More than a million unemployed Americans are about to get the
cruelest of Christmas “gifts.” They’re about to have their unemployment benefits
cut off. You see, Republicans in Congress insist that if you haven’t found a job
after months of searching, it must be because you aren’t trying hard enough. So
you need an extra incentive in the form of sheer desperation.
As a result, the plight of the unemployed, already terrible, is about to get
even worse. Obviously those who have jobs are much better off. Yet the
continuing weakness of the labor market takes a toll on them, too. So let’s talk
a bit about the plight of the employed.
Some people would have you believe that employment relations are just like any
other market transaction; workers have something to sell, employers want to buy
what they offer, and they simply make a deal. But anyone who has ever held a job
in the real world — or, for that matter, seen a Dilbert cartoon — knows that
it’s not like that.
The fact is that employment generally involves a power relationship: you have a
boss, who tells you what to do, and if you refuse, you may be fired. This
doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If employers value their workers, they won’t
make unreasonable demands. But it’s not a simple transaction. There’s a country
music classic titled “Take This Job and Shove It.” There isn’t and won’t be a
song titled “Take This Consumer Durable and Shove It.”
So employment is a power relationship, and high unemployment has greatly
weakened workers’ already weak position in that relationship.
We can actually quantify that weakness by looking at the quits rate — the
percentage of workers voluntarily leaving their jobs (as opposed to being fired)
each month. Obviously, there are many reasons a worker might want to leave his
or her job. Quitting is, however, a risk; unless a worker already has a new job
lined up, he or she doesn’t know how long it will take to find a new job, and
how that job will compare with the old one.
And the risk of quitting is much greater when unemployment is high, and there
are many more people seeking jobs than there are job openings. As a result, you
would expect to see the quits rate rise during booms, fall during slumps — and,
indeed, it does. Quits plunged during the 2007-9 recession, and they have only
partially rebounded, reflecting the weakness and inadequacy of our economic
Now think about what this means for workers’ bargaining power. When the economy
is strong, workers are empowered. They can leave if they’re unhappy with the way
they’re being treated and know that they can quickly find a new job if they are
let go. When the economy is weak, however, workers have a very weak hand, and
employers are in a position to work them harder, pay them less, or both.
Is there any evidence that this is happening? And how. The economic recovery
has, as I said, been weak and inadequate, but all the burden of that weakness is
being borne by workers. Corporate profits plunged during the financial crisis,
but quickly bounced back, and they continued to soar. Indeed, at this point,
after-tax profits are more than 60 percent higher than they were in 2007, before
the recession began. We don’t know how much of this profit surge can be
explained by the fear factor — the ability to squeeze workers who know that they
have no place to go. But it must be at least part of the explanation. In fact,
it’s possible (although by no means certain) that corporate interests are
actually doing better in a somewhat depressed economy than they would if we had
What’s more, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that this
reality helps explain why our political system has turned its backs on the
unemployed. No, I don’t believe that there’s a secret cabal of C.E.O.’s plotting
to keep the economy weak. But I do think that a major reason why reducing
unemployment isn’t a political priority is that the economy may be lousy for
workers, but corporate America is doing just fine.
And once you understand this, you also understand why it’s so important to
change those priorities.
There’s been a somewhat strange debate among progressives lately, with some
arguing that populism and condemnations of inequality are a diversion, that full
employment should instead be the top priority. As some leading progressive
economists have pointed out, however, full employment is itself a populist
issue: weak labor markets are a main reason workers are losing ground, and the
excessive power of corporations and the wealthy is a main reason we aren’t doing
anything about jobs.
Too many Americans currently live in a climate of economic fear. There are many
steps that we can take to end that state of affairs, but the most important is
to put jobs back on the agenda.
PUEBLO, Colo. — On a summer night not long ago, Maureen White
sat alone in her living room staring at a DVD she had avoided watching for
On the screen was her older brother, Richard Paul White, the person who taught
her how to ride a bike and who tried to protect her from their mother’s abusive
boyfriend when they were children. He was confessing to murdering six people.
Toward the end of the videotaped police interrogation, Ms. White reached for a
razor blade and began to slice her left leg.
“I felt such rage and anger and so many emotions I did not know what to do,”
said Ms. White, 34. When she was done, she needed dozens of stitches and
Mr. White, 39, will spend the rest of his life in prison for three of the
murders, to which he pleaded guilty in 2004. Ms. White, whose life has always
been fragile, is still struggling.
