I appear to have an ulcer. A stress ulcer. The test hasn’t confirmed it yet, but all the evidence suggests that the twisting in my gut is an ulcer. I’ve never had one before, but now, as a second-semester senior, I seem to be afflicted.
Here’s my theory why: My gut knows a terrible truth. I don’t know who told it. The informant wasn’t the sustainable grass-fed burgers in the dining halls. Nor was it the food at Carnival or some $5,000 party. And my gut certainly didn’t learn the grim truth from the sushi at the senior class gift cocktail party, the challah at Shabbat 1000 or the cheese at the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s speaker series.
Maybe my gut learned the truth watching last week’s panel on the financial crises. Professor William Nordhaus explained that the average net worth of American households is down $150,000. President Levin added that U.S. public and private debt exceeds our entire GDP several times over. Professor Jonathan Macey wondered how we could fill 5 million empty houses. Professor Robert Shiller observed, to scattered snickers from the audience, that 30 percent of Americans think that we are currently in another 1930s-magnitude depression.
But the panel kept such issues at a safe distance. Comments were abstract and theoretical, ranging from the proper size of TARP to the short-term value of infrastructure investments. The panelists did not discuss the crises’ effects on us, human beings in a chaotic world. Concrete people were only mentioned once, in passing, when a professor jokingly commented that an overanxious cab driver had been worried that his cab business would be wiped out.
It wasn’t the panel that troubled my gut. It was truths learned from watching companies pare back their hiring, leaving my fellow seniors in the lurch. It was when a friend was fired from his job at the Yale Press, since the sudden decrease in sales means less revenue to pay student workers. It was when a credit card company gave an acquaintance two new cards, and he immediately maxed them out to cover his last semester of tuition.
The truth is simple: Our days of plenty are numbered. While we are enrolled, our comforts by and large continue. But the world outside is inhospitable.
We may wish for a sudden return to the old status quo, but that seems unlikely: Our economy has become a debtor’s house of cards. For years, Americans spent nearly $400,000 per minute on foreign oil, funding skyscrapers on the Mideast sand; and who knows how much we sent to China for a million necessities and indulgences. All the while, we — the government, corporations and individuals — borrowed money to maintain our standard of living. Ten trillion dollars of national debt. Even more astronomical sums for corporate debt and household debt.
Unsustainable. The house of cards is collapsing around us. Not because of “a lack of confidence in the markets” or “liquidity problems,” though those are symptoms, but because we all spent money we didn’t have and the fundamentals of our economy are overwhelmed.
Nobody knows how long it will take to rebuild, but it will clearly be a long, halting process of ups and downs, hopes and ulcers, spinning itself out through a series of years. As George Soros said last week, “There’s no sign that we are anywhere near a bottom.”
What are we to do? Practically, we can acquire unusual skills and seek unorthodox jobs. Every environment I’ve ever been in or learned about, business or academic, needs people that can bridge multiple worlds: For example, the pharmaceutical industry needs people with biomedical engineering and English skills, medical ethics needs divinity and medicine know-how, sustainable policy-making needs students of sociology and environmental engineering, cutting-edge manufacturing values expertise in chemistry and computer science, and global business has room for specialists in economics and Japanese. By combining abilities and expanding our range, we can buffer ourselves against the whims of the world.
Psychologically, we have got to face the truth. Patience, attention and kindness usually prevail in the long run, but we may be in for quite a long run indeed. The first step toward a solution is admitting that we — as Americans, as Yalies and as individuals — have a problem.
And then what? Here too, my gut knows a truth: as part of the ulcer’s cure, I’ll be looking for oases of quiet and calm. Friends, family, meditation and exercise are havens far older than collateralized debt obligations.
Justin Kosslyn is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.