Friday, July 11, 2008

A Nation of Whiners

John McCain found himself in hot water yet again, when a close friend and advisor, Senator Phil Graham told the Washington Times that the nation is not in a recession -- it's more like a "mental recession," and that we've become "a nation of whiners." The backpedaling was fast and furious. McCain could not distance himself from Graham fast enough, telling a crowd in Michigan, "He doesn't speak for me, I speak for me," and quipping that the only post he would be eligible for is the "ambassadorship of Belarus." Ha ha. Keep your day job, John.
There's only one problem with Graham's comments. They're right on. We're not in a recession, as any economist will tell you. The country's economy, while certainly stalled and stagnant, continues to grow at a slow rate - almost one percent this past year. If the defenition of "recession" is negative economic growth (and it is), then we're clearly not in a recession. In addition, the dramatic and cataclysmic language that sells in the press and drives the economic frenzies that we watch on CNBC today have little to do with reality. Perception becomes the reality, and makes companies, organizations, people -- everyone - crazy. An article about the woes of the hotel business in the Washington Post entitled "Slide by Marriot Signals Distress for Hotel Industry" - sounds rather ominous, doesn't it -- describes Marriott's recent announcement of negative growth increases in per room revenue - called RevPar. While it sounds pretty bad, it simply means that the increase -- the rate at which the income per room goes up year after year -- will be less this year than last year. So, if the revenue per room increased by 1.5 percent last year, the increase will be less this year -- maybe 1 percent. In fact, the article in the Post is itself misleading, giving the impression that RevPar will decrease, when in fact it's only a decrease in RevPar growth -- it will grow this year less than last year.
Despite all that, revenue is down at Marriott. Last year during the 2nd Quarter, Marriot made $207 million. This year it only made $157 million. No, it didn't lose money, and there should be good reasons why it made twenty-five percent less money than last year, but the hysteria surrounding Marriott caused a steep sell-off of its stock dropping it to 52-week lows, and prompting the Washington Post to write, "Let there be no mistaking it now: The hotel boom is kaput."
Kaput? I'd love to be kaput and only make $157 million this quarter. Just ask Robert LaFleur, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group, (also quoted in the Post article) who said: "Let's keep everything in perspective. They are calling for RevPar growth in North America to be down 1 percent. That's not exactly the Great Depression."
But in the recession-frenzied climate in which we find ourselves, no one can keep anything in perspective. Which brings me back to my original point.
We are a nation of whiners.
Sure, some people are suffering, having difficulties making their payments, having their houses foreclosed, forced to find other places to live. But is anyone starving in the streets?
I recently left Michigan on my way to Israel, and things are so bad there that I simply could not sell my house for an affordable price. There was no way, unless I was willing to sell for about $50 thousand less than the price I paid seven years ago. So the recession -- sorry - housing slump hurt me as much as the next guy.
But did it? I rented out my house to a couple who were foreclosed on their house. What happened to them is private information, but for reasons that were in some part beyond their control, they lost their house.
What happened to them? Are they on the street? No - they're both hard-working, great people. They both have good, stable jobs. So they rented my house, a four-bedroom home in a quiet neighboorhood with great neighbors. Is it as nice as their old home? Probably not. But can you say that they're suffering? Can you say that I'm suffering?
But if you ask the New York Times or Washington Post, of course we're suffering. As long as things aren't better today than yesterday, that's suffering.
All of this reminds me of the section in the Torah that describes the complaints of the Jewish people in the desert: (see Bamidbar 10:35) There the Torah tells us that the people were mitonenim - which Artscroll translates at "those who seek pretexts of evil," but really simply means "complainers." We recognize an onen from the laws of mourning -- we refer to someone who lost a close relative but has not yet buried him or her as an onen - a person in anguish. But a mitonen is someone who puts himself into that state of anguish -- notice the reflexive form of the verb. What troubled the mitonenim? The Torah doesn't tell us, but Rashi (on that verse) quotes the Midrash which tells us that they said, "Woe unto us, how much have we struggled on this journey -- three days without any rest!"
Sounds pretty spoiled -- doesn't it?
To my mind, the McCain campaign is floundering -- not just because he's old, can't really give a powerful speech, and represents the incumbent party during an economic downswing. The real problem is that he doesn't convey any vision. Whether you like Obama or not, his sweeping rhetoric engages an audience. It gives the listener a sense of vision for a better America. McCain does no such thing; it's just more of the same. We'll keep slogging along in Iraq until things are secure enough to come home. There are no easy answers on the economy. The current foreign policy of the Bush administration has been doing a pretty good job.
There's no vision. And without vision, there isn't going to be a victory either. To my mind, when asked about Graham's comments, he should have said, "You know what -- we are a bunch of whiners. All of us. Our soldiers are across the world fighting for us, and we're worried about whether we'll be able to afford the newest ipods." He should not extend the Bush tax cuts. Rather, he should take the money that the government would save and use it to pay down the national debt. He should advocate the idea that there must be a price to be paid by the average citizen during a time of war. And paradoxically, if we feel the war - if we sense that we're sacrificing too - I think that the American people would be more supportive of it. He needs to begin to speak about the notion of sacrifice for the country -- economic sacrifice, personal sacrifice, volunteerism, and a sense of dedication to something larger than ourselves.
These are all issues that he personally represents, and can advocate forcefully. In a sense, he needs to become more of a father figure for the country, instead of pandering to us and telling us how he's going to make it better.
Because he can't. And he won't. And unless he starts telling it the way it really is, we all better get ready for an Obama adminstration.