Coping with a crazy-making economy

Crashing stock markets and imploding banks aren't so great for the mental digestion. But we'll get through it.

Published October 9, 2008 10:59PM (EDT)


A lifetime supply of Quaker Instant Oatmeal with Dinosaur Eggs arrived in the mail at my home yesterday. My 10-year-old son, Eli, loves the stuff, but I've had a hard time finding it in stores lately. So I ordered a full case online.

Eli goggled at the sight. He joked: "Guess we won't have to worry about food if we are heading into another Great Depression."

Yes it's true, we've been talking a lot about economic chaos and disaster in the Leonard household lately, to the point where preteens are cracking wise about financial panics that took place 80 years before their birth.

I think it's healthy. My stomach has been hurting lately, as I try to make sense of events that have no equal in my own lifetime -- Republicans talking about nationalizing banks? -- and I wonder, not so idly, how I might be able to keep my kids healthy and well-fed if, say, I lost my job as a result of the current turmoil.

I doubt I'm alone. Unlike the economic distress after 9/11, or the crash in October 1987, the current predicament is dishearteningly open-ended. It is discouraging and alarming and panic-inducing to witness government leaders adopting ever more extreme tactics to tackle the crisis, and all the while the dimensions of the disaster just grow bigger. We're not wondering whether  we're in a recession -- we're wondering when this madness is going to stop. One day in which the Dow falls by 500 points is good for a lot of chatter around the water cooler. A steady diet of calamitous drops turns out not to be so good for the digestion. Today's big fall -- 680 points -- suggests that anxiety is the King of Wall Street. Since half of American households are plugged into stocks, one way or another, there's lot of stress to go around.

But when Eli made his joke, I had to laugh, hard, and a good bit of the tension that had been building up inside me over the past month washed away. That's the attitude, son! Oatmeal for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and we'll get through this! If you imagine the worst, there's always the upside that it won't be as bad as you feared!

Not so long ago, Eli was singing a slightly different tune.

While eating dinner together on Sunday night, three and a half weeks ago, after a weekend in which the news of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy and the teetering-on-the-brink status of AIG sent the unmistakable signal that the financial crisis had metastasized into a new and perilous stage, I tried to explain to my children why I was acting agitated and hyper. Unprecedented things were happening in the economy, I told them. I didn't know what was going to happen in the long run, but the odds that it could be pretty bad seemed to have suddenly ticked higher. What's the worst that could happen, they wondered? My kids are about a zillion TV generations removed from "The Waltons," but I drew them a little sketch about what widespread bank failures and massive unemployment could look like.

Then I gave them a pep talk -- and told them that no matter what, we'd be OK. I suggested that maybe we'd move in with relatives in New Hampshire, and threw in a couple of global warming jokes just for good measure. In southern N.H. we wouldn't have to worry about rising sea levels, I said, and who knows, maybe we could make farming in the Granite State break even economically if temperatures rose high enough.

My son interrupted my babbling. "I don't want to have this conversation," he said. "It's making me upset."

I was abashed. I realized that just the fact I deemed matters serious enough to give my kids a pep talk was more destabilizing than my history lesson on the Great Depression. Bad parent. Bad, bad parent.

However, from that point on, we've had a more-or-less constant dialogue on the state of national politics and the economy. And I now believe that imagining and contemplating what could go wrong go a long way toward anesthetizing the shock. My children are now giving me lessons in how to keep cool. Eli shrugs off the potential for years of privation, and when I mentioned to my 14-year-old daughter that she might start thinking about staying in state for college, she didn't flinch.

"I'll get a scholarship," she growled.

Why panic? What's to be gained from that? I wish Wall Street were paying attention. Yes, I believe there are deep structural problems in the global economy that must be addressed, but it's also plainly evident that we've reached a point where fear and panic are feeding on themselves. In the absence of any sense of trust or confidence in the marketplace, investors are acting like frightened toddlers. The more they scramble for safer territory, the more chaos they cause. Now would be a good time for Wall Street to just take a giant chill pill.

I don't know how to make it stop. Certainly, our current president and Treasury secretary and congressional leaders don't appear to know how to make it stop. But you know what? We survived the Great Depression. We'll survive whatever is coming at us right now.

Especially if we've stocked up on enough Quaker Instant Oatmeal with Dinosaur Eggs to get us through a long winter!

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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