Can Americans Rightsize Their Desires?

"Is this my new reality?" is the question by the CFO at the CNBC townhall program earlier this week that should have gotten all the attention. Because it is at the root of the exhaustion Mrs. Hart has expressed, a sentiment shared by many, many Americans who are wondering the very same thing themselves, even though the experts insist the recession is over.

"Is this my new reality?" is the question many Americans want President Obama to answer, even though most of us have enough common sense to know that there is no way for him to tell us with any certainty what the future will bring.

As a columnist in the New Yorker writes this week, “Paradoxically, the very things that made the stimulus more effective economically may have made it less popular politically.”

“…because research has shown that lump-sum tax refunds get hoarded rather than spent, the government decided not to give individuals their tax cuts all at once, instead refunding a little on each paycheck. The tactic was successful at increasing consumer demand, but it had a big political cost: many voters never noticed that they were getting a tax cut. Similarly, a key part of the stimulus was the billions of dollars that went to state governments. This was crucial in helping the states avoid layoffs and spending cuts, but politically it didn’t get much notice, because it was the dog that didn’t bark—saving jobs just isn’t as conspicuous as creating them.”

Second Helpings by James Surowiecki, The New Yorker

The other reason the president couldn’t answer Mrs. Hart’s question? In order to give her answer with at least a modicum of truth in it, he would have had to say “yes, Mrs. Hart, I’m afraid it is, at least for the next few years.”

It will be years before the 15 million people who are out of work will all find full employment. Years before the home values across the country will begin to rise again after being decimated by homeowner greed, mortgage lender excesses and the investment banking industry’s outright prostitution of the mortgage backed securities market. These are the kinds of harsh but realities many of us simply don’t want to believe are true, especially in a nation that seems to have always had a knack for finding a more sophisticated way to kick our problem further down the road.

The transformation that is taking place in this country is going to require a downsizing and rightsizing of our desires to realign them with the things that we really need to have vibrant, productive and enjoyable lives. The middle class might finally be a true middle class again, instead of an imitation of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Those who inhabit society's upper stratosphere may begin to feel a sharper, more urgent sense of responsibility to those who have to do without in the communities from which they derive their financial success.

And hopefully, more of us will begin to teach ourselves how to feel good about the things we can control, and learn to endure the things we cannot, the way Americans have done through the ages.

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