The world had a bad day


My computer hard drive went down this morning. Very frustrating. After tinkering with it for an hour or so, I gave up and flipped on the news. There was another meltdown in progress, this one at Lehman Brothers, the giant billion-dollar financial investment firm.

From what the experts say—people like Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve—there may be more to come. It seems like the sub-prime lending crash hasn’t found bottom yet. European and Asian stock markets dropped by 2% to 5% overnight. Morgan Stanley has been sold to one of the US banks. And other investment firms are tottering on the brink.

The news cut away to the other US disaster currently underway—Hurricane Ike. When I checked satellite photos on the weather channel early yesterday the storm was as big as the entire Gulf of Mexico. Today it’s crossing Texas having razed the city of Houston a huge residential population and the several hundred oil refineries located there. Amazingly, only 10 or so of the refineries went off line—and this good news immediately plunged the price of oil to below $95 dollars a barrel. Sadly, tens of thousands of people have lost their homes and millions of people are without electricity, and may continue to be for another two weeks or more. This, while residents down there are still cleaning up after Hurricane Gustav.

On the Canadian scene we’re being treated to, thankfully, less dramatic news. The federal election is being turned into a war of personalities by the Stephen Harper Conservatives and the New Democrats’ Jack Layton (who is running a much slicker campaign than ever before). Of course their target is the exceedingly image-challenged Liberal leader, Stéphan Dion, who is blithely and awkwardly trying to address the real issues, such as Canada’s flawed immigration process.

One wonders why he doesn’t trot out the high profile Liberal team to back him up, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae for example. Maybe then we could focus on the real issues—such as the war in Afghanistan, the mega-polluting oil sands project and the concept of building a green-tech economy before we run out of cheap oil. Maybe we could even talk a bit more about decoupling from the US economy, which would seem to be a healthy idea for Canadians given the long-term prognosis for the US.

I won’t hold my breath though. I don’t think we’ll see any real political solutions in the near term. Call me cynical, but my kids are teaching me all about why the world seems to be having more bad days than ever lately.

Sharon and I helped them clean up their rooms this weekend. I had no idea how many clothes and toys they’d collected, and how few of them they used with regularly. They’d pull them out, toss them around the room, sweep them under their beds, and wait—until mom and dad did an all-out, in-depth deep clean. It wasn’t quite that way when we were kids. We lived in an Internet-free zone in a 7-channel universe and with far less kid-related material goods. It’s not that we were any better; it’s just the way it was.

Make no mistake. I think our kids are great. But I think they have less regard for their possessions and privileges—because they have so many of them and they come so easily. If they break the remote control on the TV, we buy another one. If they break their bikes, we fix them, or just replace them every couple of years. If they smash their toys, there’ll be more and better ones on the way at Christmas or on their birthday. And like most parents, we’d rather spend a few dollars than spend the time fixing broken plastic toys. They’re not worth it, and nowhere is this more clear than at a yard sale full of old toys. You can’t even give the stuff away.

Since the computer melted down, we’re in the market for a new computer (read: adult toy) too. Old computer gear is just about as valuable as old kid stuff. Again, here are these expensive machines that are virtually worthless and obsolete in just three or four years.

When you think about it, all this conspicuous materialism might just be linked to why the world having more bad days lately. Let’s connect the dots. The consumer society runs on buying ever-more stuff. And the marketing industry makes sure that we all keep wanting stuff. So the consumer-driven economy is at the base of everything we do, economically speaking. That means we need to keep up our levels of consumption.

On the other hand, there are no more frontiers on little planet Earth. New, giant economic engines are just starting to rev up in China and India with over 2 billion new consumers getting into the game—just in time to chart a massive collision course with global climate change and the end of the cheap oil era. I seriously doubt the luxury-starved folks in those emerging economies have any desire to curb their appetites on our behalf. And hey, it’s pretty clear that we’re not willing to curb our desires, either.

We’re just like today’s kids who don’t know the true value of the things we so easily possess and consume. For example, out here where we live, recycling is almost an unpracticed activity. Sure, a few conscientious people do it. But most of us don’t.

So if we’re going to change, we have a few options. We can either cooperate, or compete with the rest of the world. With large world populations and diminishing resources, competition is likely to become fierce. And education is a key indicator. Today a BA is an entry-level ticket to almost any real job, even an assistant manager of a grocery store. A good professional job now requires a post-grad degree, preferrably from a good school. Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Stanford and MIT to the front of the line, please.

The other path is cooperation. One of the best ways to cooperate is through our political system. Our government is the only way we have to effectively redistribute wealth and to invest in the common good. And the proof is in who’s now talking about just that—business gurus like Purdy Crawford, Warren Buffet, George Soros, and many many more.

Surprise, surprise, we’re seeing the end of the Utopian free market-driven society. Now it’s up to us to decide what comes next. Forget the politics of personality. We need a few politicians who actually understand what needs to be done.


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