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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Americans are still hurting from the financial collapse. We are a nation of victims who suffer under the rule of banks, federal regulators, mortgage companies, health care providers, lobbyists and investment brokers. So where’s the public anger?

According to journalist David Corn, in a recent “Mother Jones,” anger over economic malfeasance has been neutralized by fear. People are more frightened about employment and eviction than they are angry and seeking revenge for the wrongs done to them. These are real, tangible, personal losses that keep people up at night.

Fear eventually leads to resentment, but resentment of whom or what? Corn writes that the financial system is too complex for most people to pinpoint wrongdoings. Rather than faulting “the system,” self-resentment has many Americans scolding themselves for overspending, overleveraging, and overconsuming.

“The dominant emotional dynamic was self-criticism,” writes Corn. “People really felt that they had failed. They had spent too much on things they didn’t need. Their intellectual criticism was directed at the financial world, but their emotional criticism was directed at themselves.”

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Many Americans were duped by the seemingly unlimited growth of their assets – mostly the inflated value of their homes. Caught in the downturn, many felt embarrassed for getting stuck unawares, having willfully denied a logical conclusion to the Age of Excess – eventual collapse.

Self-recrimination goes only so far. Eventually, anger will target the people and the institutions that failed the nation and even profited from it. Madoff and his coterie are prime targets, as are the architects of subprime mortgages and bundled derivatives.

Anger is a normal response, but it’s not at all gratifying. The real challenge is to find comfort in one’s life, despite the uncertainties. The most secure way of doing that is to build a life around the only certainties you can control. When the Beatles sang, “Can’t buy me love…,” they spoke to values beyond money, values we need to explore.

Rather than gnashing teeth over some feckless profiteer, it would feel more productive to construct a life that is largely beyond the reach of material manipulations. One approach is to shift the way we judge success and wealth.

Here’s an exercise: Next time you’re passing the Pitkin County airport, take a moment to observe the squadron of private jets as they taxi for take-off. Instead of feeling envious for the people in those jets, consider that their vacation has ended and they are leaving paradise to pay obeisance to “the real world.”

As the jets fly off toward L.A., New York, Houston or Chicago, look around at your beautiful surroundings in the heart of the Elk Range. Feel good about the choices you’ve made living where other people vacation. You don’t have a private jet or a second home, but you live where it’s wonderful to live – every day.

Money is the end game for many who compromise everything in that pursuit. Capitalism encourages and rewards it, but only materially. You don’t have to be a billionaire to realize fulfillment. Once the basic necessities are met, each of us is free to enrich ourselves in ways that don’t rely directly on financial markets, their manipulators, or the material crap that links us to them.

Freedom from fear is what FDR championed during the Great Depression. Few of us truly have that freedom unless we are deeply grounded in more enduring values like family, friends, nature, health, personal growth, etc. A declaration of independence from material desires is a milestone toward reaching our deepest personal freedom.

Financial fortunes ebb and flow, and we all feel them, but it’s important to look beyond them. The best insurance is living a self-sustained and self-actualized life, and that doesn’t come from Wall Street.


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