There is no point in sugar-coating it. It’s been a long, hard year of losses for millions of people: jobs gone, houses foreclosed, life savings diminished if not entirely depleted (stolen). Between the long slog of the election campaign and the financial crisis, 2008 has been exhausting. Frightening too.
“They” tell us the outlook for 2009 is not any brighter. There will be more job layoffs and foreclosures along with bankruptcies both corporate and personal. Perhaps, “they” say, we will begin to see an economic recovery in 2010. I’m not holding my breath.
One wish I have for 2009, is that there be no more media stories about how the rich are suffering. They may need to sell a yacht and a vacation home in the Hamptons or the south of France, but most of them will survive without too much change in their lifestyles.
It is the middle class that has been hit the hardest. Unemployment is at its highest since the Great Depression. Many of the millions who lost their jobs in 2008, also lost their employer-provided health coverage and now have no income to pay for private insurance. Two years ago, it was reported that 47 million Americans were without health coverage. No one has yet calculated how much that number has increased.
Pundits, politicians and others have spilled a great deal of ink blaming foreclosures on home buyers who were too stupid to read the fine print and too greedy to face the limited reality of their buying power. They didn’t use words like “stupid” and “greedy”, but that’s what they meant while dividends rolled in from their investments in subprime mortgage equities. It is particularly fatuous to attack the people you are counting on to increase your wealth.
It couldn’t be greedy corporate executives and hedge fund managers who got us into this mess, could it? The ones with their bloated salaries and bonuses selling bad debt to the country, abetted by low tax regulations for the wealthy bestowed on them by a Republican Congress at the behest of President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Oh, no, it couldn’t be them.
And it couldn’t be the banks that had anything to do with the fact that personal debt rose to an all-time high as average Americans maxed out their credit cards buying expensive electronic toys, SUVs and exotic cruise vacations. I mean, no responsible bank would hand out another credit card to anyone who already has ten and an annual income of $50,000. They wouldn't do that. Would they?
For the past eight years, we have been a country drunk on credit for which the bill, they said, could be paid by the ever-increasing value of our homes. (I never understood those "experts" who said housing prices would continue to rise; in the early 1990s recession, the value of my home dropped by 25 percent.)
It all came tumbling down this year and it must be your fault and mine. It couldn’t have anything to do with the general zeitgeist of the country, could it?
As far as I can tell, that zeitgeist is the only kind of “trickle-down economics” that works: hand out billions of credit cards without checking anyone’s credit history, blast the airwaves, internet and magazine pages with millions of ads for glittery products only the rich should be buying and then create an aura of belief that you’re a sap if you don’t get yours – the biggest big-screen TV, the newest McMansion and even a $600 vacuum cleaner.
Oh, and don’t forget the kiddies. Their little psyches would be permanently warped without an iPhone filled with unlimited minutes, several pairs of $150 sneakers and an Xbox to go with their Macbook Pro.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but the majority of it must be placed at the feet of the Bush administration that encouraged an atmosphere of financial irresponsibility from the top down leaving it for the next guy in the White House to pick up the pieces of the country's shattered lives.
We can be grateful only that Bush could not sell Social Security privatization to the nation. Our predicament would be much more dire if half of everyone’s Social Security account had been invested in Wall Street when the crash came.
Those of us who believe we have been living a national nightmare for the past eight years can feel only relief that the decider’s days are done in Washington and hope that our new president brings more than hope to the job. He’s doing pretty well so far - if you don’t count the selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural, a disappointing decision that feels particularly tone deaf.
Elders, I believe, will have a lot to contribute in the new year that arrives tonight. Having grown up during the Depression or under the parentage of people who did, we know a lot about saving, belt-tightening, conscientiousness, self-discipline, patience, endurance and helping one another to get through hard times. It is bred in our bones.
It would have been nice to glide through our old age in a strong economy. It hasn't worked out that way, but in our long lives, we have survived other challenges, some of our own making, and we will do it again this time. We have more practice than most younger people and perhaps we can help guide them.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Clair Zarges compares herself to Michael Phelps in Fins and the Art of Swim Kick Maintenance.]