The Age of Doubt

Perhaps this period of time will become known as the age of doubt.  We’re told that the economic crisis is largely about attitude and lack of belief.  When an economic system is built on paper assets, it is easy to see why people may become doubtful about the value of that paper.  The doubt is obviously at work in economics but perhaps now doubt should examined, discussed and understood now on a more universal scale.

My Pastor Ray Johnston spoke on the topic of doubt this past Sunday.  He told us about Thomas, the Disciple of Jesus, who is best known for his doubt about the resurrection of Jesus after the Crucifixion.  Thomas said he needed to see Jesus for himself and to touch him to know that he really had risen from the grave.  The Pastor spoke about the difference between faith and knowing and he used a simple example of holding a 20 dollar bill in his closed fist.  Nobody in the building knew for sure if he had a 20 but he asked a man and the man said yes he thought so and sure enough there was a 20.  Then we all knew. 

But with faith you aren’t ever in a state of knowing.  The Pastor explained that doubt is inevitable when belief is based on faith.  He went so far as to say that doubt-free living is not possible and he explained that the roots of doubt are complex.  He noted that there are at least four categories of reasons for doubt including intellectual doubts, emotional doubts, psychological doubts and willful doubts.

“If you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”  Fredrick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, P. 20.

So how do we respond in the age of doubt?  Will the era bring more events and circumstances that raise doubt about human supremacy and about the supremacy of technology and science to solve problems?

We humans are still subject to the whims of chance and the forces of nature, the Swine Flu is a good example.  Where did it emerge, how did it evolve, how do we solve it.  The best advice given by the virology experts. the researchers, the leadership is to “wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face”?  (Is that all the billions spent on research have yielded?  What Moms have known since the dawn of time?)

Who can blame the human race for doubting the supremacy of technology and science with floods and earthquakes, volcanoes and wars, disease and drought, poverty and homelessness?  All we get from the experts is “wash up” and “duck and cover”.

So if this is the age of doubt where will we all find our footing again, where is faith that things will be better again and what is it that we will be able to find faith in?  To me that’s the scariest part.  The Pastor talked briefly about the dangerous avenues that humans in doubt can be tempted to follow.  He talked about ideas and how ultimate ideas can lead to ultimate solutions.

When people are in doubt, they can sometimes find faith in ideas that alleviate their fears by placing blame.  People can latch on to ideologies that give them or their group power and thereby illusory control over the seemingly uncontrollable whims of fate and events that brought on the doubt.  So many times in history, there have been political movements born in times of disaster and hardship and just like the Swine Flu virus are created out of the ether to build clouds of doubts bringing fear, sickness and death.

The age of doubt may yet visit more disasters on the human race because of the many political and environmental circumstance that are in evidence today.  The cloud of doubt over the world may further darken it causing many desperate people to look for a light, any light.  I pray that in the age of doubt, people will look for a light in places of light rather than in ideologies that can offer only darkness.

The Times We Live In

This is a fascinating time to be conscious in this country.  I am not sure what the era will be called in the history books but think of everything that is happening now and compare it to the 70’s or the 80’s.   I think perhaps the combination of political sea change and the economic troubles even outstrips the 60’s in terms of upheaval and intrigue.

Start with economics and there isn’t much left to say.  But perhaps this is another ledge left to fall off of that may mean we haven’t hit the dusty, rocky bottom just yet.  Watching the economy for the past 18 months or so has been like watching a cartoon character tumbling down a series of ledge falling – oomph! – falling – aaaghh! – falling – wallop …  Credit cards could be the next bubble to burst sending us down to the next ledge.  So many of us have so much credit card debt and now there’s no work, people may be living on credit card debt and what happens when the limit is reached?  What happens to all that debt as people do what the banks and the corporations are doing, declare bankruptcy protection and simple walk away to leave the rest of us holding the empty bag?  -falling – scrruncch…large poof of billowing dust.

