On being ... reset

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve been pretty amazed at how often the economy has come up in my everyday social conversations the past couple of months. And all these conversations are pretty similar: they usually start with someone mentioning a new factoid that they’ve heard or read about the economy, then someone else jumps in with some other fact or new (uncomfortably big) number for something (unemployment, dollars their portfolio has dropped, number of pensions that are under-funded, etc.), the next person chimes in with another disturbing statistic, and so on. Invariably the discussions are peppered with lots of “it’s unbelievable”, “how is that possible?”, and “I just don’t understand”.

The other common feature of the conversations is that they seem to focus on the uncertainty about what lies ahead -- for the economy as a whole and for individuals. Proof of the heightened anxiety can be found in the simplest things, like toasts for 2009. Though wishing someone good health and prosperity for the New Year is traditional, I’ve noticed many toasts have been more specific, direct, and heartfelt -- with wishes for good health, good economic fortune, continued employment, and even wishes for the ability to withstand the economic storm that’s brewing.

The other day I heard what I think is the most insightful comment about the economic situation we’re facing. Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, was quoted as saying: “This economic crisis … doesn’t represent a cycle. It represents a reset.”

When I first heard that statement, I didn’t know in what context it was made or how Immelt meant it – but on its face, it makes perfect sense to me. Indeed, it succinctly addresses my main source of uneasiness: the fact that I don’t think that this is just a phase the economy is going through and that if we can just ride it out long enough, things will go back to the way they were before. It’s not just that I think the problems are so fundamental, profound, and widespread that solutions that worked in the past won’t work. It’s more that I think that we should not expect -- or want -- things to return to the way they were.

When terrorism reared its head in the west and governments took steps to enhance their country’s physical security, people learned to adapt to “the new normal”. I’ll bet the likes of Jules Vern wouldn’t have imagined that one day you wouldn’t be able to board a plane without taking off your shoes first. And, though we may not like it, we have come to accept some loss of freedom and more government gathering of information about us. Even though these changes to our lifestyle have been made in the name of the war on terror – I think most people realize it’s not a war where there’ll eventually be a winner and after which life will return to the way things were. To put it another way: in the name of collective security, our view of the level of unfettered freedom we’re entitled to has certainly been reset.

If we simply accept that the economy has a natural cycle and therefore we draw comparisons and do things (like implement stimulus packages, works programs, tax cuts, etc.) that worked in the past in hopes of eventually recovering much of the ground that we’ve lost, then we’ve also got to accept the fact that eventually we’ll go through this again. I know, if my house were in foreclosure, or I lost my job, or the fixed income I live on dropped precipitously, I might not be so open to the idea of taking time to reflect on the fundamental changes that might be needed, much less time to let certain things play themselves out. But deep down I think most people, if given the choice, would willingly trade the highs and lows of what amounts to a feast or famine rollercoaster ride for a steadier, more level one, even if it is at a lower, more down-to-earth level.

After hearing about Immelt’s comment, I was curious to hear what else he might have said. Interestingly, in that same speech, Immelt went on to predict that those who understand that the crisis represents a reset rather than just a phase in a cycle will prosper and that those who don’t will get left behind. Though the speech was delivered at a conference on corporate social responsibility to an audience of corporate leaders, the comments seem equally relevant to individuals.

I realize mere talk about the economy is stressful to many these days and that the idea that we might have to accept many fundamental changes to the way we carry on may be difficult. But, I also see this time as offering a tremendous opportunity to re-define success and aim for a prosperity that is both sustainable and universal. If we do this both individually and collectively, the discomfort and suffering we will go through will be well worth it.

So, as this is the last column for the year, my wish for you all in 2009 is good health and prosperity -- but not necessarily the type of prosperity we’ve coveted in the past.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... a time to pause

By Ingrid Sapona

I pay pretty close attention to the business news -- and even if I didn’t -- it’s kind of hard to miss headlines about plunging stock markets, credit crises, growing unemployment, Wall Street bailouts, and government debt measured in trillions. In the initial weeks of the crisis I tried valiantly to keep up with all that was going on (or going wrong).

