Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Half A Century

Tomorrow will be my 50th birthday. Half a century spent going around the sun on this planet. While it is only another number, it is also a sort of milestone. It means I've been around long enough to see a chunk of history firsthand.

10 men have been president in my lifetime, and my earliest non-familial memory is of the assassination of one of them. When JFK was shot it shook the world, and even at 4 years old I could feel the importance of the event.

I grew up during an era when nuclear annihilation was a real possibility. The grade school 'duck and cover' drills can't have been good for our psyche, but they did impart a certain fatalistic cheer: "well, we haven't been nuked yet" was a good response to all bad news. And we've gotten through this past half century without a nuclear war (including the Reagan years), so there's reason for hope.

Having watched marches and riots for civil rights, I'll soon get to see an African-American president. More proof that we can make progress.

But something has changed in the American spirit during my lifetime. I'm not sure if I can define it, but we no longer have the "can-do" confidence that I grew up with. The determination that put a man on the moon is no longer present. Instead, there is an ideological morass where the public waits for someone else (i.e. "the government") to address the problems that we face. Opportunities that used to be available are now gone, and nobody seems to know how to build new ones. Technologies that seemed impossible during my childhood are now at our fingertips, but it's not clear how they will be applied to solve our current crisis'. The old economy is gone, but there isn't a new one that works for the people. Global warming isn't really all that complex, yet converting to renewable energy isn't being done. We can find the billions for wars or wall street, but something as simple as saving the planet doesn't fit in the budget.

50 years. I'm sounding like a curmudgeon on my birthday. I'm really trying to be more optimistic. I'll start now:

Happy New Year, everybody! I've always had my birthday on a holiday, and I think everyone else should, too. Or at least have a holiday on your birthday. A good reason to celebrate. This year we get the gift of a new president (something we've all really needed), one with a lot more brains and compassion than the one who's leaving. In spite of all the challenges facing him, we have some reason for hope...just a little optimism as the New Year begins.

Again, Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Consumer Confidence?

Today we got the official report that consumer confidence has reached a 'historic low'. This bit of news would seem rather obvious to anyone out in the 'real' world. There is no confidence; it would be much easier to measure "public panic" although that's not a topic with a historic standard. The forecast is bleak, and getting darker, and "consuming" is becoming a luxury that only the rich can afford. Buying the basic necessities is about all that people are willing to do, as the clouds of uncertainty blanket the future as far as the eye can see.
Over the past few decades America has built it's business system based on a "consumer economy" that depends on the public to buy more stuff, rather than the development or manufacture of real material goods that people need. Our jobs declined as we stopped making things and instead focused on consuming them. An intangible model at best, it's now facing a catastrophic failure.
As we count down the last days of 2008 (and get to my birthday), the prevailing mood is one of "oh, shit, what's next?" Despite the optimism of a new president, the outlook is gloomy.