On to politics and there also probably isn’t much new to say about the new President and his administration.  They are smart, energetic and have a definite world view that by any measure is left leaning to say the least.  The funny thing about the politics is that the economy created over the past decade or more has given the new President more leeway to implement a Left agenda than any other circumstance I can imagine occurring.  The Right is loudly decrying all of the spending of the Government in public while kicking themselves and each other in the ass in private.  Whether or not the Right is to blame for the current economic collapse doesn’t even matter, it’s the perfect Left Spinning Storm.  The economy collapses, banks slide off the edge of insolvency, corporations need fast cash to avoid immediate bankruptcy and the government gets to run the cash printing presses 31(that’s 24-7) to save the day.  It was going to happen no matter who became President, it’s just that Obama doesn’t have to make excuses, it’s the natural course of events in a Democratic wet dream to be able to create programs and spend lots of money while holding the moral high ground all at the same moment in time.  Who can blame President Obama for smiling all the time.

Foreign relations are another problem entirely.  I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve seen more danger in the world abroad.  To begin with we are engaged in two wars and we’re growing the one in Afghanistan.  Pakistan is looking more and more like a Taliban state than a Taliban stronghold all the time.  Oh, and don’t forget that there’s nuclear weapons in that country so what better prize for the Taliban than to get their hands on the switch?  India of course is nervously situated right next door with nukes of their own. 

So let’s think about this for a minute.  At what point does the world community say, WOW, the Taliban is about to conquer Pakistan maybe we should move in and drive them out before they have control of nuclear materials and weapons?  At what point is that even possible when neither the Pakistani government nor the Taliban would welcome the intrusion?  I look at that situation and see perhaps the flash point of a catastrophic nuclear conflict.

President Obama is moving to begin talking to world leaders that President Bush shunned.  For me this is wise and prudent and does not mean that the US loses anything in the process.  Building lines of communication can only bring positive outcomes.

Last but not least, the environment.  Now I know that many in the Right call global warming another figment of the Left’s imagination, but I seem to hear more and more people on the right saying well, if the Earth is warming, it’s not the fault of humans.  I see that as energy company double-speak.  If the issue is carbon dioxide build-up and if humans account for most of that build-up through industry and use of carbon-burning devices, then it seems to me that the whole argument against human contribution to global warming is difficult to support.  Be that as it may, human-caused or simply good old mother nature, it seems to be real and it seems to be accelerating and it seems to be having impacts already.  We’re seeing oceans getting more acidic, ice melt, increasingly severe storms, droughts, and signs of species going extinct. 

So how interesting is all of that?  We didn’t see all that coming in the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s.  We were too busy in the 90’s and early 00’s making and spending money to notice.  We were out pacing by the post box waiting for the quarterly statement for our 401k’s to see how soon we could retire.  But now the money is gone and it isn’t coming back and there’s nothing to do but talk about the reality of the world we have created.

Perhaps what we need to review is whether what we have created and are creating is a good thing. 

Will the policies of the government now influencing the management of industry and natural resources leave the US in a prosperous or a depressed state?

Where are the politics of Barack Obama actually going to leave the country in four or eight years?  Will the populace be better educated, healthier, more committed to freedom?  Will we sacrifice financial freedom to gain government benefits?

Will more countries get to share in the wealth of the world through policies and practices that create opportunity for their citizens?  Will the wealthy countries lend a hand to ensure that everyone in the world has at least enough food to eat and a shelter to live in and medicine enough to stay healthy?

Will the world keep warming?  Will there be outbreaks of disease that create mass illness and death?  Will there be mass extinctions due to climate change as scientists are predicting?  Can the humans interfere with global warming and is it a good thing if we do?

Interesting times all right, lots of stuff to think about in leisure time on the couch with no money to go out.

Spring is Here

OK so let’s dial it back a little bit today and talk about spring.  It’s now spring in California and it has come in spite of the economy.  The trees have never looked greener and the flowers are sprouting all around and showing off their colors as beautifully as any time in my life.  No recession in nature that I can see.

Of course spring brings a few down sides like pollen.  I can feel it making my throat a little raw and my eyes are a little gravelly, and sometimes I feel a little tired out too.