As I struggled with concepts like sub-prime mortgages and credit swaps, however, I started feeling stupid. But after awhile I began to realize I’m not the only one who doesn’t understand it all (or even much of it). Seems to me lots of people in high places aren’t much better versed in the whole thing than yours truly. (Though many of them have pay grades that would make you think they should understand it a whole lot better.)

Not too long after the economy went into a tailspin came headlines about the need to fix what’s broken. Only thing is -- the problems are so wide-spread, there are no obvious fixes. At first I was impressed with all the weekend-long crisis meetings going on. (Think back to those marathon weekend sessions where -- apparently -- the U.S. financial system was saved from the brink of collapse because firms like AIG were rescued.)

Then there was news about the U.S. automakers’ near collapse. Never fear, however, Congress is on top of it, so we were led to believe. Hearings were held and lawmakers made a big show of reprimanding the Detroit execs for their bad decisions (including their choice of transportation to the hearings) and telling them to go away and not come back until they got their facts and figures straight. Eventually, just when it looked like everyone was ready to play Let’s Make a Deal, the negotiation ended because someone -- the UAW or the Senate -- left the table in a huff.

Next thing we know, Congress adjourned until the New Year – leaving many wondering how they could do that when -- up till then -- they had been acting like there were fires all over that had to be put out. At first I was astounded that Congress recessed. How could they do that when there’s so much to be done, I thought. (I won’t go into details but we had a “constitutional crisis” of sorts here in Canada -- the long and short of it is that our members of Parliament went home too in early December and they won’t resume sitting until late January -- not coincidentally -- just after Obama is sworn in.) But lately I’ve reconsidered and I actually think it’s a good thing that the lawmakers are on hiatus.

It’s not that I think the crisis has subsided or even that we’ve hit bottom and so things have got to be going up. It’s just that I think talk of crisis breeds further crisis -- everyone remembers the frenzy Chicken Little caused running around yelling that the sky’s falling. (I’m not saying the economic situation is a mere acorn -- though, in the grand scheme of things -- who knows, it may be…)

Interestingly, the story of Chicken Little apparently has different endings. In some versions Foxy Loxy, who offers to help Chicken Little, ends up eating her; in other versions another animal warns Chicken Little that the fox is up to no good and she escapes uneaten. I learned the one where Chicken Little gets eaten, which is why I took the moral of the fable to be: don’t overreact and don’t trust everyone who says they’ll help! Given this, I guess you can understand why I think the hiatus our leaders are on might provide an opportunity to curb the frenzy that their behaviour had contributed to, not to mention it may buy us some time to help ensure we don’t rush head-long toward “help” that ends up being harmful (if not fatal).

I can’t help think that with fewer distractions from people in Washington and Ottawa the rest of us may be more inclined to reflect on our own situation, as well as on our families, our communities, and even our faith. We can also use this lull in government action as a time to start taking matters into our own hands to help ourselves better weather the storm -- whether that means taking a cold hard look at our own finances, or reining in our spending, or maybe just starting an honest dialog with other family members to make sure they understand their role in the family’s financial picture.

I know that for many, the economic downturn means the holidays will not be what they’re used to -- or perhaps what they had hoped. But this time of year is a time for blessings -- and even if you don’t do anything else while we’re waiting for our leaders to return to work -- I urge you to pause and count your blessings. If we all do this, I know we’ll find that we’re really not as bad off as it might seem.

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


On being ... stalked by the thought police

By Ingrid Sapona

Apparently Torontonians use about 460 million plastic bags a year. I think you’ll agree-- that’s a shockingly big number. Of course, anything in the mere hundreds of millions might seem passé by comparison to the hundreds of billions (or as my father used to always take time to point out: “that’s billions with a B”) that we’ve gotten used to hearing about vis-à-vis corporate bailouts. But even so, 460,000,000 is a hell of a lot of bags.

