Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Back to the Future -- The Tension Over Tense

Have you ever noticed that most things people say they are worried might happen in the future are things that have already happened? Once the dreaded event has taken place, they start speaking in the future tense about it as though it hadn't happened yet--but they're worried that it might.

That was this year's Rosh Hashanah insight that got me through the day as we Chosen folks ushered in 5770 the other day.

As a financial advisor I have seen it repeatedly over the years. Investors and the business news media always seem to consider the market to be risky after it has already been crushed. It is only near market tops that people tend to be comfortable owning stocks and are losing sleep because they don't own enough hot issues.

We saw panic at the bottom after the stock market crash in 1987 and again last March when people were so worried about how risky the market had become that they wanted to sell every stock they owned--including companies that were trading at valuations that were less than the cash they had in the bank. That, of course, was AFTER their accounts had been crushed and the people sold their stocks without regard to price just so they could sleep at night.

We saw the mirror image of that behavior during the late 1990's during the tech bubble. "Conservative" investors fired their money managers for not owning enough high-flying stocks that had already gone up by 1000 percent or more. Then they turned around and sued their new managers in the early 2000's because they owned too many of the internet companies that the investors themselves ordered them to buy.

It's easy to poke fun but in fact human nature tends to lead us astray under a variety of circumstances. With investments, mob psychology takes over. People get greedy at the top and afraid at the bottom. At the end of the day, the almost always default in favor of sleeping at night.

What is harder to understand is why people speak in the future tense about their worries months after the worst has already happened and the risk would seem to be gone.

The same phenomenon seems to apply to the criticism and concerns expressed about President Obama. The very issues that many detractors say they are most worried about seem to be events that already happened long before Obama even took office.

For example, critics say they are worried that Obamanomics will create huge federal deficits and destroy the economy. But during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency, what had been a budget surplus turned into $5 trillion in deficits and that doesn't include the cost of the Iraq war and other expenses that were made off budget.

To save the economy, Obama will certainly run $1 trillion-plus deficits in coming years, but Bush already did that in 2008. John McCain has admitted that had he been elected the deficit numbers would have looked pretty much the same.

As far as destroying the economy is concerned, that was pretty much a done deal at this time a year ago--months before Obama was even elected.

There is also a lot of hand-wringing and fear that Obama wants to redistribute wealth and take all the money from the rich and give it to the poor. But wasn't it Bush who pushed through a $170 billion stimulus bill more than a year ago where checks of up to $1,200 were sent to the poorest Americans in a failed effort to avert a recession? Where were the cries of "socialism" and the teabagging parties back then? And wasn't it Bush who redistributed billions of in the opposite direction with his tax cuts for the wealthy?

The same is true regarding many concerns about health care reform--not the phony ones which are just based on lies. Outrage is routinely expressed about having a government-financed health care system in which the care itself would be rationed.

But isn't that what we already have with Medicare, Medicaid, and the V.A.? And isn't health care already being rationed by our current system?

I am covered by a "gold-plated" health plan but my premiums and co-pays go up every year and the procedures that are covered by my insurance keep going down. In recent years, I have been told more and more often that "your insurance doesn't cover that procedure" and have seen an increasing number of doctors refuse to accept patients covered by certain insurers because their reimbursement levels have dropped so dramatically.

Perhaps the most ironic line of this whole debate comes from the millions of Republicans who have cautioned Obama and the Democrats to "keep the government away from my Medicare."

There are many reasons to be concerned about the future of health care in our country and how we're going to pay for it. But those who are most concerned about the government controlling coverage or about care being rationed in the future are waiting for a train that left the station years ago.

My guess is that 95 percent of the things most people worry about either have already happened or will never happen. Having said that, there is no doubt that fear about the future can be a useful tool. But only if it is used to keep us out of trouble or to spur us on to imagine and work to create better outcomes and a better world.

Today, however, fears and worries seem to mainly just whip up anger, hate, and demonization of our leaders and institutions.

Hopefully during the coming year we will funnel more of our energy to finding constructive solutions to the many problems that confront us and waste less worrying about things that have already happened or never will.

Steering the Ship of State and our personal lives is tough enough under the best of circumstances. It becomes impossible if we spend all our time looking in the rear view mirror.

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