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The Sky is Falling

They are calling our current economic state “The Great Recession.” As I am bombarded (through my own fault and due to Iphone) with bad news in the media and almost wonder if it is worth reading anymore. I read for enjoyment but also to get a feel as to how things are going to go and to keep a pulse on the world at large. The reason it seems futile to try to get a clear picture is perhaps there is too much information and should there be a slight improvement in some economic indicator the media is all over it. Then things fall again and the media is all over that. It sometimes seems like a roller coaster and I could have just as much a sense of how things are going to go by not reading any news at all.
Instead, I simply need to look around. Living in San Francisco we do not get a true picture of the state of things because everywhere you look you can still find people going out, spending money in expensive restaurants, going to expensive theater shows and so on. However, if one pays attention the downtown foot traffic is not as heavy as it used to be. In my work I also spend a lot of time in high rise buildings and there is often plenty of office space available.
From when I came here three years ago a lot of businesses have disappeared. The video store in front of my apartment went out of business (due to Netflix). Virgin record store closed (Hello Itunes). I don’t know of anyone that shops on Market Street and a lot of places went out of business there too.
It also occurred to me recently that three out of the four companies I have worked for also went out of business. In Japan, I worked for the Nova English language school which was the 900 pound gorilla of language schools and had a branch location near just about every train station in Tokyo. However, due to very bad upper management they went bust even before the “Great Recession.” Nova was a great place to get a foothold in Japan and I am thankful for my experience there. Yet, I knew at the time it was the kind of business one had to move on from and relatively quickly. It was a shock when they went bankrupt and threw a lot of English teachers out of work, so much that, even national embassies had to get involved.
A much larger shock has come this past week with Japan Airlines going into bankruptcy. When this happened it almost seemed as the sky was falling (mostly for the Japanese) since Japan was one of the most celebrated corporations in Japan. When I obtained a job there in 2004 I was pretty ecstatic. This was one of the most popular corporations to work for in Japan determined by a survey of young people and the kind of place one does not leave. I really did not want to leave Japan Airlines but the aviation industry was falling on very hard times and I did not see any room for advancement given the situation at the time.
I really have a vague idea as to why it happened as the majority of “fat” in the company was in Japan. They were in bed with the government for way too long and the government really did not give them much leeway to make the tough corporate decisions companies have to make to survive. Basically, it was held hostage by the government in terms of routes it had to fly and airports it had to support even though they were not profitable. In the end, it took a change of government to force the airline to come to terms with it’s unprofitable model. Couple that with the horrible economic situation there was no room to avoid disaster.
It really is a weird time economically speaking. People of my generation do not have the luxury of taking a job and expecting that they can hold on to it for life. With technological change and the state of the economy entire industries are going down and there are no safe havens. As for loyalty, I do not think that really exists anymore. Companies are laying off at will (and to survive). But this is a double edged sword. The feeling is that if one does a poor job the company has every right to lay a person off. However, if one does a very good job then the company better pay handsomely or the worker would do well to simply move to another company that will pay.
Politically, it is a hard situation because some expect the government to take action while others would prefer the government take no action at all. Both sides feel that if the government would just follow their belief then everything would be better. In reality, it seems that the government is between a rock and a hard place because the ship is sinking anyway no matter which way it decides to turn. My personal feeling is that it should have the courage to do less but this would most likely be political suicide. In fact, even in business upper management needs to be seen doing *something* even if the best course of action is to do nothing.
The Dow has also taken a beating this week due to the unemployment report and perhaps that the government is going to put some restrictions on the banks. Again, this is a tough situation because the banks through reckless lending did cause a lot of trouble. Yet, it is loathsome to think that some bureaucrat in Washington would be telling companies how they should do business. The financial sector is in the business to make money, not to make the world a better place. This is the ugly side of capitalism but the prevailing though is “What is the point of business other than to make money?”
Sometimes, the blame is laid on the consumer and Americans by far really went on a spending binge for a long time. It can make one feel good to rebuke these people that spent too much. I actually heard a commercial today saying that “the big banks got bailouts, but where is my credit card debt bailout?” To me, this is despicable. People spent more money then they had and the taxpayer should compensate them for being financially retarded.
Yet, on the other hand, I was having a discussion with a bright young Chinese woman and really like how she put that situation. “The consumers were LEAD to these un-advantageous loans.” In effect, the consumers trust institutions and the sales pitches and besides, everyone else is doing it! They see their neighbors buying large houses and cars and they want to do the same. When the economy turned sour that really bit them in the arse but how much blame should they be accountable for? Most people just trust the system and sales pitches and thought they really were getting a good deal! It’s almost like we have to keep on our guard, but being a hyper-capitalist society we are bombarded with sales pitches all day long!
A most recent one on the conservative talk shows is the hosts hawking gold. They get everyone whipped up into a frenzy and some people put their faith in what these hosts are saying. For anyone who recently bought gold and are now losing money, it would be wise to use your own head and not trust anyone who gets paid to hawk any certain item.
Again, it just seems like a very weird time in terms of the economy as there seem to be no more safe havens. When thinking about my own future I wonder which industries would be a safe bet but it’s hard to come up with even one. Everyone is talking about Asia being the next big economic engine and that is just fine with me. I feel that I have had a great time in San Francisco but would not hesitate for one minute to work back in Asia again. I am almost tempted to stop trying to plan and just let things proceed as they will. Companies (and people) rise and fall with the tide. In fact, I believe it was Thomas Moore who said “A rising tide lifts all boats.” I wonder when the tide will come back in or if we are all going to have to scramble for a while.
The only conclusion I can come to is to simply enjoy life and being alive and let things come as they may. Try not to think about what the future holds as we are in turbulent waters but instead to simply enjoy the ride.

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