The number of plastic bags we use was in the news earlier in the week because the City decided to meet with major supermarkets to figure out a way to “encourage” shoppers to use fewer such bags. The initial proposal was that grocers would give shoppers 10¢ for every bag of their own that they use. When I heard this, I thought it’s a good idea. Indeed, my favourite grocery chain has been doing something similar for years now (but instead of cash you get extra points in their loyalty program when you bring your own bag).

A few days later I heard on the radio that the plastic bag proposal had changed. Apparently, instead of us being paid for every bag we bring, under the latest plan stores will charged 5¢ for every bag they provide. (It wasn’t until much later that I heard retailers don’t have to remit this nickel fee to the City or agree to put the revenue toward any recycling programs or anything. That doesn’t seem fair, but what can you do?) Though it’s a much sweeter deal for the retailers than for shoppers, I’m ok with the idea because I think the ultimate goal is worthwhile and because I do think it’ll have at least some impact. (After all, I know I try extra hard to remember to bring my reusable bags just for those few loyalty program points my favourite grocer gives.)

Anyway, later that day, as I was walking past a grocery store I remembered a few items I needed. I was on my way back from a client meeting so I didn’t have a bag with me. Though I knew I had a cloth bag in the trunk, I was parked at a meter a few blocks away and I thought it would take too long to go get it. So, I ran into the store empty handed.

As I was checking out I noticed a crew from one of the local t.v. stations heading into the store. I realized immediately they were there to get shoppers’ reactions to the plastic bag proposal. After the clerk handed me my change, I quickly swept the bag into my oversize purse and headed for the door, dodging the reporter. Just as I was breathing a sigh of relief I was accosted by another reporter and camera crew who had set up outside the store. Praying they wouldn’t see the bag in my purse, I smiled and said I was in a hurry (which was true, the meter was running) and I didn’t stop.

As I headed to the car I was overcome with a strange combination of fear and guilt. Fear that I might have been caught on film whisking my plastic shopping bag out of sight into my purse, and guilt that I was just the sort of person for whom the “bag tax” was meant: people who’re socially conscious when it’s convenient (like when they happen to remember to bring their bags), but not so virtuous at other times. For shame, I thought…

For the rest of the day, I couldn’t get my mind off the self-consciousness and guilt I felt when I saw the news crew. It’s no exaggeration to say that I found myself on a roller-coater ride, one minute soothing myself with affirmations that I’m pretty good about bringing my own bags and that I’m pretty conscientious about recycling, then engaging in self-flagellation for being a wasteful, selfish, garbage-creating consumer. My crisis of conscience simmered well beyond the time the proposal was a hot topic in the news.

Then, yesterday, a headline in the newspaper caught my eye: “Guilt trips on the road and in the lavatory”. The headline was on a column I’d never noticed before -- one called Ethically Speaking. Apparently readers write in for guidance regarding their moral dilemmas. I read on with interest.

One woman asked whether it’s wrong to drive in a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane reserved for cars with two or more occupants when the other person with her is her infant. She said she feels guilty doing so because she believes HOV lanes are for carpooling and, obviously, she and her daughter are not carpooling. The columnist’s response was simple: so long as there are two people in the car she can use the lane. Though I agree with the conclusion, I felt the columnist was a bit dismissive of the writer’s concern for the greater good. Though he agreed with her that the law was to encourage carpooling, the columnist’s rationale was based strictly on the fact that it would be too difficult to enforce a law that turned on characteristics of the occupants, like age or size.

The second letter was from a woman who prefers her church’s handicapped washroom because it’s cleaner and more private, but feels guilty about using it. Absolving her of her guilt, the columnist rationalized that unlike handicapped parking spaces, handicapped washrooms are not reserved for the disabled -- they’re merely designed to be suitable for handicapped. Subtle but good point, I thought.

I don’t mind admitting that I was quite relieved when I read the column -- and not simply because my conclusions aligned with the columnist’s. The main reason for my relief is the fact that, clearly, I’m not the only one who sometimes feels stalked by her own, internal thought police!

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona