Sunday, March 8, 2009

What a difference

Yesterday's high temperature here was 77°F. A year ago today, we were shoveling two feet of snow.

The real month of March, like the truth about most things, lies somewhere between the extremes. Then again, as KintlaLake Blog approaches its first anniversary, I look back and see 12 months of extremes.

After that record snowfall, we had unprecedented rain and flooding in June and a memorable windstorm in September. The nation elected its first black President. For a while there, we paid more than four bucks for a gallon of unleaded gas. And month after depressing month, we've been slogging through an unparalleled economic crisis.

For me, these days are full -- very full. They're also as difficult as any days I've ever known.

Perhaps it's time to acknowledge the elephant in the room. By way of introduction, then, my very own personal pachyderm goes by the name of Chapter 7 bankruptcy -- the weighty, distasteful product of two years of struggling and juggling.

As I pushed heavy snow from our driveway last March, I was already a year into wrestling my way out of a tight financial bind brought on by the unexpected loss of my job and the subsequent failure to establish my own business, all exacerbated by a turbulent economy. This time last year, I still had my optimism, my professional chops and my work ethic, as well as an above-800 credit score.

To be clear, no, my family and I didn't make reckless financial choices. We weren't wrapped up in a sub-prime or an adjustable-rate mortgage, we never took out a home-equity loan and we certainly weren't in denial.

Facing adversity, we did the responsible thing -- we cut back. We simplified. I sold my cars and we tapped our emergency funds. I applied for every job I could find, sending out thousands of résumés, and I continued to scratch for contract work.

It was like sowing seeds on a sidewalk.

As 2009 dawned, it became obvious that I no longer could postpone the inevitable. I sought competent legal advice and filed my petition with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court late last month. Every material possession I've earned over the last 30-plus years and every red cent I have left is now under the control of the court and soon will be discharged under the supervision of a trustee.

My family and I will surrender this oddly wonderful house, which (fortunately) is in my name alone, and over the next few months we'll move in with my wife's parents across town. I hope to retain, thanks to statutory exemptions, some items of sentiment and importance. My motorcycles will be sold by the trustee, with the proceeds to be distributed to my creditors. If I'm to keep my truck, I'll need to scrape together the difference between its value and the exemption I'm allowed. I think I can do that.

I don't qualify for any of the government's homeowner-aid money, and to be honest I'm not sure I'd reach for that aid even if I thought I might benefit temporarily. I may not have made careless or naive choices, but nevertheless each of us creates our own circumstances and I accept responsibility for mine.

Looking for someone who feels like a victim? Look somewhere else.

Beyond my personal situation, I have strong opinions about this dysfunctional economy. I believe that myopic greed, at all levels, has strangled the capitalist ideal -- if the status quo demonstrates anything, it's that pure trickle-down capitalism is an abysmal failure.

I believe that our nation's wealth must be rebuilt on the broad base of citizen-consumers first, communities second, small businesses third and multinationals last. I believe that fiscal policies founded largely on deregulation and tax breaks for businesses, regardless of size, are political ploys, period, and won't produce sustainable economic strength. I believe that taxpayers are entitled to -- and are justified in demanding -- benefits equal to the billions squandered on banks, insurers and automakers.

And I believe that any moron who proposes to fix what's broken with the same fiscal depravity that broke what needs fixing can go straight to hell.

Last week, the big financial-services company that'll soon commence foreclosure on my house announced that it'll consider accepting three months of reduced payments from their mortgage customers who are unemployed. The announcement came on the day that the company's stock closed at 98% off of its October 2007 highs. Talk about shutting the barn door after the horse is gone...

By the time the markets closed on Friday, that company's stock was cheaper than its ATM fee, for cryin' out loud. One share of Office Depot stock costs less than one box of Office Depot paper clips. A gallon of gas for my TrailBlazer is more expensive than a share of General Motors.

These companies and myriad others are collapsing because they hitched their wagons to investors and put their customers out to pasture -- a short-sighted strategy that virtually guarantees failure. Simply, they forgot that long-term survival depends on commercial success.

Throwing more taxpayer money at GM, AIG and the banks will solve nothing. The grand experiment of laissez faire, top-down capitalism is over. The foundation of American capitalism must be laid again, solidly and over the objections of ideologues, right where it belongs -- with The People.

I'm not advocating the dreaded "redistribution of wealth" that puts simple-minded conservatives into a full-body pucker, nor do I favor perpetuating a culture of entitlement that raises generation upon needy generation of sucklings. I'm talking fundamentally about re-asserting economic power -- not in the capital markets, but in the commercial marketplace.

Capitalism begins -- and ends -- at home. Or, in the vernacular,
"If Main Street ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."
As for my family and me, once we navigate a household move we'll be fine. Failing to triumph over circumstances has broken our bank but not our spirit. We'll begin rebuilding by setting our foundation on solid ground.

Our nation would be wise to do the same.