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Through Worth and Work We Rise

Nearly a hundred years ago, my grandfather rose at five, milked his cows by hand then delivered the milk by team and wagon to a nearby depot.  A stonemason by trade, he’d return by seven then spend a ten-hour day squaring stone with a 12-pound hammer.

 “And you know,” I remember him saying, “we never got coffee back then.”

 There were lots of things grampa never got-trips to the islands, DVD players, large screen TV’s, or a mortgage he couldn’t handle -“but you know,” he added, “everyone was happy ’cause we were all in the same boat.  Poor as Joe’s turkey, but we had a whale of a good time.”

 I think of grampa a lot these days-poor, hardworking but happy-and I wonder what he’d make of my spendthrift generation and a government stimulus plan in the hundreds of billions.  No I don’t, I realize.  I know.  He’d think we were crazy, living on credit we didn’t deserve.  The President of Euro Pacific Capital, Peter Schiff, says he’d be right.

 “The last thing we need in this country is more borrowing,” he says.  “The government is trying to encourage more consumption when we’re in trouble because of all the excess consumption.  We actually need the tough medicine that the free market is trying to force on us.  We need Americans to spend less.”

 Despite President Obama’s stimulus intentions, Shiff says you can’t revive an ailing economy with the very medicine that’s making it sick.  Now or later, he says we have to pick our poison and pay for years of reckless borrowing and spending.  Now would be better.

 “If Americans are saving their money they can’t spend it and that means we’re going to have to have a very severe recession.  The government has to fess up, level with the American public, and let them know this is going to be tough.  Because if the government continues on this course they’re going to create an inflationary depression that is going to be much worse than anything we’ve ever experienced.”

 While President Obama has been warning Americans that things will be bad if his stimulus plan isn’t enacted, Shiff says he’s only half right: “terrible” if we don’t act, “unmitigated disaster” if we do.

 “The government is now borrowing and spending because Americans are too broke to do it.  But it’s making the problem worse.  And when the bubble finally bursts in the bond market, that’s going to knock the rug out from under everything the government is doing.” 

 In short, he says, the government will be broke and in need of it’s own bailout.

 “And that’s when this thing is going to go into a whole new gear.”

 A whole new gear or an old one, I wonder, so old we’ve forgotten?  I think of grampa again and something far worse: memories of high school English classes and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  Suddenly I feel like a passenger in the movie Titanic, struck dumb by the reality I’m on a sinking ship I’ve been promised can’t sink.

 Despite my misgivings, President Obama offers advice for a future . . . but a future, I fear, that may never exist.

 “We need to steer clear of this poverty of ambition, where people want to drive fancy cars, wear nice clothes and live in nice apartments but don’t want to work hard to accomplish these things.” 

 Nice words, I think, but too little too late.  How late, I wonder: two terms of George Bush or a whole generation?  Like wanting more lifeboats when you’ve already drowned.

 So what do I do, side with Shiff or Obama?  Pay down the mortgage, spend more or invest?  Experts are everywhere but certainty’s left the building. 

 I recall something else from my idyllic past:  I’m driving with an old girlfriend, decades ago, and we pass a group of Mennonites, working in the fields.

 “Sometimes I think I’d like to live like that,” I remember offering.  “Hard work and sweat.  A simpler life where you reap what you sow.”

 “You couldn’t do it,” she shrugged; not wanting to hurt me, just stating the facts.  “You’re not strong enough.”

“Physically or mentally?” I challenged, a little put out.

“Both,” I recall her smiling, and the conversation-like the relationship-died.

 These days of dire straights I remember that girl-the Mennonites, my grampa-and wonder if she was right. 

 If Peter Schiff’s on the money, we may soon find out.




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