But the allure of spring weather overpowers my knowing that allergies wait for me out there.  I can’t help getting on the bike and going or taking a nice long walk in the breezy yellow air.  I pay for it of course, sneeze my nose off and eyes watering all the while admiring the deep blue of the sky background to flowers and trees and buildings washed clean in the winter rains.

But where is the old internal thrill, the adrenaline rush of the spring?  Where has that gone I wonder sometimes?  It was a feeling like the anticipation I felt as a kid about trick-or-treating on Halloween or on Christmas Eve or before asking a girl to dance.  The feeling was an upwelling happiness that made me sort of giddy inside.

As I grow older I find that fewer and fewer things in my life produce those kinds of feelings.  There’s a couple great lines in the old Eagle’s song “Desperado” that go something like, “You’re losing all your highs and lows, Ain’t it funny how the feeling goes away…”  I know what the song means as I get older and it ain’t all that funny. 

I miss the joy of spring; oh, I still appreciate its beauty and its promise and the temporary nature of it, but I simply don’t feel the inner upward rush that it used to produce.

My Uncle used to say that getting old isn’t for sissies…I hope that stem cell research finds the key to keeping alive that youthful joy of spring even if everything else ages, that would be a great gift.

Barber Tourism in Sacramento

Ruben cut my hair today in the barber shop next to the corner bar where a sandwich sign sat open on wooden legs proclaiming “Kitchen Open”.  I’ve meant to go to this particular barber shop for almost a year since the first time I pumped my bicycle past the bar to the suspicious stares of the bar patrons who were obeying the law and smoking out on the sidewalk between draughts.  A sign in the dirty window of the barber shop caught my eyes, “First Time $9.00” which struck me as quite a bargain in Midtown Sacramento for a haircut and convenient to the bar where afterwards, I might perhaps wander over for a beer if I was thirsty or wanted a game of pool or some greasy food or an STD or to get stabbed and left to die in the gravel parking lot out back.

It had been over a month since my last haircut, part of my budget-axing to reduce expenditures –  the government should do as well.   I had decided to wait as long as possible without being pressured to don tie-dye clothing and I was flirting with that fine line between not-balding, hip middle-aged guy and burned out hippie so I decided this was the week for a good trim.  My first visit to the shop on Tuesday was met with a scribbled, handwritten sign taped to the window that Ruben does not work on Monday or on Tuesday and that I should return on Wednesday between 9 – 5.  A less committed barber shop tourist might have been deterred but not I.

Another days growth was not going to send me into a frenzy of organic shopping so I waited the additional 24 hours and returned today about noon with ten dollars – one for a tip – to pay Ruben with my first time haircut discount.

Ruben is an older man, apparently Mexican heritage.  There are two old barber chairs in front of the low counter cluttered with old-looking scissors, clippers, blow-dryers, combs, brushes, straight razors, jars of blue liquid and a wall-length mirror on the wall.  At one end of the counter is a cash register but Ruben handled the cash in his pocket.

He was cutting a man’s hair who was older than myself, maybe 55-60 years old and who talked incessantly as if Ruben might stop cutting if he interrupted his monologue.  He wore fancy European-looking, blue running shoes so I assumed he is an aging runner or wannabe, soccer hoodlum as his shirt also sported some type of athletic logo I did not recognize.  Ruben focused sternly on his hair cutting making no sign that he even saw me walk in buzzing around the chattering man’s head with an electric trimmer, then to my satisfaction Ruben switched to scissors.  I was not invited to, “Take a seat”.

An old couch was against the wall facing the barber chairs and it was covered with a tired-looking blanket and an older-looking one was balled up into a pillow at one end which I presumed was ready for Ruben’s eventual nap.  A low table in front of the couch was littered with the daily paper and old magazines.  Ruben obviously favors the Oakland Raiders because there were trinkets, pictures and a dancing Raider’s doll on a table near the front window.  A television sat talking and blinking on a table and whatever it showed was ignored by everyone while blue shoes droned on and on about a break in at his home.

