The Upside of Down
So far in my life, I've been lucky enough to dodge any direct impact from financial downturns. In fact, when I look back at all the economic calamities I've dodged, I feel almost blessed: Despite the 1970s recession, my parents felt confident enough or clueless enough to start a family, allowing me to be born. Even though I lived in an auto town that shut down during the 1980s, my parents didn't work for the factory and they were able to keep their jobs as a teacher's aid and a letter carrier. Neither my husband or I got laid off after the tech crash, even though we worked in San Francisco -- he in video game software, I writing about technology.
Yet, with the economic horizon darkening every day, I feel a familiar fear tightening in my stomach. We all know the things that can happen to us in downturns: We can lose our jobs. Our homes. Our investments. Opportunities we might have had.
These consequences are real and my heart goes out to any of you out there who are already suffering from this downturn.
However, there are also real silver linings -- or aluminum linings, as a humorous Chicago Tribune piece put it -- in any slow economy. Here's a list of, oh, about 10:
1) Falling housing prices could reverse some financial inequeties.
In recent years, home ownership has become out of reach of more and more people as property prices soared. Those who already owned built wealth, while those who were still renting felt they were shut out forever, increasing the gap between the haves and have-nots. OK, now as droves of previous homeowners lose their homes, it doesn't look like this is a great time for housing affordability. But for each family who must go back to renting and start over, there will be a family who is able to buy the now-lower-priced home. In places like San Francisco, I have friends who have been waiting hopefully for the housing bubble to bust for years.
2) When the economy goes haywire, things get fixed.
If the Great Depression had never happened, we wouldn't have deposit insurance or a raft of other measures that protect our investments. The cataclysmic failures of recent days should never have happened, but at least now the system will (God-willing) get tweaked so they can't happen again. Heck, when even John McCain has been talking about new regulations, this may actually happen.
3) When your neighbors are earning less, consumption competition eases.
During the long stretches of economic growth we've enjoyed in recent decades, U.S. culture has become more materialistic than ever. "Affluenza" causes real problems for well-off families, and those less well off are tempted to go deep into debt by following the conspicuous consumption examples of the affluent. Personally, I have long been concerned about the influence this consumerist culture will have on my children as they grow. Although I'm certainly also concerned about my ability to provide for the kids and save for their education right now, I'm also somewhat relieved at the idea that some of the rampant consumerism of recent years might recede a bit.
4) A pause in economic growth is good for the environment.
There are actually advocates of a zero-growth economy, as strange as that sounds to our go-go capitalist ears. While we assume that a constantly growing economy is a positive, growth as we know it always comes with increases in consumption of natural resources. After all, we are used to hearing that our society is too affluent, and consumes too many resources to sustainably continue. So why is contracting a bad thing? Well, sure, because it hurts. But still -- for the environment, scaling back the economy can be a good thing.
High gas prices have already caused Americans to cut back on driving and seek out more efficient cars. While the higher gas prices can be a true hardship for some -- like those who have trouble buying enough gas to get to work and don't have the option of public transportation -- many, many people have cut back on unnecessary driving to the benefit of us all.
5) Less economic activity means less pressure to work.
In gonzo growth periods, you hear everyone talking about how their office is short-staffed, and how they are putting in extra hours. In times of recession, you see some people working less or not at all. Now, in many circumstances, working less and getting paid less is tragic, but in many other families, it means spending less money and spending more time at home with family. Not as bad as you might think.
Obviously, there are exceptions to this one: In tough times, some people will end up taking on multiple jobs that pay less.
6) Even losing a job can have good results in the long term
I wouldn't wish a pink slip on anyone, especially when there's a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed. And yet ... when Chrysler closed the American Motors factory in my hometown, something very interesting happened. A lot of my relatives and friends' parents lost their factory jobs. And a lot of them went on to earn more money in different kinds of work. They were forced to pause, think about their next move, and choose a new path. One dad went on to take a sales job in a rubber mat factory, and he's now much more prosperous than he ever would have been as a factory worker. Another became a plumber and, eventually, a landlord. He's got a flexible schedule and does pretty well for himself.
If you don't have dependents, debt or other such responsibilities, losing a job can be an opportunity to get away, travel, join the Peace Corps, or focus on artistic projects that you previously put aside because you were busy making money.
7) During lean times, we can learn how to live more efficiently
Look at those Depression-bred folks now in their 70s and 80s. Aren't they pretty frugal and resourceful? If you go through a period of lean years, especially early in your career, you'll learn a lot of tactics that will help you live leaner and put away more savings throughout the rest of your life.
Are these silver linings too touchy feely? How about a couple that may lead to a higher net worth in years to come?
8) If you are in the first half of your working years, bear markets are actually good for your 401(k). Because you have more buying in your future than behind you, any price drop should benefit you more as a buyer than it hurts the value of what you have already bought. Of course, no one near retirement is going to have the same comfort -- that's why people are advised to move more and more of their nest egg out of stocks as they near retirement.
This online discussion points out other bear market advantages for investors.
9) Bargains will be available to those in the position to buy -- and not just in the stock market.
When I was reporting on the tech downturn for The San Francisco Chronicle, I attended some auctions where office gear from dead dot-coms was sold. Businesses that were just starting out or that had managed to weather the downturn were snapping up foosball tables, velvet couches in obscene colors, and of course tons of computers, all for pennies on the dollar.
It may be bad karma to delight in the misfortune of others, but the way things are going, it's not just foreclosed properties that will become better deals: It's also used cars, furnishings and all manner of goodies purchased on credit by the imprudent or unlucky.
And the top reason to grin through the economic turmoil?
10) The worse it gets, the better chance Obama has of winning the election.
OK. OK! That one only applies to Democrats. So, isn't that a good reason to join the Democratic Party? One more reason to be happy in these tough times!
[Editor's note: Wise Bread is a group blog written by many talented writers. Carrie's political views do not necessarily represent the views of the other writers or the management or Wilbur our mascot, who may or may not be wearing lipstick.]