Sunday, April 19, 2009

Well, our Sunday is gray, wet and dismal.  Yesterday, on the other hand, was bright, sunny and warm.  We were able to open the doors and get some fresh air into the house.  One of the weather people said that we just had the first back-to-back 70 degree days in five+ months.  As I have said before --it HAS been a LONG winter.  I put my seedlings out on the patio table for a few hours and they all seemed to love it.  Every one is a brighter green.

It is now Monday and it is still gray, wet and dismal.  We had a curious thought this morning over coffee.  We wondered if this has been a 'normal' spring but we have become so used to unusual spring weather (getting warmer and sunnier earlier) that we find normal somehow abnormal and depressing.  I remember going into winter mode (changing the closets to bring out the heavier cold weather clothing) in mid October and then reversing the process in mid April.  But I haven't done that in recent years.  Instead the winter shift occurred in November (and sometimes December with a couple of years being so warm I didn't shift at all) and the spring shift in March and sometimes even February.  Am I weird or has anyone else had this sensation?

Here is another sign of the times.  Bartering has been an increasingly frequent topic on my strolls through the internet.  However the Lansing State Journal covers an aspect which others have let slide: the tax implications of bartering.  I have often wondered how a cash strapped tax-payer would pay the taxes on bartered goods since the IRS doesn't accept payment in kind.

Another sign of the times: Depression or Pessimism Porn.  That is the term featured on a segment of the ABC Nightly News last night (Sunday night).  It even featured a shot of the cover of the New Statesman (and other magazines like Time) hawking their lead stories covering very pessimistic economic predictions for the near future.  The reporter asked an interesting but, I think, off-base question that trivialized the issue.  Why do people read these ultra gloomy prognosticators?  One little throw away line summed up the matter but the reporter didn't really pick up on it.  One of the people they interviewed noticed that the prophets of doom and gloom were right more often than their more optimistic colleagues.  In a recent blog post Robert Reich described the optimists as 'blinded by the bright side.'  I remember the conversation we had with Sister and her Partner over dinner a little over a week ago.  Commenting on the economic situations of several family members, Sister mentioned forecasts which indicated that the economy would turn around by the end of this year and that the turn around couldn't come soon enough.  I told her that those were the optimists and the pessimists were not expecting a turn around to even start before 2010 or even 2011.  Given the track records of the two groups I tend to believe the pessimists.

By the way, 60 Minutes had a segment that absolutely infuriated me.  The subject was the precipitous drop in the value of 401k plans and the impact on the people who had depended on them to fund their retirement, especially those in the 50+ age group.  The piece was largely split between holders of 401k accounts (all of whom were currently unemployed and attending a 'job fair') and an idiot from the lobbying group for the financial industry that administers the plans.  El Idiot basically blamed the victims for their own victimization.  He thought they should have been more savvy, more informed, more 'responsible.'  He tried very hard to absolve the industry for its hidden fees and charges that took up to half of the gains these accounts garnered in the good years and of any blame for stymieing legislation that would have required more transparency (wonderful word, that).  Three points I thought were very interesting but did not get much emphasis.  One was how, originally, 401k plans were supposed to be an adjunct to Social Security AND private pension plans.  But companies found them a cheap way to do away with the private pension plans altogether.  The other was a mirror image of the old Reagan argument about social security: it was never intended to be a self sufficient retirement plan.  Both 401k plans AND Social Security were marketed for years as exactly that.  And the poor idiots who bought that bill of goods were somehow responsible for the consequences of relying on the promises made them.  The third point was El Idiot's assumption that the holders of the 401k accounts had complete control over how the funds were invested and if they were not savvy enough to handle them then too bad for them.  I haven't been in a position to even qualify for such plans but the few times I was I would have had NO CONTROL over the funds until such time as I left the company and had to roll over the company plan into a new plan.  No amount of savvy would have mattered.  How many people found themselves in that position?

I questioned the concept of normal with respect to seasons and weather above.  Carolyn Baker questions the notion with respect to economic affairs and has some observations that parallel thoughts that have hovered on the edges of my mind for some time.  Everything our politicians and economists have done or proposed doing has been geared to returning us to 'normal' but I have asked for some time now, since the economic melt down became obvious to all last fall, what do we mean by normal and should we even be trying to restore what we thought was normal because we were used to it. It was really a crisis waiting to happen.

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