Thursday, May 28, 2009

The NYT Gets ... Happy?

How many of you have noticed that there is a new section in the online edition of the venerable old New York Times? It's called "Happy Days." The reference isn't so much to 70s TV but to a decision by the paper's editorial staff to explore the question of happiness during these dark economic times.

Here's the description:

The severe economic downturn has forced many people to reassess their values and the ways they act on them in their daily lives. For some, the pursuit of happiness, sanity, or even survival, has been transformed.

Happy Days is a discussion about the search for contentment in its many forms — economic, emotional, physical, spiritual — and the stories of those striving to come to terms with the lives they lead.

OK I admit it - my first reaction to this was to snicker. The economy takes a little dip, and suddenly these otherwise blinkered, east coast elitists wake up to the fact that money isn't all there is in life? And what will happen when the banks regain their footing? Will everyone trash any thoughts of happiness and just jump back on the hamster wheel and start running after coin once again? I also wondered, cynically, if perhaps this was the newspaper of record attempting to hang on to an audience by any means necessary in light of the meltdown the media industry is experiencing.

I was also just a tad annoyed by the list of writers. Not that I'd heard of most of them, but they were so obviously gleaned from a list of "experts" in the most western sense of the word. Had it escaped the notice of the NYT that there is a 5000 year-old tradition that was built on understanding the question of human happiness? That tradition (or religion, if you like) is called Buddhism, and as it happens one of the greatest thinkers on happiness from that tradition is alive today. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has written a number of (New York Times) bestselling books on this very topic. Now, perhaps they couldn't get him, but perhaps a scholar of his works would be in order? They could've even gone with a solid, New York intellectual such as Robert Thurman, Columbia professor and author.

However, as I read through the posts, I started to melt. These are pretty heartfelt and insightful. Yesterday's, for example, gives a beautiful description of what it felt like for Rousseau as he sank into the moment while rowing a small boat on a lake in Switzerland. In the comments field, many pour out their own stories of what it is like to snatch moments of bliss, joy, contentment and the like.

And under my own cynical reaction, I realized, there is a yearning to see just this kind of thing reflected in our news media. So much of it is caught up in the worst elements of our existence as humans. In fact, the spiritual writer Eckhart Tolle tells us that if we want to understand the kind of damage that the ego wreaks on our society, we need only watch or read the news to find out. And so, with that, I've decided it's not such a silly thing for the New York Times to try something a little bit different--to write about life from the perspective of our highest selves for a change, rather than continually aiming low.

What do you think?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Credit Crisis Confessional

One of the most talked about articles of the week is from the NYT Magazine. In "My Personal Credit Crisis" economics writer Edmund L. Andrews unravels his tale of financial woe. It's a poignant and well-written piece that mirrors the trap so many Americans fell into during the housing bubble.

There are a number of odd things about the story, as some have already noted. One is that the writer claims to have a yearly income of $120K, plus NYT stock to cash out for a down payment, yet for some reason was bringing in less than $3K/month. This just doesn't add up.

True, he was on the hook for $4K a month in alimony and child support payments. However, it's still amazing that he was only left with $2777/month, as he claims in the story. Alimony expenses come out pre-tax, and so he should've been left with $6K/month. With so many dependents and two mortgages he ought to have qualified for plenty of tax breaks. So let's say worst case he is out 30% in taxes. That should've left him with at least 4,200/month, and probably more. Maybe not enough to afford a half million dollar house, but his second wife also had full-time work most of the time--some of it quite well paid.

Then there were the fights and recriminations with his wife over her spending. Yet, when he enumerated the types of expenses they had, they hardly seemed excessive. Contrary to his own self-flagelating description of it, the beach house expense wasn't all that over the top--it was $1,600 total for him and the kids. Other than that, they bought some clothes and food. They didn't refurnish their house--in fact, they brought in all their old stuff. And from the way he describes it, they didn't do much to renovate the place, either--just the opposite. They let it go to seed.

So, what was really going on with Mr. Andrews? Part of it, I'm going to guess, is that there were other expenses involved that he is not copping to in this article. Perhaps they will be more fully explained in the book. Or maybe he'll continue to gloss over them, in which case my trust in this narrative will slip even lower.

Of course, what makes the story juicy and ironic is that we're not just talking about a common shlub. This is an economics reporter for the venerable New York Times. In other words, if anyone should've known better, it was this guy.

