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Posts Tagged ‘economy’

Because I am a creature of habit, I see them around 5:30 nearly every morning as I make my way to the gym. They are both smallish, probably in their mid-60s. And even though it’s still pretty dark that early, I can see that they resemble one another in the way that long-married couples often do — both seem to have pretty much the same haircut, the same glasses, and even the same slightly stooped posture and cramped gait. Thankfully, they are wearing matching reflective vests — the kind normally sported by highway workers — so the handful of us who are out this early have no trouble spotting them from a pretty good ways away. It’s clear they are walking for exercise, though not just exercise, for as they make their way along the street, they stoop to pick up empty water bottles or hot dog boxes or stray plastic bags, anything that’s accumulated along the curb since the previous morning. And this morning when I see them, I think of Bill Gates.

It’s a stretch, I know. Though he may do so, I find it hard to imagine that Bill Gates spends much time in a reflective vest picking up trash. In fact years ago, I read an funny piece in Harper’s by Brad Templeton that calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the software titan’s time to even stop to pick up a $1000 bill (that number has long since increased, I’m sure). But Bill Gates, along with Warren Buffet and a few dozen other billionaires, have just pledged to do something very interesting — give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes through an initiative called The Giving Pledge.

It’s an admirable gesture, I think, one that has the power to make a significant impact in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s a risk here, too. By hearkening back to the days of the billionaire philanthropists of old — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — we may find it easier to imagine that giving back is the obligation of only that rarefied class. The gesture they are making is so far beyond the capacity, even the imagination, of most of us that it can, if viewed from a certain perspective, seem utterly foreign.

I have the good fortune to work in a trade in which I continually see evidence of giving in action. I routinely meet and write about those who have given thousands, tens of thousands, even millions to a cause they deem worthy, and I get to see firsthand how transformational their generosity can be. Students who might not otherwise have had a chance to earn a degree graduate and join the workforce. Research discoveries that may have remained hidden are brought forth, carrying with them the potential to change our world. Scholars who have much to offer and little time to articulate it find the intellectual breathing room to help us understand more about who we are.

Yet when I think of this couple scuttling along in the predawn light reflecting back my headlights, I’m thinking that they, too, are giving back. They are making a small, silent, almost unseen gesture that edifies their community and, by extension, them. They are acting on an impulse that exists in all of us, no matter how hard we may seek ways to stifle it, and that is the impulse to give something back. Time. Talent. Treasure. It doesn’t matter.

I’m glad to see the list of billionaires who have taken the pledge to give back, just as I’m glad to see the quiet gestures of the remarkably ordinary folks who take the time to enrich something besides themselves. For both remind me of the richness of our lives, and our deep-seated and abiding obligation to share some of that richness.

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It was just a sandwich. Nothing special, really. Roast beef, havarti, chive mayonnaise, and a few limp leaves of romaine on a white roll. So, in terms of helping the homeless, I suppose it wasn’t much. But it was something my daughter felt strongly about doing, so we did it. We tried anyway.

I should say up front that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless problem. Or if it does, it’s pretty invisible. There used to be a couple of men that you’d see pretty regularly — at the library, shuffling past downtown storefronts, sitting on benches at odd hours. When one of them died not long ago, it was a news item. Turns out he had a wife, a daughter, and even a home. The narrative couldn’t account for why he turned away from all those comforts to live on the streets. Now that he’s passed, there’s only one man that we see with any regularity, and it was the sight of him sitting alone inside a local mall last evening, wrapped in tattered blankets and surrounded by a couple of bulging canvas bags, that triggered my daughter’s desire to help.

We’d passed him on the way out of the gym, but she didn’t say anything until a few minutes later while we were at the grocery store stocking up of a holiday party we’re planning.

“I feel really sorry for him,” she says as we browse the cheese case.

“Who?” I ask.

“That man at the mall. The homeless one.”

“Yeah, it’s sad.”

“Would it be okay if we bought some dinner for him? A sandwich or something?”

A simple question, really. And an honorable impulse. But still …

“I don’t know, honey…” My voice trails off here, and I busy myself looking over the party platters of perfectly cubed cheese and artfully rolled salami.

The shameful truth is that this simple suggestion, this single desire to help in some small way, brings me face to face with my own carefully cultivated attitude, an attitude that allows me to see this same man nearly every day and do nothing. It’s not indifference, and it’s not a lack of compassion. It’s that peculiar capacity we all have developed to see need and turn away, to prevent that need from registering in a way that would spur us to immediate action.

Of course none of this occurs to me at the grocery store. What I do there is wrap my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and walk with over to the deli where we pick out the roast beef sub. We pay for it along with the rest of the groceries and walk the half-block through the bitter cold back down to the mall.

She wants me to give it to him, so I take the sack from her hands. He sees me coming and begins waving me off and muttering. I approach, but a bit more slowly.

“It’s just a sandwich,” I say, extending the sack forward, like a peace offering.