Like relatives of other violent criminals, she has found herself ill prepared to
deal with the complex set of emotions and circumstances that further unhinged
her life after her brother’s crimes. Under treatment for anxiety and depression,
among other conditions, she has nightmares about serial killers and snipers. She
is startled by loud noises and gets nervous around strangers.
And for more than a year after viewing the video, she continued to cut herself —
something she had never done before.
“By cutting myself,” she said, “I wanted people to see on the outside how ugly
and bad I feel on the inside.”
In a society where headlines of violence are almost commonplace, the families of
the perpetrators are often unknown and largely unheard from. But now some
relatives have decided to share their stories. In interviews with members of
numerous families of varying social and economic status, siblings, parents,
partners, cousins and children of convicted killers recounted the hardships they
have experienced in the years since their relatives’ crimes.
In the flash of a horrifying moment, they said, their lives had become a vortex
of shame, anger and guilt. Most said they were overwhelmed by the blame and
ostracism they had received for crimes they had no part in.
Yet many of these families stay in close touch with their imprisoned relatives.
Nat Berkowitz, the father of David Berkowitz, the New York City serial killer
known as the Son of Sam, said he regularly talked to his son on the phone more
than 34 years after his arrest. “I am 101, and it still goes on,” he said.
A Cousin’s Livelihood
On Nov. 5, 2009, 13 people were killed and 32 others wounded at Fort Hood, Tex.
By the next day, the repercussions had reached a small law office in Fairfax,
Va. The head of the firm, Nader Hasan, is a cousin of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan,
the man accused of carrying out the rampage, and the two had grown up together
“Our phones went completely quiet, dead,” Mr. Hasan, 42, a criminal defense
lawyer, said at a large oak table in his impeccably neat office, where a
painting of the United States Capitol hangs above a fireplace. “It was
devastating since we relied on referrals. I lost dozens of prospective clients,
and it still happens.”
Internet accounts reported that the two men were relatives. An interview Mr.
Hasan gave to Fox News soon after the shooting in which he said his cousin “was
a good American” created an impression to some that he was condoning what his
cousin was accused of doing.
Soon after, Mr. Hasan said, a father in a custody dispute he was handling filed
an appeal to a lawsuit against Mr. Hasan in which he referred to him as “the
cousin of the Fort Hood shooter.” The appeal argued that Mr. Hasan should be
removed as guardian of the two children in the case and highlighted his link to
The petition was dismissed, Mr. Hasan said. But during the first few months
after the shooting, he said, he felt such humiliation that he was loath to
appear in court. “We got continuances on a lot of cases until the next year
because I did not want to be seen in the courthouse since I felt so
embarrassed,” he said.
The discomfort crept into his personal life. When he returned to a local school
where he had been a volunteer assistant wrestling coach since 2000, he said, he
was asked to leave because of his connection to the Fort Hood violence. He
By March 2010, Mr. Hasan’s situation was improving. Referrals were on the rise,
and his wife was pregnant with their first child. But he was agonizing about
staying silent about religious extremism. With a lawyer friend, Kendrick
Macdowell, he formed the Nawal Foundation, named after Mr. Hasan’s mother, and
set up a Web site to encourage moderate American Muslims to denounce violence in
the name of Islam. It was not an easy thing to do.
“There was a tremendous amount of family pressure on him to do nothing public,
to not remind the world we are related to the Fort Hood shooter,” Mr. Macdowell
Late last year, Kerry Cahill, a 29-year-old woman who lost her father in the
shooting, contacted Mr. Hasan to discuss the foundation, whose message she
liked. They met at his home for several emotional hours. She said that Mr. Hasan
was very apologetic and that she sensed he was burdened. She recently accepted
his invitation to sit on the foundation’s board.
“We are both angry at the same thing,” she said.
A Lover’s Remorse
Debra Kay Bischoff was not the woman who arranged for Ronnie Lee Gardner, a
career criminal with a history of escapes, to get his hands on a gun in a Salt
Lake City courthouse, a weapon that he used to kill a lawyer and wound a
sheriff’s bailiff in a failed escape.
But for the nearly 25 years that Mr. Gardner was on death row for that 1985
murder until his execution, Ms. Bischoff, who is his former girlfriend and the
mother of two of his children, felt a sense of responsibility for much of his
violence, including a previous killing of a bartender.
Ms. Bischoff cites her decision around 1982 to move from Utah to Idaho with
their daughter and son to get away from Mr. Gardner and start a new life. Though
she loved him deeply, she said, he had become terrifying to her.
