Here is a Happy Holiday edition of Travelosophy. Enjoy.

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.  When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age.  In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job.  Nothing has worked.  Four hoarse blasts of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping.  The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage.  In other words, I don’t improve, in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable.”

-John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” 1971, p. 3.

“It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.”  And then it would be such a simpler matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy. But what I carried in my head and deeper in my perceptions was a barrel of worms. I discovered long ago in collecting and classifying marine animals that what I found was closely intermeshed with how I felt at the moment. External reality has a way of being not so external at all.

This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this span of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.  If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be notonly different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness.”

-John Steinbeck, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” 1971, p. 209.


I am moved whenever I read an apt quote about the wild or the outdoors.  Muir, the consummate outdoorsman, captured best the sentiment:

“The tendency nowadays to wander in wilderness is delightful to see.  Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.  Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their little ongoings with those of nature, and to rid of rust and disease.”

– John Muir, The Atlantic Monthly, August 1897

I have yet to lay down a sycophantic rant on this blog, mostly to spare readers the hyperbole of my frustration.  I fear there is no better time than now to voice some healthy skepticism about the turmoil that roils financial markets, and threatens our collective prosperity.

I am not an economist or a social scientist.  I am a collection of my life experience and lessons learned.  I am hoping that common sense plays more than a de minimus role in salvaging our financial system.  In my last post, I cited to an op-ed article by Thomas Friedman, in which he calls for a greening of the bailout.  The idea is catchy…actually, it is downright inspiring. 

What this bailout seems to be about is instilling confidence in a market that has lots its footing.  Financial and capital markets are tip-toeing on a scree field along an overhang.  These markets are solely responsible for determining the cost of borrowing on credit that has become a fixture in American (and therefore capitalist) culture.  Who buys ipods, houses, new factories in cash anymore? No…this is not a rant about the good ole’ days of yesteryear. 

I am concerned by our collective tolerance for outsourcing tasks, both large and small.  We outsource our car-washing, dry cleaning, meal preparation, socializing, entertainment, savings, banking, lending, and…underwriting.  Cause and effect has gotten muddled, relationships have been stymied, transactions have been impersonalized.  We rely on a central banking system of large-scale lenders to bundle together our collective debt and sell it on markets in transactions and products few of us understand. 

When did average people loose track of essential functions like savings, lending, and responsibility for our community?  We allowed a culture of greed (centralization) and “above our pay grade” decision-making (specialization) to see our financial futures to the promise land.  Who among us knows personally his/her banker? Who stops in regularly to his/her local banking branch and makes small talk before conducting business?  Basic trust between customer/client and banker has become a quaint relic of the pre-technology age.

What I’m talking about is a culture in which we entrust our financial (and all other) futures to a sector of uber-specialized bankers, who operate in a world where primary assets are securitized, collateralized, bundled, optioned, and commodified into a morass of marketable “backed-assets.”  These backed assets are only as good as their underlying, but in-no-way-resembling primary counterparts.  In a way, the mortgage backed securities that are at the bottom of this financial disaster are a lot like the USDA certified beef we buy at the supermarket.  Both are commodified bundles of individualized products, the quality and uniqueness has been cleansed to make the grade.  They are then homogenized for a secondary market, far…far from their point of origination.

It is time we transcended labels and grades, and demanded more from our “markets.”  These impersonal congolmerations of individuals, corporations and organizations somehow dictate our financial fate, and freedom.  It is up to us to demand transparency and to ensure that our financial system serves US, instead of our money being used as liquidity to serve the interests of the financial system.

Thus,  Van Jones’ notion is particularly apt.  Van is the founder and president of Green for All, a non-profit-organization dedicated to a national effort to curb global warming and oil dependence can simultaneously create well-paid green-collar jobs, safer streets and healthier communities.  This is precisely the time when Americans must stand up and demand that the government lead us into a green technology age. 

Please put us back to work creating real products that benefit society and the environment. 

Please put our fate back into the hands of hard-working people who create environmentally sustainable infrastructure on which our civilization relies.

Please take our financial futures out of the hands of greedy and irresponsible bankers and bureaucrats.

Please allow us to take back our own fates, by bringing technology and energy resources back to the masses.

Please empower the grassroots to achieve the sustainable change we have demanded for a generation.

Please put to rest the notion that environmental sustainability and economic growth are mutually exclusive.  At a time of record oil and gas prices (and profits), and massive unknowable environmental degradation, we stand at the precipice of economic ruin. 

Please enshrine an ethic of stewardship, responsibility and community.

Please put power back in the hands of the many to unleash the collective creativity of an industrious populous.

Please compensate us for being generalists, who seek the betterment of our community, modest and sustainable prosperity. Please disincent the aggregation of wealth into the hands of an overly specialized workforce that becomes fragily inter-dependent.

To add to this list, please write your own comment.