long Beach and Port Hueneme, with no room to put them on the car lots. Unemployment is up. The Fed has decided to buy up bank holdings in car loans, student loans, and small business loans using money that they simply … created.
Today, for the first time, I started to think about how bad things might actually get. I’ve already seen armed guards blocking the doors to a failing bank, when Indy Mac went under. I wonder if I might have to stand outside my bank, pounding on the door to get our savings out. I wonder how many banks have to fail before the Fed has to start printing money to meet its FDIC obligations, and the dollar loses value so fast we have to push a wheelbarrow full of cash to the market to buy food. I wonder if I might find myself standing in a bread line sometime in the next few years.
I wonder if things will get so bad that I look back on cell phones as a frivolous luxury, and regret every dollar I ever wasted at a Starbucks.
I look at everything now through the lens of being a father, and I know there’s a long list of things I would endure on my kids’ behalf. My dignity is in seeing them fed and clothed, warm and safe, and whatever I have to do to make that happen borrows it’s dignity from their well-being.
That said, I wonder if we will look back on this year with longing, and thing, “We didn’t know how good we had it. I wish we had known it would get this bad.” And this feeling keeps growing.