Nonetheless, Ms. Bischoff, now 52, said: “I felt such remorse leaving. What if?
What if I hadn’t? He lost it because he lost us, the only people who ever showed
In a letter she sent in June 2010 to the prison warden and the state parole
board pleading for Mr. Gardner’s life about two weeks before his execution, Ms.
Bischoff wrote, “You see, he opened his heart to us and then we broke it, and I
honestly believe it was too much for him to take and he reacted in violent ways
to release his anger and hurt.”
That Mr. Gardner died by firing squad — a method he chose over lethal injection
— has left her with an even heavier conscience. And she says she has misgivings
that her husband of 27 years knows how deeply she loved Mr. Gardner.
“I never did get over Ronnie, and I don’t know it ever ended with him,” she
said, adding that she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work and
volunteering at a youth program, all to help troubled youngsters so that they
may have a better upbringing than he did.
Ms. Bischoff, her husband and the son she had with Mr. Gardner, Daniel, 31, live
in a one-story house they built next to potato and grain fields in a
middle-class neighborhood in Blackfoot, Idaho. Soon after the execution, Mr.
Gardner’s brother Randy and his daughter with Ms. Bischoff, Brandie, were
allowed to observe the bullet wounds in his chest to make sure he had died as
quickly as the authorities said he would.
“To look at his face and chest has haunted me,” Randy said. “I have night sweats
As for Brandie, 34, who works at a bakery earning $8 per hour, the fact that her
father had been absent virtually all her life has left her bitter and
distrustful of men.
“I wanted to be a daddy’s girl, but I did not have a guy to raise me or a first
guy to love, and that affected my relationships with men,” said Brandie, who had
an eight-year marriage that fell apart. “I have kept myself walled off so I
won’t get hurt again by any man.”
Brandie was in alcohol rehabilitation by the time she was 14, she said, and more
recently was charged with felony domestic battery after fighting a man while
drunk. “I have been destructive like a tornado because I have been so mad,” she
said. Soon after the execution, Brandie said, she attempted suicide by downing
large quantities of pills and washing them down with beer. She ended up in the
hospital for about three days.
Less than a month later, she was drinking Jack Daniel’s and swallowing more
“The last time I tried to kill myself, honestly, I felt like I was done,”
Brandie said, standing in a bedroom of the worn bungalow she rents on a
tree-lined street in Idaho Falls. In her hands was a plastic box containing some
of her father’s ashes.
A Brother’s Fears
Ever since Aug. 18, 2005, Robert Hyde has been leery about what perils may lie
outside, beyond his home near the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
That was the day his older brother, John, long plagued by mental illness,
embarked on a homicidal spree that spanned about 18 hours and left five people
dead in scattered parts of the city, with two police officers among the victims.
Mr. Hyde had never known his brother to be violent or cruel. He understood that
John, who like himself was adopted but from different biological parents, had
been paranoid and odd, but he did not think John was prone to violence. Knowing
now that John had descended into such savage behavior has changed the way Mr.
Hyde perceives people.
“The world is darker to me now; I am more nervous when I go out,” Mr. Hyde, 51,
said as classical music softly played in the living room of his modest Pueblo
revival-style house. “Who knows who else is out there somewhere who could change
so drastically?” he said. “Maybe anyone could.”
The first time Mr. Hyde traveled after the shootings, on a trip to a lake with
his girlfriend, they feared that others there might assault them. “It was
paranoia,” he said. “It was a degree of post-traumatic stress.”
Then there was simply the matter of his last name. He was self-conscious when it
was called at a doctor’s office. His son, he said, a high school senior when the
shootings occurred, endured nasty taunts from fellow students: “Are you going to
go Hyde on me?”
Not long after John, now 55, was arrested, he told his legal guardian that he
wanted to kill Mr. Hyde and their cousin Christian Meuli, a recently retired
physician. “I was so scared John was shrewd enough to escape that I was prepared
to flee from my home,” said Dr. Meuli, 60. For the next four years, he carried a
3-by-5 index card on which he had written phone numbers and other critical
information he would need in case he had to disappear.
Mr. Hyde used to work in the field of substance abuse research and now makes a
living selling antiques and other collectibles. He has devoted time to speaking
about the need for better access to quality behavioral health care and greater
communication between providers. He says he believes that could have made a
difference in his brother’s mental health and possibly in preventing the crimes.