But wait ... wasn't everyone reporting that housing prices were likely to keep on rising? Aside from a few notable naysayers, this sunny outlook was the norm. If anything, an economics reporter would be even more prone to subscribing to this point of view. Not that it should be this way, but human nature being what it is, this is hardly a shocker. Not only that, but he probably got used to thinking in very big numbers--billions and trillions. In my own small way, I experienced this as well. Reporting on Silicon Valley for Red Herring, I began to talk about "millions" as if they had very little value.

"Oh, they were only funded at $5 million," I would say, not really hearing myself.

Another angle on the story is that much as it is written in a highly confessional style, the author has done a good job avoiding some of the obvious questions about what kind of person he was, and is. What was his attitude towards money over the course of his life? What drew him to dedicate his life to writing and thinking about money? Perhaps he had oh, I don't know, a few small hangups about it? Just a thought...

When he described his cold sweat panic attack over money, I couldn't help thinking that maybe what he needed to do first was to take a step back and examine his responses. Panic attacks are their own type of affliction--and they often hit us in situations that others might not consider worthy of panic. His wife's reaction seems to support this. Of course, we can now step back and judge her to be the one who was in denial, but was it really that healthy for him to torment her about every little expense? Was it spending that took them down, or an overall unhealthy relationship to money on both their parts--his especially?

Anxiety tends to pursue us through our lives. If we dispense with one trigger, we find (or create) a new one. In short, this was a very psychological journey that he was experiencing--maybe even a spiritual one.

Again, perhaps more will be revealed in the book length version of the story. Considering the strong response this feature got, I'm sure it will sell well. I'll probably pick up a copy--though to save money I'll just check it out of the library.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Justifying Fearmongering

This has been some pandemic. First there were the headlines--splashed across the tops of newspapers across the USA. "Pandemic!" they screamed. "Hide your children!" "Paint your walls with Pine-Sol." "Pre-emptively kill yourself so you don't have to live through Armaggedon."

Then, there was a general shuffling of feet and clearing of throats as the reality sank in that this was not exactly a threat to life as we know it. Turns out that most of the "confirmed" cases of pig flu were now reconfirmed as being unconfirmed. Or, put another way, Mexico had it all wrong. There was a paltry 45 deaths from the so-called swine flu, not the 150 that was originally reported. Other than that, most cases have been mild, and the spread of the virus has significantly slowed just a few weeks into the "epidemic." Only one non-Mexican has died of the flu, and this was someone who for some reason we didn't get a whole lot of info. about, except that the CDC seemed to be saying that her case wasn't cause for alarm.

The next phase was the finger pointing. With the press already being hammered for its failure to report on the economy in any meaningful way, now it was going to have to explain itself for once again buying into--and heavily inflating--the hype. Let's face it, fear sells papers like nothing else. I was in the news business. I know how this works. You're going to keep reading, watching, etc-ing if a story might turn you personally into a statistic. Now the press was caught red-handed doing just this.

Here's where it got really weird. There is now a spate of articles (here's one example from Reuters) coming out which are taking the following position: "Yes, we did overplay the threat. But the effects of all this fear-mongering were positive. People now know to be afraid of viruses, and are taking far more precautions. So, it actually was a good thing we totally screwed this one up."

This is the point at which science, economics, and, really, any study of human behavior goes completely out the window. First of all, as I pointed out in an earlier post, stress takes a toll on human health. Fear is perhaps the hardest on our systems of all the stressors. This is good for our health? I don't think so.

Second, what exactly were the precautions that people took? More frequent handwashing (no doubt with anti-bacterial soap), greater usage of anti-bacterial sprays and hand sanitizers, and staying home from work/school. Well, call me crazy, but the last I checked, there was a rising fear that all of these anti-bacterials could lead to the creation of "superbugs"--in other words, viruses that no one had the natural defenses to fight anymore. Is this sensible caution, or germ-phobic overreaction that could actually cause a real pandemic in the future? You decide.

Finally, I would ask this: does crying wolf every time someone gets the flu keep the public well-informed? Or, is the more likely effect that we'll start discounting these potential health emergencies in the future--even when an actual threat appears?

I have been disappointed and frustrated with the state of health and science journalism for years, but to me this is a new low. Would be nice if someone would show just a tiny bit of remorse and promise to do better next time. Guess I'll keep dreaming.