Fear is making things worse than they really are

Published 7:52 am Monday, April 20, 2009

I can’t imagine that anyone reading this is not concerned about the economy. I am, too.

We all read and hear every day about unemployment, foreclosures, homelessness, the national debt, bank failures, bankruptcies, shrinking retirement funds and all the other stuff that goes with “the worst economy since The Great Depression.”

But more than any of that, I’m concerned about fear.

I’m worried that our fear may make things worse. In fact, I think that is already happening.

It is true that 8.1 percent of America’s workforce is unemployed, and that’s a very, very bad thing.

But 91.9 percent of us still have jobs. We still get paid to produce goods and services to sell to other folks – and to each other. Our entire economy – our entire American way of life – is based on the assumption that (a) we’ve got something to sell and that (b) somebody is willing and able to buy it.

Right now, 91.9 percent of us are still able to buy things, but all of a sudden we’re afraid to.

In the grocery store, we pick up a $10 roast for Sunday, but then we think, “What if we get in a bind and need that money a few months from now?” So we put the roast back and settle for a $4 chicken.

We drive to our jobs – which still pay pretty much what they used to pay – in cars we would’ve traded in last year if the economy hadn’t gone sour. What if I lose my job next year and can’t make those car payments? Maybe I should just drive this one till the doors fall off.

We hear the TV commentators say stocks are tanking, and we see our 401k’s taking hits. What if they fall even further? Will our nest egg disappear? Better sell! Never mind the price, just take what you can get … now!

That’s not just fear. That’s panic. And panic has the potential to cause more economic misery than any of the real problems we already face.

If we don’t buy that roast, the rancher who raises the beef, the farmer who raises his grain, the feed store that sells him his feed, the manufacturer who builds his cattle trailer, the processor who cuts the meat, the wholesaler who puts it in the supply chain, the trucker who transports it and the supermarket that tried to sell that roast are all hurt. And at every step along the way, jobs are on the line.

If we decide to drive that car till the wheels fall off, the car salesman loses his commission, the dealer loses a sale, the factory can’t move its vehicles, the auto workers get laid off, the parts makers fail, their employees get laid off and everybody goes on welfare.

And when all that happens, the banks fail, too. Or get bailed out by Uncle Sam.

And since April 15 was this week, you know who pays for the welfare and the bank bailouts. You and me, that’s who. The same folks who decided we couldn’t afford a $10 roast or a new car, in spite of the fact that we’re still employed and making about as much money as we did before all this came to pass.

And what about our investments? Well, if somebody had told you 10 months ago that you could buy Caterpillar for $40 a share when it was selling for $85, would you have bought? Of course you would. But now it’s going for $23.23 a share, and nobody’s buying. Never mind all that road construction that’s on the horizon, or the fact that there will be a demand for heavy equipment as long as mankind builds things.

I’m not an economist. I’m not even one of those TV commentators who knows everything about everything. But it looks to me like we’re sitting on our wallets at a time when sitting on wallets causes more harm every day.

We’ve gone from thinking the sky is the limit to thinking the sky is falling. The truth is somewhere in between.

We need to remember that.

David Sullens is publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.