“I have tried to get more involved in this issue, but I don’t have the power,”
Mr. Hyde said. “My last name is a hindrance.” A Sister’s Guilt
In 2003, life looked promising for Danyall White, another sister of Richard Paul
White. After a difficult childhood, everything seemed to be falling into place.
She was studying to be a court reporter at a school outside Denver and had a job
answering phones for a pay TV provider.
For about a year, though, her brother had been telling her that he had killed
women throughout Colorado. But Mr. White, then 30, often “said off-the-wall
things,” she recalled. She dismissed the morbid claims as fantasies.
One day Mr. White told her that he had fatally shot a close friend by accident,
another tale that she considered imaginary.
That was until he showed her a newspaper article about his friend’s death. The
article said it might have been suicide, but Ms. White, imagining the guilt the
victim’s parents might feel, decided she should inform the police about her
brother’s claim. He was arrested on first-degree murder charges. Soon after, Mr.
White confessed to killing five women he believed to be prostitutes (though the
police found the bodies of only three of them).
Now, Ms. White is grappling with her own guilt. “It wasn’t just the guilt of my
brother being behind bars, but the guilt of watching everybody’s life falling
apart because of what I did, the phone call that I made,” said Ms. White, 37.
“Some of my family shunned me, and it ate away at me.”
Soon enough, Ms. White said, she found “a friend and confidant” who never left
her side: alcohol. For several years, her days were soothed by Jack Daniel’s and
dozens of bottles of beer.
After the arrest of her brother, Ms. White abandoned her studies and was
dismissed from her job because, she said, the company told her it could not
assure her safety against colleagues’ threats and insults.
When her ailing mother died, Ms. White could barely function. She said life’s
toll since turning in her brother had led her to attempt suicide four times.
In 2010, Ms. White entered an alcohol rehabilitation program and says she had
been sober for 20 months before briefly relapsing recently. “I told no one in
rehab who I was, that I was R. P.’s sister,” she said. “In sobriety, I have
realized that I was taking responsibility for someone else’s actions. A lot of
the guilt has subsided.”
Calif. — Before going to war, Susan Max loved tooling around Northern California
in her maroon Mustang. A combat tour in Iraq changed all that.
Back in the States, Ms. Max, an Army reservist, found herself avoiding cramped
parking lots without obvious escape routes. She straddled the middle line, as if
bombs might be buried in the curbs. Gray sport-utility vehicles came to remind
her of the unarmored vehicles she rode nervously through Baghdad in 2007, a
record year for American fatalities in Iraq.
“I used to like driving,” Ms. Max, 63, said. “Now my family doesn’t feel safe
driving with me.”
For thousands of combat veterans, driving has become an ordeal. Once their
problems were viewed mainly as a form of road rage or thrill seeking. But
increasingly, erratic driving by returning troops is being identified as a
symptom of traumatic brain injury or post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D.
— and coming under greater scrutiny amid concerns about higher accident rates
The insurance industry has taken notice. In a review of driving records for tens
of thousands of troops before and after deployments, USAA, a leading insurer of
active-duty troops, discovered that auto accidents in which the service members
were at fault went up by 13 percent after deployments. Accidents were
particularly common in the six months after an overseas tour, according to the
review, which covered the years 2007-2010.
The company is now working with researchers, the armed services and insurance
industry groups to expand research and education on the issue. The Army says
that fatal accidents — which rose early in the wars — have declined in recent
years, in part from improved education. Still, 48 soldiers died in vehicle
accidents while off duty last year, the highest total in three years, Army
The Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs are also supporting several new
studies into potential links between deployment and dangerously aggressive or
overly defensive driving. The Veterans Affairs health center in Albany last year
started a seven-session program to help veterans identify how war experiences
might trigger negative reactions during driving. And researchers in Palo Alto
are developing therapies — which they hope to translate into iPhone apps — for
people with P.T.S.D. who are frequently angry or anxious behind the wheel.
“I can’t talk with somebody who is a returned service member without them
telling me about driving issues,” said Erica Stern , an associate professor of
occupational therapy at the University of Minnesota, who is conducting a
national study of driving problems in people with brain injuries or P.T.S.D. for
Though bad driving among combat veterans is not new — research has found that
Vietnam and Persian Gulf war veterans were more likely to die in motor vehicle
accidents than nondeployed veterans — experts say Iraq and Afghanistan veterans
are unique, for one major reason: their combat experiences were frequently
defined by dangers on the road, particularly from roadside bombs.
