Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Forced into Virtue

Perhaps you have to be an incurable optimist, but good does sometimes come out of bad. Look at the old fashioned virtues that are arising from the ashes of the current financial debacle.

Prudent lending is replacing unlimited credit; thrift is replacing profligacy; self-restraint is replacing self-expression; hard work is replacing gambling; humility is replacing self-esteem.

Add modesty, discipline, decorum, and respect and an ethic emerges, one that can hopefully replace the current cult to self-actualization.

Tom Friedman called it a Puritan ethic, and he more aptly regretted that it was more prevalent in China than in the United States.

Perhaps, the current crisis will provide an impetus in that direction. At the least, we can hope.

Friedman's use of the word Puritan, in place of Protestant, is provocative.

It is one thing to suggest that the crisis is going to impose more ethical ways of dealing with money, but must it also wring all the fun out of life?

The burning question is: can you practice these Puritan virtues at work and still go out and hook up?

Can you be thrifty and prudent in one area of your life and profligate in another? What does it say about your character if you husband your monetary resources and dissipate your sexual assets.

How you answer this depends on your definition of fun. Benjamin Franklin famously said that a penny saved is a penny earned, but his life was certainly not devoid of sensual delights.

But then again, he was not going out to hook up every weekend.

The lesson is simple: the judicious deployment of your sexual resources might actually improve your sex life. Why anyone would think that modesty and discretion are the enemy of pleasure is beyond me.

Ethics says that you should not be a repressed scold, but it also says that you should not be giving it away for free. Life should not be a sex-free zone, obviously enough, but it should also not be a sexual shopping spree.

What the financial crisis will do to sexual mores remains to be seen. As for the spending habits of New Yorkers, the crisis is having an immediate and dramatic effect.

Thrift is being forced on people. Against their will. And they do not like it.

People are being forced to cut back, to eliminate non-essential expenses, and to think twice about the car service or the extra bottle of Kristal.

Forget the summer in Nantucket; forget the bespoke tailor; forget the private schools. A sea change is taking place; people are being forced into virtue.

Many of them resent it. They deny that it is happening. They feel that they are being forced to adopt habits that do not feel normal or natural, that feel like repression.

Here is the way the scenario sometimes plays itself out in a marriage. Say that the male spouse is a Wall Street Warrior who has just learned that he is not going to get a bonus this year. Assume that his wife stays home and cares for the children.

Her social life revolves around charity balls and galas, private clubs and ladies' lunches. She summers in the Hamptons and takes a long winter vacation in Vail.

Her social life is costly, but it is hers, and she enjoys it. She, her husband, and their children profit from it, in ways great and small.

But, this couple has two mortgages, one maintenance, the upkeep of their summer home, three private school tuitions, to say nothing of the cost of being properly outfitted for all of the galas, balls, lunches, and club dates.

For now, please hold the Schadenfreude. The lost bonus does not just deprive her-- and her family-- of a bunch of consumer goods. It threatens her social existence. Correctly, she does not want her and her children to become social pariahs.

So, now the Wall Street Warrior has just learned that he will not be getting a bonus this year. He knows that the gilded life he provided for his family will no longer be possible. He feels that he is letting them down; he dreads telling his wife that he cannot afford to buy a table at the Winter Ball, that they will have to rent the place in the Hamptons this summer, and that he can no longer afford season tickets to the Mets.

This much thriftiness he could well have lived without. He cannot bring himself to tell his wife.

So, she continues her life as though nothing had happened. Until the day when a credit card is refused or when he has to tell her that her plans for their child's birthday party will have to be scaled back. Let's do it at home; why don't you bake a cake...

It's one thing to lose your bonus; quite another to mismanage the situation and to undermine your marriage.

For failing to explain the situation to his wife, he has told her that he does not consider her to be a partner, but an adversary. She can only conclude from his silence that he does not trust her to understand information that is vital to her life plans.

Crisis management requires him to communicate the information clearly and directly. And to communicate as much of it as she needs to know in order to understand what is going on. He must treat his wife as a partner, someone who will be in it with him, not someone whose disappointment will cause her to turn against him.

If he refuses to tell her what is going on, he is assuming that she will turn on him, and, as we know, people often fulfill what is expected of them, for better or for worse. Otherwise, she would disappoint his expectations.

But, this Wall Street Warrior might resent the fact that he is being forced to be thrifty. If he is sufficiently humble to know that he bears some responsibility for his fate, it will be easier to adapt.

And his wife might also resent their new circumstances, especially for the effect that it will have on their children.

What should they do? Or better, what should they not do? One course of action is to pretend that nothing has happened, that this man is still a great Warrior and that they should not change their spending habits. Evidently, this involves the kind of self-puffery that often passes as high self-esteem.

Or else, resenting being forced into thrift, they may decide to hunker down and to hoard whatever wealth they have left. Just as some banks stopped lending, this couple may well decide to stop spending. They may choose to replace profligacy with avarice.

Thrift, of course, is somewhere between profligacy and avarice. The question is: can you choose a virtue that is being imposed on you? If you can reject thrift, you can surely accept it, voluntarily, as an act of your own free will.

Given the alternatives, it is probably better that you do.

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