With one hand, he clutches his blanket closer around his neck, and with the other, pulls one of his canvas sacks closer. His voice is deep and gruff, and loud enough for my daughter, standing back a few feet, to hear.

“Go away.”

Maybe I should have left it there. Maybe I should have insisted that he take it. Maybe I should have asked him if he needing anything else. I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I wish him a merry Christmas and turn away.

I saw him again this morning at 5:00 as I got to the gym, hurrying through the parking lot with his odd rolling gait, heading for the warmth of the mall. I didn’t say anything to him, and I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.

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Hey, brother, can you spare a dime? Or a dollar? How about $10,000? Can you imagine the audacity of asking for money in this kind of economic climate? What kind of person would do that?

Well, a pretty normal person, as it turns out.

Just to be clear — I work for a BIG organization that raises money. BIG money, in fact. So while the money coming in will definitely slow down, we’ll probably keep the lights on. I’m adjusting our messages a bit to be more sensitive to the context of the times, but by and large, my job won’t change. I stay busy defining what gets said, not saying it. And that keeps me a little insulated from the cold reality of a deepening recession.

I had lunch yesterday with a bunch of folks who don’t have that luxury. They are front-line fundraisers.  Many of them bear the sole responsibility for raising money for their organizations, and many of those organizations depend on charitable giving for operating budgets — the money that keeps the lights burning, that keeps the doors open, that keeps the much-needed services coming. And, no surprise, the people who are responsible for finding and securing those gifts are having a much harder time of it.

Here’s the irony: the forces that are causing so many donors to keep a tighter grasp on their purse strings are the same forces that are increasing the need for the crucial services many of these fundraisers make possible. I’m talking Red Cross, children’s health programs, job training, and more. And these folks — the normal hardworking folks I had lunch with today — are forced to work within this double bind — increased need and diminishing resources.

I’ll be blunt. I’m convinced that now, perhaps more than any other time in my lifetime, philanthropy matters. And not just the sort that makes the headlines. Not just the philanthropy that names buildings or creates endowments. It’s the philanthropy that happens when you realize that it’s not just something you do when you think you’re able. It’s something you do because you realize that you are pretty much always able.

That’s the sort of deeper obligation to one another — to strangers, even — that we’re often too busy to feel, let alone honor. And that’s the sort of obligation that lifts us all — both those who have and those who don’t. And that’s the sort of obligation that my lunch mates are hoping folks will feel, and feel soon.

Think about those who would benefit from  a gift from you — those at your alma mater, or your local food pantry, or a women’s shelter, or a job training program or a … there’s no end of possibilities.

So how about it, brother (or sister)? Can you spare a dime?

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I need a new job. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or have a really impressive title, but I do have a few conditions. Here they are:

1) My bonuses have to be tied to my performance, but inversely. I want to be able to fail — and fail spectacularly — and then be rewarded spectacularly.

2) Once I have successfully driven whatever I’m responsible for into the ground, I want to be able to turn to somebody — I don’t really care who — and insist that they get me out of the jam I’m in because, after all … well, just because. And they should have to do it.

3) My office has to be nice — I mean really nice. And if I don’t like it, I need to be able to redecorate in any way I want to, sparing no expense. For all the hard work I’ll have to put in to fail in a big way, I should think it’s a no-brainer that if I want a real pony in my office (to complement my cowboy at the rodeo theme), I should be able to have one.

4) Two words: corporate jet.

4) I expect to get fired. That doesn’t worry me. But after I’m fired, I want to be able to take another job that draws on my experience at courting disaster and ignoring warning signs and gives me the same perks as I’ve outlined here.

Frankly, I dont think this is too much to ask for. And I know these jobs are out there. I’ve already got applications in at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, but I’m wondering if maybe any of you know of any openings.

It’s gotta be quick, though. I already missed the boat on the Lehman Brothers thing, and I’m hearing rumors that the gravy train may not last much longer.

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Here’s the sublime: two million people packed into Washington, D. C.;  people from across the country and around the world; people of every race, color, creed, and more; people who carry with them something that’s been in very short supply lately — hope.

No matter what your political beliefs may be, you’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by that very public demonstration of that very scarce commodity. Maybe you’ll even go right back to be hard-hearted today. Maybe you didn’t even wait that long. No matter. It was there, and it was obvious, and it was moving. And, for my money, that’s sublime.

As for the ridiculous, I passed a sign yesterday outside of a Taco Bell inviting folks to go to http://www.tacobama.com for free Inaugural Day tacos. Tacobama? Can we agree that that’s a sign that maybe, just maybe, the bandwagon may be a little larger than it should be?

Say what you will about Taco Bell, their (kind?) offer is a pretty good indicator of where our modern political process resides — squarely in the intersection of mass marketing and rhetoric. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a modern marketing machine to elect a president, and it should be no surprise when the lines between commerce and politics get a little blurry. It’s as much about the spectacle as it is about the meaning.

