January tends to be our cruelest month of self-reckoning, a time when we tally up where we overspent, overate, and overlooked our most basic needs while making our holidays bright, or attempting to. As we vacuum up errant pine needles, toss out congealed leftovers or, worst of all, catch glimpses of our exhausted flabby nakedness -- bodies that once carried swagger and sexual promise (or could fake it) -- our excesses can look especially bleak. But self-analysis in blue January light may also offer a glimpse into what we need most in 2012 -- our Mayan Year of Destiny.
Deceit. We don't have to venture far beyond Gretchen Morgenson's trenchant and blood-pressure-raising columns in the New York Times Sunday Business Section to glean just how messed up our financial system has become. Each week, we're reminded of the ways Wall Street has not only incorporated deceit in its billion-dollar dealings, but has also honed deceitful practices into a blood sport.
At another time, Ms. Morgenson's articles could have been read as science fiction, or vignettes from MAD magazine. Nowadays they chronicle the ways the one percent has systematically inoculated itself from failure, allowing us, the schnook investors, to mop up their droppings. Amazingly, we keep buying into Wall Street's latest vampiric practices only to learn, yet again, that just the insiders get rich. We, the schnook 99 percent outsiders, give blood entering and leaving Wall Street's fantastic bubble.
The worst realization, however, is how we've deceived ourselves. We so wanted to believe that our trusted and friendly brokers, financial advisers, accountants and bankers really did have our best interests at heart. We valued the self-anointed independent financial analysts who bestowed their triple-A ratings on countless corporations even as the said companies teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. These swell folks did themselves proud, and we followed them.
Discontent. Never underestimate the energy of anger born of deception and humiliation. Contrary to our favorite billionaires' assumptions, we don't enjoy being sucked dry, as evidenced by the Occupy movements across the country and the upswell of advocacy groups.
I find myself coming back to the shockingly simple but potent antidote: "Buy Local, Think Global." Shopping at my local Sports Authority before Christmas (a hydra-headed company that has consumed Sportmart, Oshmans, Gart Sports and Copeland's Sports), I actually found a package of women's socks bearing a "Made in the USA" label. It cost 50 cents more than another package of socks made in China. I purchased the USA socks, but wondered if I had needed to make my paycheck stretch, like many Americans, would I have paid more for socks made here?
I was struck not only by how hard corporate America has made it to buy locally manufactured goods -- and all but guarantee the decimation of local industries and jobs -- but also how our personal actions in buying cheaper goods made in countries with less stringent labor laws have unwittingly contributed to the exodus of jobs at home. It occurred to me while walking to my car parked in a lot surrounded by big box stores -- which, by the way, are packed with goods made abroad -- that we will not be able to conveniently buy local until we ensure that workers around the globe are paid fair wages. Only then will our so-called pro-American companies consider returning home. The key in effecting this strategy, however, lies in disseminating this information, bringing to mind another simple, but potent antidote: "Information Is Power."
Information drives the growth of our technology, economy and social movements, as seen in the burgeoning of global advocacy groups. For instance, newly formed Slavery Footprint has a widening audience eager for updates on who makes the items we buy, and who grows the coffee beans we enjoy, as well as who mines the raw materials essential for the technology we use. Another group, As You Sow tracks corporate accountability related to human rights and environmental malfeasance. The stunning documentary, As We Sow, and its sister site, The Rural Populist, chronicle 30 years of displacement of family farms in Iowa by agribusiness. And lest we forget: the unfettered consolidation of corporate power in the last two decades has been made possible by generous tax breaks and the dissolution of anti-trust regulations by our elected leaders... and by our unwitting complicity.
Depression. Boomers, 20-somethings, families raising kids, the elderly -- we've all experienced a decline in employment opportunities and career mobility, a tightening of educational loans and lines of credit for new businesses, and a general apathy and disinterest from those with connections who could help. Fortunately, we're also beginning to experience ways out of this immobilizing depression. One dramatic way has been the ranting and chanting from public demonstrations around the world. This past year alone, demonstrators have brought down corrupt governments, challenged the banking industry's onerous financial charges, halted the construction of environmentally controversial projects like the Keystone XL Pipeline, and opened up an essential dialogue on how the growing consolidation of wealth and power in our country will continue to erode our vitality and democracy.
But to take on the real sources of disconnection in our country -- the shortsighted obsession with quarterly earnings, the cover-your-ass method of governing, the entrenched alienation and depression undermining civil discourse and good will -- we need a more nuanced and diverse set of skills.
We need to think boldly and creatively to attend to the financial, political and social bankruptcy of our nation. We need to listen fully and respectfully to our differences to be able to walk in one another's shoes and understand our hungers and fears. We need to act courageously and with compassion to strengthen our responsibility to one another, and to revive our commitment to public institutions and places of commune. We need to put some skin in the game to restore our country.
For most of us Boomers, it was President Kennedy's inaugural speech on Jan. 20, 1961, that first galvanized us to act. In it, he challenged us to "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." I was nine years old and riveted, watching him take the oath of office on our grainy black-and-white television screen. He then turned to my family and me and asked us to step up and contribute to the betterment of our nation. He believed that each of us could be more and do more than we had ever imagined, and we took his request to heart. It formed our generation.
Kennedy's request still resonates inside us. And it's time we lay down some serious skin in restoring our nation. Not by shopping, or flipping houses, but by service. There's a movement afoot to restore mandatory public service for 18- to 28-year-olds, in the military, park departments, or other government institutions as a way for young Americans to connect more deeply with our country's needs. It would also be a way for young people to discover their talents and interests while developing problem-solving abilities alongside people with different views of the world. As Boomers facing retirement or part-time employment, we have many skills to offer to this movement and to the rebuilding of our country. Among them is our hard-earned appreciation for not sweating the small stuff. Republican, Democrat: Who cares? It's time to unite our talents and willingness to ask the hard questions of what it takes to re-grow our businesses, schools, and communities. It's time to be more than we thought we could be. Here's to our Year of Destiny.