Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Few Snippets On A Sleepy Saturday--The Age Of Entitlement

We'll hallelujah, Mr. Warren Buffett ("The Oracle of Omaha" heh-heh), America's financial cheerleader has finally decided that 2009 is going to be a rotten year, and maybe 2010 as well. This is the same guy that in the fall exhorted American's to "go out and buy stocks." Sure, I'll buy GE and Goldman Sachs if I can get a 10% dividend on preferred shares like he did. As for the rest, if you followed his advice, you would have gotten killed. For the record, his own firm Berkshire reported its worst results in history during Q4, and as a parenthetical note, 80% of his fortune was derived from fewer than 25 positions taken up during the last 50 years. More power to him, but my advice is that he should pay closer attention to what is happening to his own business...there are more bad quarters to come.

Greenspan wrote a book called, "The Age of Turbulence," which I previously mentioned that I tossed in the trash. If I were to write a book (don't worry, I won't) it would be called "The Age of Entitlement," which is pretty much ending now and may be the silver lining in this all-too-black cloud. For decades now, we Americans (and other countries too) lived an entitled life. The unions were entitled to ever more juicy contracts, my kids were entitled to the next new thing (my bad) whether it be a flat-panel TV or a new game machine or a thousand pairs of shoes. I had my own entitlements (again my bad.) Colleges like Harvard and Princeton were entitled to expand with reckless abandon, without lowering tuition one iota, and their professors were entitled to six+ figure salaries for what must certainly be the cushiest job in America. Teachers in local school districts, buoyed by ever increasing tax bases from real estate upticks were entitled to "no-cut" deals with unprecedented health benefits. Everyone was entitled to a house, and if you already had one, you felt entitled to either expand it or to buy a bigger one. Athletes in most sports were entitled to bezillion dollar sign ups, so much so that the NBA is borrowing $175M to try to keep various franchises afloat. I could continue this diatribe for quite some time but I am now getting physically sick just thinking about it. And in any event, I think you get the picture.

So what about this "silver lining?" Well, when you feel entitled to something, then somehow you just don't appreciate it for what it's worth. If you are sitting at a fancy restaurant table and the chef serves you a big, juicy and delicious hamburger, you simply gobble it down, burp a few times, pay the check and leave without another thought. On the other hand, if you are homeless and living in a doorway, and some kind soul presents you with an identical meal, that's a totally different experience for the unwitting recipient. There are many more examples, but I think this one is poignant enough.

As we lose our sense of entitlement, we move closer to the person in the doorway (literally and figuratively.) The things we have, the jobs we keep, our friends, hell, even our enemies become that much more meaningful. Without entitlement, we learn to appreciate life more, and we stand ready to live simpler, less consumptive lives. This has been coming for a long time in America and I call it "re-basing." And as painful as the current situation is, I don't think it's a bad thing at all. And I would happily spare myself the thousands of cosmetics (and other) commercials that have driven this rampant consumerism for decades.

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