Saturday, August 2, 2008

Column #1 A Personal Introduction

(Week 1 - Monday July 28)

I was born at the cutting edge of the baby boom generation, and raised in the American heartland. I grew up in what I experienced as the halcyon 50's, came of age in the turbulent 60's, returned home radicalized after a tour in Vietnam, embarked on a technical career, and then worked in human services. Along the way I raised more than one family, and left the big city to build an earth-sheltered homestead deep in the woods along the Canadian border. I ventured into political activism, but eventually matured out of its partisan spirit. Perhaps the most fortunate aspect of this serpentine odyssey is that I became intimately acquainted with the members and struggles of every generation that spanned the transformative twentieth century, and now beyond.

Over the course of this journey I became increasingly mindful of the stubbornly persistent problems that don't make sense to me in our economic lives:

• What is the story behind all the bad economic news that comes at us constantly from the newspaper headlines?

• Why are we not richer by our burgeoning physical wealth, instead of being poorer by a snowballing "debt"?

• How could it be that an innocent babe in the U.S. today is already (according to pundits on TV) some $200,000 in "debt"? When did babies borrow this money? Why are they responsible for it? How are they expected to "repay" it? Is their future mortgaged before it starts? Is this "original debt" the new form of "original sin"?

• If every dollar in circulation is borrowed into existence through loans from private banks, and is required to be paid back with "interest," where does the money to pay the "interest" come from?

• After a century of explosive growth in real economic activity, why have we not grown out of our "debt"? Why is it compounding at an ever-more quickening pace? Is more growth the answer, or is the problem something else? Could it be that there is a perverse logic built into the system that is causing us to grow into it our "debt", with no hope whatsoever of growing out of it?

• After generations of living on the land and feeding the nation, why in the last fifty-plus years have family farmers been forced off the land by financial foreclosures, or the threat of foreclosures, until now they comprise less that two-percent of the population.

• What is this "debt" burden doing in real terms to our civilization, our earth, ourselves? What is "debt" anyway? What is its effect on the psyche of generations growing up in saturation of its cultural presumptions and social devastation?

• If I am working hard and "playing by the rules" in the "richest country on earth," why can I not pay my bills?

• Has fear of being without money replaced fear of dying as the most dreaded eventuality in people's lives?

I am not an economist. In fact, I am not officially credentialed in any discipline. Rather, I consider myself to be a rather ordinary fellow who has sought diligently through the weavings of my life to learn the truths about what lie behind it. I have lived a "middle-class" financial life that has ranged from episodes of modest prosperity to periods of great stress. My foray into the subject of economics began with only native intuition and a burning desire to know the truth. I completed the standard Econ. 101 and 102 courses at age 48; old enough to have my own questions.

One who approaches the study of an established discipline from a direction rooted in life experience ingests over time the same points of knowledge as the on-track student, but his understanding is not necessarily ruled by the orthodox assumptions that are dictated by the gatekeepers of the craft. There is a native discernment developed whereby the founding "truths" of the discipline are not swallowed whole, but scrutinized as to whether they indeed are truths. This can make all the difference.

This is the introduction to a proposed series of columns in which I will attempt to initiate a new conversation about money. It will touch regularly on the stories in the headlines, but from a point of perception that is virtually missing from the current public debate. As currently conceived, these offerings will be short, typically 400 to 500 words; just enough for a quick economic perspective of the day and "antidote" to the news over morning coffee. The initial idea is to send one out six days a week, Monday through Saturday. Where will it go from there? I don't know. We shall see what develops. I welcome any thoughtful input, and will try to be as responsive in a personal way as time and energy allows.

Richard Kotlarz

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