Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Had Enough Change?

In the last election the majority voted for: "change we can believe in." By now many are discovering the value of the old saying: Be careful what you wish for....

As it happens, change has arrived. Over the past three months our nation has undergone a sea change. It is a lot more change than anyone bargained for.

You can see signs of change all around you. Coaches and therapists used to have clients who stated that they did not understand why, with all the money they had, they were not happy.

Today, no one sets off in pursuit of happiness. No one even raises the issue. As worthy as that goal was, it has gone the way of the bull market. If my own practice is any indication, it has been replaced by coping strategies, survival skills, and stress management. People whose material condition has drastically changed must first reorganize their lives.

In the old days people were told to be optimistic, to maintain a positive attitude. They were wondering how they could get a bigger raise or bonus, how they could achieve peak performance, and what (or whom) they could buy with all of their riches.

They are their friends were succeeding beyond their imagination, and they were facing the kinds of choices that befall the wealthy.

Now, people wonder whether they will have jobs tomorrow. If they are out of work they wonder about whether they should take a job that offers a cut in salary. If they are still employed they want to know how best to go about firing loyal and competent staff members. Instead of having to decide which co-op to bid on, they are wondering about how to negotiate a lower rent.

Optimism has gone away because it does not reflect current reality. If you are still using the buzzwords of the now-departed gilded age, you are showing that you have lost touch with reality.

It is offensive to offer a happy face when people have lost fortunes, careers, and lifestyles. There are times when commiserating is the correct approach.

And yet, receiving commiseration should never become a way of life. Feeling sorry for yourself is not a stepping stone on the road to recovery.

The first step to recovery is discovering that the gilded age was a fiction. Here is the way Alexandra Lebenthal described the new reality of John and Mimi Cotter: "In the midst of the continuing body count of jobs lost and houses in foreclosure, Mimi and John's extravagant lifestyle is beginning to seem like a world that never really existed. The idea of buying a second apartment at a cost of more than the annual income of entire towns... just to showcase one's art or to prevent the irritation of a neighboring renovation, seems so overly indulgent as to border on silly. Sadder still is that twenty good years in the lives of two people amounted to a bubble inflated life devoid [of] any real sense of values, let alone love and partnership."

Read the full article here.

Jim Rogers said it was not normal; Alexandra Lebenthal says it was not real. They are both right.

What went wrong? Simply put, the Cotters were living a dream; they had completely lost touch with the everyday realities that are a staple of the human condition.

But they were not just living any old dream. They were living a philosopher's dream. They have joined a class of superior beings who did not have to worry about mundane realities like negotiating difficult situations or choosing between this or that car.

They did not believe in give and take. They just took. Therefore they did not bother to solve problems or to connect with people through common enterprise. They threw money around and hoped that the problems would go away. And they could get away with rude and disrespectful behavior because they had so much money that no one could afford to call them on it.

Strangely, bankers and money managers were living like celebrities. Many were genuinely concerned about how often they were mentioned and pictured in the tabloid press. Some even had their own publicists. They did not understand that when a hedge fund manager starts living like a celebrity he is degrading himself.

Like celebrities, these superior beings had overcome repression. They did what they wanted when they wanted with whom they wanted. Other people had to choose; they could have it all.

Having overcome the constraints and the discipline that add value to the lives of normal people, they could follow their bliss... off of the cliff.

If anything, the lesson of the current debacle is that there is a reality out there, that universal values exist, and that if you insist on defying them, you will, eventually pay a very high price.

No comments: