Ehhh . . .is this bad? Really bad?

From this morning’s Washington Post:

Retailers posted the worst November sales in more than 30 years yesterday, as holiday shopping not only failed to lift the economy but showed that the financial crisis is further distressing everyday consumers.

About 30 major companies — including Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch and Target — posted sales declines at established stores. Overall, retail sales in November fell 2.7 percent compared with the same month last year, marking the second consecutive negative month, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group.

I have a problem here. I don’t mean to appear unfeeling. I know that a worsening retail situation will hurt a lot of people who live on the margins.I feel for them much more than I feel when I ee the stock market going down and people like me lose some networth. Yeah, I’ve also seen this slumping economy cut my own net worth by something approaching half, but it’s all paper value. Doesn’t impact me right now in real ways.

But when the first alarm went off in September I immediately put planned major purchases on hold. My gut instinct then was this is what everyone would do – or most people – and the result would be it will make the situation worse.

And so it has. But is this bad?

There’s a part of me that is screaming “wake up America! You could be a world leader. You may be the major hope of civilization, if not our species. You – America – may hold the key to massive problems with the environment going haywire and radical religious elements expressing their fear as hatred in violent acts. ”

Yeah – part of this waking up business was electing Barach Obama president. But in the end this isn’t about him – it’s about us. He knows he can’t do it all – he just thinks he can inspire us to do it. So a big part of this waking up is us starting to take the world seriously again. Many of us have been living in a ridiculous dream world where houses keep getting bigger to hold the pile of stuff that’s under the Christmas tree which also keeps getting bigger. And, of course, China is pumping in goodies here as if our appetite for anything and everything is without limit. And it would seem to be.

So maybe we need a wake-up call to put the brakes on this wild, unfettered consumerism? That should have been obvious when Bren and I – mostly Bren – spent so much time this summer cleaning out the basement. It should be obvious when you look at all the “garage” or “tag” sales. It should be obvious when you see you can buy things, like telescopes, that are the same size and power – and the same price – as what you paid 30 years ago.

Yesterday a nice old guy called me to tell me he had bought a new telescope for $15. He admitted he knew nothing about telescopes or astronomy and he didn’t have any plans for this one, but he had looked at the Moon and Jupiter and Venus the other night – and when he saw this telescope, well he couldn’t resist. He just had to know what it was you could buy for $15. And it was a lot. I think my first telescope was much like what he bought and I paid at least $25 for it and that was half a century ago.

But we know why the prices are low. We know other people are living like hell so we can live like kinds. W know the world has a very unlevel playing field, but we don’t like to think about it. We know we’ve stoppe making thng and jobs have been outsourced overseas and we owe a ton of money to China. We know people in other countries are living in poverty making us toys and stuff – but we don’t like to think about it. We’ve been having a ball!

My mother used to tell me I was “spending like a drunken sailor” when I was a kid and blew my allowance on something silly. Well, an awful lot of us have gotten awfully used to spending like drunken sailors. So maybe a few percentage points drop in retail sales is a good thing. Maybe we’re starting to understand we don’t need all of this stuff?

Hey – maybe we are actually making some judgments between those two critical words – “want” and “need.” Maybe we’re developing some self discipline.

Is this funny? Well, if it is, I’m laughing at myself because my last post was about being disappointed with FedEx for not keeping me well-informed about where my most recent toy is. Yeah, if I’m honest, it’s a “want” – not a “need.”

But I have reigned in my spending at least by the amount consumer retail sales are falling, so I’m doing my share 😉

But seriously – we may be seeing just the start. This could get serious. It could get ugly. But it also could be that cold slap across the face that we all need to come to our senses and start paying our dues as a society. Maybe in the end we’ll look back on this and as retail sales – and the economy – slumps, we’ll say “thanks, I needed that.”

Then again, maybe our changes now will be too little, too late. This does feel like we’re at a hinge in history – but a rusty one. Maybe this is just the “gloomy Gus” in me. See, I thought I saw this slump coming years ago. For the past five years I’ve been toning down my investment – modest as they are – and putting my life savings into conservative stuff with no chance of making more than about 5 percent. This wasn’t because I know a lot about the economy, nor because I have a better crystal ball than most – it was just simply a gnawing feeling that we were all living too high on the hog and someday that little piggy was going to go to market without us.

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About these disgusting, greedy, idiots . . .

Hey, I don’t like name calling. These – uh, people – probably hug their kids and pet their dogs – but damn, they make me angry. Take the first few paragraphs of Tom Friedman’s column today and see if you can remain calm:

I spent Sunday afternoon brooding over a great piece of Times reporting by Eric Dash and Julie Creswell about Citigroup. Maybe brooding isn’t the right word. The front-page article, entitled “Citigroup Pays for a Rush to Risk,” actually left me totally disgusted.

Why? Because in searing detail it exposed — using Citigroup as Exhibit A — how some of our country’s best-paid bankers were overrated dopes who had no idea what they were selling, or greedy cynics who did know and turned a blind eye. But it wasn’t only the bankers. This financial meltdown involved a broad national breakdown in personal responsibility, government regulation and financial ethics.

So many people were in on it: People who had no business buying a home, with nothing down and nothing to pay for two years; people who had no business pushing such mortgages, but made fortunes doing so; people who had no business bundling those loans into securities and selling them to third parties, as if they were AAA bonds, but made fortunes doing so; people who had no business rating those loans as AAA, but made a fortunes doing so; and people who had no business buying those bonds and putting them on their balance sheets so they could earn a little better yield, but made fortunes doing so.

Isn’t that one helluva a chain of irresponsibility and greed – the part I put inbold? Greats ummary of our whole financial mess. I read that and had to pace around the room ten times before I could get calm enough to read the rest and see if Friedman had any wise words to share on where to go from here.

Nope . . .just made me angrier with more details of gross stupidity from people who live high on our pain and who are now holding us all hostage, making incredible demands, and getting them dished out in incredibly clumsy, fat-cat deals from a dying administration of more fat and stupid cats. (Why am Ipicking on cats here? I like them. these folks are dispicable. No – have to smile, have to remember – the actions of these folks are despicable. There – that’s better. )

Bottom line – there isn’t a solution. The rich got richer – the middle class will get poorer – and government will fumble on. Go home Bush – now! Yeah, I blame you becauseyou’re the enabler and the buck has to stop somewhere – of course it won’t. You;re as oblivious as these bankers to your own stupidity and incompetence. Just pass it on to this new kid – Obama. Yep – he’ll have to be a miracle man, that’s for sure. Grrrrrrr . . . Remember Ishmael, walking down the street on a bleak November day and methodically knocking people’s hats off? Time to go to sea.

Yeah if I push my chair back, look out the window, I see some bright sunshine breaking through. The rest of the universe is doing fine 😉

Oh here’s some must reading for the president-elect!

I know Obama has a lot on his plate these days, but i hope someone close to him takes careful note of The New York Times this morning. It is running a whistle-blowing piece from a former high-level NASA administrators that certainly has the painful ring of truth to it. I suspect the basic principles beautifully outlined in this article apply in spades to military spending, as well as many other government projects.

The focus of the article is NASA and it begins:

A CANCER is overtaking our space agency: the routine acquiescence to immense cost increases in projects. Unmistakable new indications of this illness surfaced last month with NASA’s decision to spend at least $100 million more on its poorly-managed, now-over-$2 billion Mars Science Laboratory. This decision to go forward with the project, a robotic rover, was made even though it has tripled in cost since its inception, it is behind schedule, there is no firm estimate of the final cost, and NASA hasn’t disclosed the collateral damage inflicted on other programs and activities that depend on NASA’s limited science budget.

But while I’d like to see the NASA program brought under control for the good of science, I think what is described in these next two paragraphs is a wonderful model of how cost-overruns occur:

Endemic project cost increases at NASA begin when scientists and engineers (and sometimes Congress) burden missions with features beyond what is affordable in the stated budget. The problem continues with managers and contractors who accept or encourage such assignments, expecting to eventually be bailed out. It is worsened by managers who disguise the size of cost increases that missions incur. Finally, it culminates with scientists who won’t cut their costs and members of Congress who accept steep increases to protect local jobs.

The result? The costs of badly run NASA projects are paid for with cutbacks or delays in NASA projects that didn’t go over budget. Hence the guilty are rewarded and the innocent are punished.

Hmmmm. . .seems like useful advice for Detroit, Wall Street, and all the other big spenders who have helped to put us in the mess we’re in where we end up punishing the innocent for the mistakes – and sins – of the guilty. The combination of lazy, over-paid fat cats protecting their territories, with a politicians protecting their power base is deadly. And, of course, the blame can be spread beyond thesde two groups – but the model is interesting to say the least.

Of equal importance, Congress should turn from the self-serving protection of local NASA jobs to an ethic of responsible government that delivers results.

Oh boy – great idea. How do we do it? How do the democrats avoid going down the exact same path the Republicans went down – being the party in power and abusing that power to try to sustain it?