Ruben finished with his customer and the man paid him and Ruben fished a couple of dollars from his pocket for change.  The man left and Ruben invited me with a gesture to sit in the chair which sat on ancient and dirty linoleum.  He whirled and draped the cover over me putting paper around my neck and snapping the drape in place while he commented to me, “You didn’t want to sit down?”  I replied that I had been sitting behind my computer all morning and needed a break – true – I did not say that the couch looked like it was likely invested with – as my South African friend would call them – “Nue-Nues” and he accepted my explanation without comment.  I also did not tell Ruben that he did not invite me to sit down.

Now I am a writer and I am not a talker – unless properly plied with beer or wine – so Ruben did his best to fill the uncomfortable silence left by his previous customer.  He chatted amiably asking me questions and we got on as well as a barber and barber tourist might be expected to do.  I noted that I did not get the hot foam and straight razor treatment that the last guy got so I figured that was punishment for not regaling Ruben with tales of daring-do about being dangerously burglarized.

While Ruben clipped, the TV talked and the bar music boomed against the wall behind the mirror.  Ruben has been living in Sacramento for 30 years and clipping hair in that barber shop for seven years.  He informed me that it wasn’t his shop so I’ll have to go back sometime when the owner is in and see what the owner of such a barber shop would look like.  I am thinking ancient, handlebar moustache and white shirt with red stripes.  I think he was probably next door at the bar, probably looks as worn out as the couch.

Toxic Mortgage Suggestion

So here in California we have the highest three unemployment rates for cities in the nation.  From almost 19% unemployed in Yuba City to almost 25% in El Centro.  A friend of mine bought a condo in Yuba City back about six years ago for $120k.  He called me the other day to say that condos in his complex are now selling for about $50k.  My old house there that sold just three years ago for $263k recently foreclosed and was back on the market for $116k.

Word is that the banks are refinancing the variable rate loans they sold to people for fixed rate loans and the current rates.  The problem is this, the houses and condos are not worth the value of the loans by any stretch of the imagination, nor will they be anytime soon.

So the issue is this, how can we dig our way out without revaluation of the real estate market so that new loans reflect the actual value of the homes.  Why isn’t the bailout money being used to reimburse the banks for their losses?  Why are they allowed to keep the money AND refinance the old loans at the same levels with new interest rates?

The issue with keeping the old values of course is that the new payments will stay high relative to the value of the property.  If the person holding the mortgage loses their job – likely here in California – then the banks will still have toxic assets to deal with and we as a nation will go through another period of instability.

It seems to me that the real answer is to somehow revalue the real estate.  The inflation that drove us into this mess is still in place for everyone who owns a home and who bought it in the recent past.  It is true that many of these homes have gone into foreclosure but a lot of them have not yet like my friend’s condo.  It’s worth 41% of its purchase price and at the peak of the market those condos were selling for $160 k so on paper it has lost more than 70% of its value in less than three years.

It seems to me that the best thing to do is to force banks to use the bailout money to make up for loss in principle on all home mortgages.  The figure could based on the median drop in real estate values by state and perhaps in the case of California it could be split into North and South.  The amount written down then would be 50% of the average drop.  So if a home was valued at $200k at the time of purchase, and the average drop in value in the state was 50%, then the reduction in principle would be 25%.  If the homeowner had a loan of $200k on the property then they would be able to refinance on a principle of 150k since the actual drop in value would be 100k.

Banks would only be given the amount by the Federal government that reflected 50% the lost in principle on mortgages that they actually refinanced reflecting the lower real estate valuations.  The bank would receive the 25% difference in the loss in value from the Feds to make up for the lost equity.  This would spread out the bailout money, ensure that people’s home mortgages more closely reflected the property’s actual value, and also ensure that the banks are required to make new loans if they want the bailout money.

If freeing up credit is the real purpose of the bailouts and if the toxic mortgages are the real culprit behind the downturn then why not implement something that offers some relief to homeowners, offers some relief to banks, and holds banks accountable to DO something in order to get any more money?

Perhaps the answers are a lot more complicated than the one I present here but perhaps the best ideas aren’t complicated at all.  Perhaps it’s really about helping everyone and not just the fat cats.