Here is my first column in The Greenville Journal
In 1985, the stock market crashed. The value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 500 points in a single day. People felt very panicky and a fairly serious recession followed.
The day after the crash I was in Annie Lee Epley’s office. Annie Lee ran the local branch of Asheville Federal Savings and Loan, the company that held the mortgage on my home. It was also the company with whom I kept my checking and savings accounts in Marion, N.C.
I loved Annie Lee because she had helped me survive one of my business failures in 1981 and ’82, during which I had gone ten weeks without a pay check and our company had piled up $60,000 in debt.
This was her reaction to the stock market crash. “The value of those companies has not changed. They have the same number of employees they had yesterday, the same cash, the same factories and equipment, the same trucks and company cars. Things may get bad for a while, but this country has a good economic system. We will be all right.”
Nobody knows less about money, economics, and what works in these systems than I. Well, maybe a bunch of fourth graders know less, but don’t put me up against your smarter fifth graders.
So rather than offering up my ignorance, let me must ask you to consider Annie Lee’s reaction to the 1985 crash, and also consider some questions that I genuinely can’t answer.
When the stock market loses a third of its value, where does the money go? In the exchange of stocks, is there not always a winner and a loser? What do the winners do with that money when they take it out of the market?
Is the rough ride we are experiencing right now more than a pulling back in consumer spending and the collapse of certain credit instruments? Could it also be a fundamental realignment in cultural values? Could it be we are healing from our national obsession with buying any dad gum object off the shelf of a big box store? Are Americans saying with our lack of spending that we are tired of being defined by our spending?
Almost everything I know about anything I know from listening to National Public Radio, and NPR has yet to explain to me what has happened to our economy, except this: massive foreclosures have led to a virtual freeze in lending, which has led to a serious downturn in stock prices, which has convinced most of us that we should cut spending, which has cost lots of jobs in just the past few weeks.
But NPR hints at another idea, this idea of a basic shift in cultural values, that we are not going to buy cars from either domestic or foreign companies until they prove their ability to run on alternative fuels or use less fuel. We are going to buy products that come to market through fair trade. We are going to recycle, reuse, and reduce consumption, even if it cuts into the profits of major retailers. Of course, these trends are not universal or even popular among a majority of Americans. These practices would only have to be used by ten or twelve percent to rock the world’s economies and change everything. And the examples I gave are only the tip of the iceberg. Doubtless many of you can think of dozens of other examples of how this recession is a shift in values and not just an economic adjustment. The earth is shifting under our feet.
It can’t be all bad. Let me know what you think.