Commentary: In These Hard Times

By David Watts Barton, Sacramentopress.com, March 7, 2009

These are the strangest days. Even after a decade of bad news, the news is even more terrible. And the bad news is now as close to home as it’s ever been in my memory. Sacramento always felt like a bubble, largely because of the state and the diverse economy, we weathered previous downturns better than a lot of places.

But with the ongoing shrinkage of the mighty Bee, not to mention the troubles at the state, which always protected us from feeling what places like Michigan felt, Sacramento feels less like the safe place it’s usually been.

Today, the New York Times tells us that 2009 is going to be more of the same, and other economists are saying that a recovery won’t come until next year at the earliest, with others citing 2011, 2012 and others are evoking the spectre of a “lost decade” like Japan’s. The “D” word – Depression – is showing up on TV screens from CNBC to Fox. Moody’s economist Mark Zandi was quoted in the Bee yesterday as saying that the stock market may not see 12,000 again for a decade. This is not good news.

Today’s NYT also said that many of the jobs that are leaving us will not be back, just as Bruce Springsteen wrote during our last terrible recession in the early ’80s.

“These jobs aren’t coming back,” said John E. Silvia, chief economist at Wachovia in Charlotte, N.C. “A lot of production either isn’t going to happen at all, or it’s going to happen somewhere other than the United States. There are going to be fewer stores, fewer factories, fewer financial services operations. Firms are making strategic decisions that they don’t want to be in their businesses.”

Our world is changing, perhaps even more than it did after 9/11. That changed our sense of security, and for many, undermined our trust in government, as US citizens’ privacy became a moot point in the pursuit of “enemies foreign and domestic.”

But what makes it doubly strange is this: Today, it’s sunny and breezy and trees are budding and people are out and about and life just ain’t so bad. We’re in a drought, but it’s been raining enough to help, a bit. The economy is tanking, but most of us still have jobs. Job losses have been severe, especially in construction, and high profile troubles at the state and for media workers in newspapers – and TV, and radio – underline how bad it is.

Still, between bouts of pessimism and despair, I’m essentially an optimist. It’s harder in times like these, but while I see very clearly the hard times – having been through more than a year of no job myself – it’s still the only way to go.

These are the times that try men’s souls, it’s true. And you see a bit about people in their reactions to the bad news, not always appealing. I admit my own vascillations between hope and despair, particularly in the way I talk – one day I’m quoting terrible news, the next I’m sayin’ it ain’t so bad. Strange times.

But I had a conversation with some good friends the other night, outside the Torch Club, and the conversation turned to the economy, and the gloom. And several of the conversants – all guys in their 30s and 40s – opined that, in times like these, the cops were spread thin, and the best insurance against hard times was a shotgun.

I see their point – guns can be powerful protection against home invaders, maybe – but maybe they aren’t. And maybe being able to kill someone isn’t really the best solution to an economic problem (isn’t that the province of armed robbers?). What was most striking was that my friends went there – they chose to go there. Of all directions they could go, they chose to focus on the fact that they had guns, and that those weapons bought them some sense of security.

In times like these, there seem to be two basic choices in how to respond. One is to hunker down, surround yourself with your dwindling cash (or better yet, supposedly, gold), a pantry full of canned goods and home schooling for your kids. We’ve all seen dystopian films about a devastated future in which everyone wears black leather or rags, the guys shave every three days and the women look kinda hot and are even more “accessories” than usual.

But that’s not how it’s going to be, folks. It’s going to be a lot less appealing to guys who like to see some showdown on the front lawn as the final denouement of our civilization.

It’s not going to be like that because life goes on. Life must be lived, not fought. And the other choice is to do just the opposite of hunkering down; it is to expand, to reach out, to do things that are NOT the stuff of macho movies and apocalyptic fantasies. It is to do the hard work of community.

The solution is to do what every great spiritual and moral tradition dictates as the road to happiness, and probably even success: GIVE. Look outside yourself, your little house and family, and see what other people need.

It is perhaps no surprise that this is the basic advice of entrepreurship: “Find a need and fill it.”

Well, folks, there are a lot of needs out there. One of my hopes for The Sacramento Press, coming into being at such a strange moment, at a time when not only is society in general undergoing major shifts, but the news business is as well, is this:

We choose optimism. We choose community. We are offering a place where members of our community can reach out to each other, give each other news and ideas that can help mitigate the difficulties of the time and even inspire. I want us – and when I say us, I mean all our readers and contributors now and in the future – to ask a basic question of ourselves:

What is needed? What information can I post here that will help other people, help our community see a way forward, help our town’s leadership make wise choices, and do everything we can to make sure that our connections with each other are stronger, and more productive, than they’ve ever been before?

Jobs at paper-and-ink (and gas) newspapers are shrinking, but the news (bad as it is) is still crucial. It will get out. As the Times said, a lot of the jobs we thought we’d always see, or have, are going away and not coming back. The world is changing. The choice is simple: Hunker down and try to hold onto what you’ve got, or expand, look at things in new ways, try new things, and above all, be hopeful and optimistic.

This may be a tall order, particularly in times when the “natural” impulse is to protect what is “mine.” But nothing is really ours, we just have things for a time, and that includes our very lives. One of the basic wisdoms of the world is to practice “non-attachment”: to things, to people, to outcomes. Life is going to give us what it gives us – or takes away – ultimately, it will take everything. Being OK with that is the first step to being able to see past ourselves, past our animal instinct to go into our holes and put a rock in front of the door.

Times like these offer us a chance to roll away the stone and step out into our community. It may be scary, but it also may start a shift away from fear and into something like love. And it will probably be what saves our economy.