Sunday, June 22, 2008

Brace Yourself For an Epidemic of Tim Russert-Bear Stearns Syndrome

I was talking with a psychiatrist friend the other day and he asked me if I was having a hard time dealing with the death of Tim Russert.

I am sad about Russert's sudden passing and can remember feeling shock and sorrow when I learned that he had collapsed and died of a heart attack in his office during what appeared to be a normal work day at the age of 58. He was a great journalist and will certainly be missed.

But that's not what my friend was talking about. He told me that a number of his patients were having a very difficult time dealing with Russert's death because it hit too close to home. It was a stark reminder that our desire (and maybe need) to feel in control of our lives is probably doomed to fail. We want to feel that if we exercise, eat right, and avoid dangerous behaviors that we will live a long healthy life.

The sudden demise of a vital, apparently healthy young man like Russert was a stark reminder to many people that despite our best efforts we really have very little control at all. It was that unsettling and inescapable message that was such a disturbing wake-up call to my friend's patients who were already struggling to feel empowered and take charge of the scary parts of their lives.

Most of us are certainly intellectually aware that life is fragile and bad things can happen at any time for no apparent reason. But we tend to view the range of outcomes on the good or bad side as being somewhat limited. If you eat badly you will gain too much weight. If you eat well, you will be healthier. If you don't exercise enough you will be in bad shape but if you exercise too much you could hurt yourself.

The notion of winning an Olympic medal (on the good side) or suddenly dropping dead (on the bad side) are not outcomes that we dwell on because they are outside what we consider to be the range of normal.

All of which leads me to my real point which is that one of the reasons these are such challenging and anxiety-filled times for so many people is that we are getting a whole wave of occurrences that are so outside the range of what we considered possible and it is very disconcerting.

Just a few weeks before Russert's sudden death came the overnight demise of Bear Stearns which, like Russert, went from being a vibrant and well-known part of the American scene to gone forever in an instant.

This has been a very rough period for the financial services industry and over the last year, Bear Stearns' stock had dropped from $130 to the mid-$70 range. That wasn't a pleasant experience for shareholders but it certainly was within the range of a "normal" bad stretch.

But then, after closing at $70 a share on Wednesday, Bear Stearns was bought for $2 a share over the weekend just a few days later. The word went out that without the buyout, Bear Stearns would have gone bankrupt Monday morning.

This was a company that had been around for 85 years. It had survived the Great Depression, the Crash of 1987, 9/11, and 12 recessions along the way. Many of its 14,000 employees and investors had a large percentage of their net worth in their company's stock and had planned their financial future and retirement around what they thought was a reasonable range of potential outcomes.

Then, in an instant, it was all gone. Overnight.

As a nation, we are going through a period where it seems that conventional wisdom is no longer conventional and may not even qualify as wisdom. Our currency is crumbling in value. The value of everything we own--homes, cars, investments--is plummeting while the price of everything we need to buy (food, fuel, etc.) is skyrocketing. In a matter of just a few months, it seems all the walls are moving and no assumptions are safe anymore.

The slogans and reassurances of our political leaders seem particularly foolish and disappointing. They increasingly seem to either not understand what is going on or are unwilling to have an honest conversation with the American public about what's happening.

Politicians on both sides have been anxious to frame our economic problems as a sub-prime mortgage event where gullible consumers were tricked into over-extending themselves by predatory lenders. But it is now clear to any reasonable person that we are facing a nationwide crisis where many, many people have borrowed much more money against their homes, cars, and credit cards than they can afford to pay back.
It is equally clear that Bear Stearns may not be the only financial institution to bite the dust while this all gets sorted out.

And it's not just the economy that seems to be careening off the charts. There has been a numbing spate of weird weather and natural disasters in recent weeks that have killed or wiped out the homes and financial futures tens of thousands of people around the world and the United States. Floods in the Midwest, heat waves and fires in California, Earthquakes in Asia, and on and on. On the network news yesterday they didn't have time on the program to cover all the disasters

I have a feeling that my psychiatrist friend is going to be very busy for quite a while. He and his colleagues should brace themselves for an epidemic of Tim Russet-Bear Stearns Syndrome. At least the therapists will be making some money while the rest of us try to sort things out.

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