Of course, getting elected is one thing. Running the country is another, and the latter relies on the kind of political machinations that most of us dont’ like to think about. As Otto Von Bismarck, Germany’s chancellor in the late 1800s, allegedly said, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” It’s a dirty business, filled with compromise and bargaining and strong-arming.

I’m sure that, deep down, many of the millions celebrating yesterday’s inauguration probably know that there’s a lot more to it than the celebration. Now that they’ve warmed up a bit, they may feel some apprehension about how well what was said during the campaign will match up with what actually gets accomplished. And, depending on your political orientation, such dissonance could be a good thing, or a very bad thing.

In the end, I have to say that the whole thing has left me feeling more optimistic than I would have imagined. I suppose that probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Because, hey, … free taco.

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Hey, listen. Um, about that money you loaned me — you know, that $100 grand that I told you I was going to use to help get my financial house in order, kinda settle things down a little bit. Yeah, well, I … uh … well, some things came up and that money’s gone and I … um … I kinda need the other $100 grand, too.

What’s that? You want to know where the money went? Yeah, well, that’s kinda complicated, really. My cross-eyed Uncle Abner got some. Not sure exactly what he was going to do with it, but he’s got a pretty good head for business. And then my second cousin had a chance to get in on the ground floor of a new development over by the sewage treatment plant,  so she got a little, too. And then those big-screen plasma TVs went on sale and I’ve been wanting one of those for a while and figured I might as well do the whole Blu-Ray home theater thing, too. So, you know, it’s just kinda gone and I can’t really say where the rest went. Like I said, it’s pretty complicated.

So, anyway, can I get the other $100 grand now? I really need to get things straightened out. So can I have it, you know, like now?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not moved by this kind of argument. Personally, if I loaned anybody that kind of money (as if I had that kind of money to loan!), I’d expect some accountability. I would want to know that the argument you made to convince me to loan you the money was what you used it for. That doesn’t seem like too much to ask, does it?

Well, apparently, it is too much to ask. At least it seems to be when you’re talking about big, big numbers — numbers like, say, $350 billion.

Part of the problem is that this really doesn’t seem like real money. It doesn’t even seem like a real number. Most of us don’t have a very good conception of how much a billion is. I’m not terribly proficient at math, but one source put it this way.

A million seconds is 12 years. I think most of us can comprehend that. But how long is a billion seconds? 31 years.

Now multiply that by 350. What the heck, go ahead and multiply it by 700. Are you getting some idea of how much money we’re talking about here, and how much money seems to be vanishing into the sinkhole our economy has become.

Look, I have no idea how this is supposed to work. I understand a little about how it was supposed to work, but that plan only seemed to last until the money was actually approved. Now it’s being spent for … well, like I said, it’s pretty complicated.

So, about that other $100 grand …

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You know my town, right? At least you know one like it, don’t you? Population right around 40,000. Nice little downtown filled with a pretty fair number of mom and pop shops and an equally (un?)fair number of empty storefronts. Big box stores and lifestyle malls creeping up around the fringes. Solid middle class population. You know the town I mean?

If you do, then maybe you’d be as surprised as I was to see a man standing on a corner near the grocery store just a block or so from my office holding up a hand-lettered cardboard sign that said “No Food.”

No food? Huh? That’s not really the kind of thing that happens in these kind of towns, is it? For a moment, I felt this dread that something terrible — something that’s only been happening on the fringes of my world — had finally arrived. I began to see him as a sort of omen of what’s surely to come.

Am I wrong? I hope so, but it’s getting harder and harder to remain optimistic these days. Every day, we’re all barraged by the bleak news — jobs lost, businesses in danger or gone under, credit markets still in chaos. And yet …

Most everyone I know gets up and goes to work every morning. Most everyone I know is paying their bills, raising their kids, finding ways to get by. That’s what my town is like … so far.

I spoke to a friend who sells cars today. His dealership has already laid off more than fifty people, and will quite likely lay off more before it’s all said and done. And, since mom and pop shops everywhere have a hard time competing with always-low-prices-always-open big box stores, towns like ours have grown accustomed to a few empty storefronts downtown. But in just the last week, two national chains — one a restaurant, one a department store — announced that they can no longer afford to do business here.

But what’s even more telling than what is is what people believe could be. Rumors have already begun taking hold in the hallways of the office buildings, in the aisles of the grocery store, in the fellowship halls of churches. This store is closing. That company is going belly-up. That division of the university — you know, the one out by the airport — is cutting half its workforce.

These rumors have no corroboration and no identifiable source, and yet, in this climate, we feel compelled to ask more questions, to see if we can confirm or refute them. And so we ask around. We discuss it with others, and they discuss it with others and so on and so on until these dark rumors swirl around our town just like the wind that rushes down from Brush Mountain, bringing cold northern air, and forcing the man on the corner to clutch his jacket more tightly around his neck with one hand while his hand-lettered sign bends and buckles in the other.

You know my town, right?

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