On inauguration eve, the bar is set at a record low

January 12, 2009
I was sitting in my basement a few days ago, reading online news and commentary, lifting weights, skimming books, channel surfing and otherwise contemplating column ideas.

That's when the e-mail arrived from my friend Erik. It said, "I just wanted to let you know that I have been laid off ... . So I am in the process of reaching out to my network to see if I can get any help in finding a position ... . I have a couple of possible leads, and even had an interview last Friday. However, as I learned in years of selling, 'It ain't a sale until I got a check in my hand.'"

What Erik's message didn't say is that, at age 41, he's sole breadwinner for a family with three kids. That he and his wife home-school their children. That they just moved to a pricier community so there'd be more after-school activities.

Then, compassionate soul that he is, Erik invited me to do guy stuff during my wife's upcoming business trip so I wouldn't get depressed.

I looked up the word "depression."

According to Dictionary.com, it means: "sadness; gloom; dejection."

It also means "a period during which business, employment and stock-market values decline severely or remain at a very low level of activity."

If you suffer from the former, you may take two Prozac and call me in the morning.

If the entire nation (or the whole planet, for that matter) suffers from the latter, it means multiple bailouts, numerous interest-rate cuts, decimated retirement plans, a rash of foreclosures, extended and re-extended unemployment benefits, year after year of trillion-dollar federal deficits, bare-to-the-bone state budgets, and we, our kids and our grandkids still bound for you-know-what creek without a paddle.

Back in July, John McCain's economic adviser (former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, now vice chairman of the Swiss-based bank UBS) told The Washington Times that we were merely experiencing a "mental recession."

"You've heard of mental depression; this is a mental recession," he said. "We have sort of become a nation of whiners."

(Tell that to Erik and his family.)

Instead of Wall Street greed, loony-tune lending practices and multibillion-dollar Ponzi schemes, he blamed the media.

"Misery sells newspapers," Gramm said. "Thank God the economy is not as bad as you read in the newspaper every day."

Well, Senator, six months later, you can't read much about economic misery—or any other kind of misery—in the daily newspaper because the darn thing smacks of some shriveled old man desperately seeking Cialis.

In what's left of The New York Times last week, there was a graphic representation of a cancer cell. Scientists described it as a depiction of chaos—a normally orderly cell gone bonkers.

The chaotic cancer cell symbolizes perfectly the nation and world Barack Obama will inherit Jan. 20: American automakers on the brink of collapse. Their vaunted Japanese competitors curtailing production. Factory orders suffering the biggest setback in eight years. Skyrocketing unemployment. Millions relegated to emergency rooms for their health care. Billions lost to a scoundrel's shell game. Hamas firing shells into Israel. Israel deploying troops into the West Bank. Banks unwilling or unable to lend. Businesses and governments unable to borrow. Layoffs. Business closings. Wage freezes. Depleted trusts. Struggling charities. Ad nauseum.

But, hey, demoralizing as all this sounds, maybe Phil Gramm isn't a total whack job. Yogi Berra, after all, once said, "Baseball is 90 percent mental and the other half is physical."

In that spirit, maybe depressions, or recessions or whatever you call this malignant economic chaos are 90 percent mental and the other half fiscal.

This poses a conundrum for Obama when he steps to the podium and is sworn in as the 44th president of the United States and presumed leader of the free world:

As economic commander-in-chief and instant candidate for re-election, he must paint the fiscal glass 90-percent empty so he can justify dramatic investments, pray they'll work, and eventually take credit.

But as cheerleader-in-chief, he must paint the glass 90-percent full; convince us that we can, collectively, turn things around; and instill the mental confidence required to get us borrowing, buying and otherwise sparking a recovery.

Good luck with that.

In my reading last week, I learned something new about myself and our new president. I learned that we're "cuspers," people born at the intersection of two generations—in our case, between baby boomers and Gen Xers. And according to this article, (to quote John F. Kennedy), "The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," the cuspers.

As a cusper kid, I was taught that you should leave a room, or a campsite or a job in better shape than you found it.

Given the state of our inherited union from the last of the baby boomers, that shouldn't be too difficult.


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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