“There is no accepted treatment for this,” said Dr. Steven H. Woodward , a
clinical psychologist with the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System who
is leading a study of potential therapies for veterans with P.T.S.D.-related
driving problems. “It’s a new phenomenon.”
Though there has been some research into road rage among veterans, therapists
and psychologists have only recently begun to view traumatic brain injuries and
P.T.S.D. as factors in prolonging driving problems, probably by causing people
to perceive threats where none exist — such as in tunnels, overpasses,
construction crews or roadside debris.
“In an ambiguous situation, they are more likely to see hostile intent,” said
Eric Kuhn , a psychologist with the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Health Care
System, who has studied driving problems. He said his research found that
veterans who report more severe P.T.S.D. symptoms also tend to report being more
Experts note that driving problems are not always the result of the disorder. In
some cases, returning troops may be reflexively applying driving techniques
taught in Iraq during the height of the insurgency — for example, speeding up at
intersections to avoid gunfire or scanning the roadside for danger instead of
watching the road ahead.
In a study of Minnesota National Guard soldiers who returned from Iraq in 2007,
Dr. Stern and fellow researchers found that a quarter reported driving through a
stop sign and nearly a third said they had been told they drove dangerously in
the months immediately after their tours. Both results were higher than the
answers reported by National Guard cadets who had not been deployed.
Though driving problems seemed to decrease the longer the troops were home, they
did not always vanish. Dr. Stern found that many Guard members remained anxious
about certain roadway situations, including night driving or passing unexpected
“Those are things they associated with threats they saw in combat,” she said.
Ms. Max, a grandmother of four, was deployed at the age of 60 to Iraq, where one
of her jobs was to carry large sums of cash to Iraqi reconstruction projects
outside fortified American bases. She said she learned to be hypervigilant on
Upon returning to California, she struggled with P.T.S.D. and took time off from
her nursing job. She also noticed feeling nervous for the first time in her life
about driving — a major problem because she had to drive to visit patients.
“My whole driving behavior changed,” she said. “I live in a state of anxiety
when I’m driving.”
Ms. Max recently participated in a clinical trial to develop and test therapies,
such as deep breathing, that might overcome such anxieties. In a Pontiac
Bonneville sedan outfitted with equipment to track the driver’s visual focus,
heart rate and breathing, as well as to measure changes in the speed and
direction of the car, the researchers take patients onto highways and observe
their reactions to traffic hazards, real and imagined.
On a recent spin through the hills of Palo Alto, Ms. Max drove while Dr.
Woodward monitored her heart rate and breathing on a laptop in the back seat. In
front, Marc Samuels, a driving rehabilitation specialist who offers one of the
only programs for P.T.S.D.-related driving problems in the nation, directed her
along a preplanned route, prepared to grab the wheel if anything went awry.
Ms. Max mostly drove fine, but was startled slightly when passing a construction
site and then again when two cars momentarily boxed her in. Finally, when her
stress level spiked in a small parking lot, Mr. Samuels told her to stop the car
and regain her composure.
Ms. Max said that the clinics had made her more aware of the things that made
her nervous, a first step to conquering them. But she says she does not expect
to ever feel truly comfortable driving again and has no plans to replace her
beloved Mustang, which she sold just before her deployment.
“Why get a hot car?” she said. “I’m not going to enjoy it.”
People on the left and right have been wrestling over the
legacy of Jared Loughner, arguing about whether his shooting spree proves that
the Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the world are fomenting violence. But it’s
not as if this is the only data point we have. Here’s another one:
Six months ago, police in California pulled over a truck that turned out to
contain a rifle, a handgun, a shotgun and body armor. Police learned from the
driver — sometime after he opened fire on them — that he was heading for San
Francisco, where he planned to kill people at the Tides Foundation. You’ve
probably never heard of the Tides Foundation — unless you watch Glenn Beck, who
had mentioned it more than two dozen times in the preceding six months,
depicting it as part of a communist plot to “infiltrate” our society and seize
control of big business.
Note the parallel with Loughner’s case. Loughner was convinced that a conspiracy
was afoot — a conspiracy by the government to control our thoughts (via grammar,
in his bizarre worldview). So he decided to kill one of the conspirators.
It’s not clear where Loughner got his conspiracy theory. The leading contender
is a self-styled “king of Hawaii” who harbors, along with his beliefs about
government mind control, a conviction that the world will end next year. But it
doesn’t matter who Loughner got the idea from or whether you consider it left
wing or right wing. The point is that Americans who wildly depict other
Americans as dark conspirators, as the enemy, are in fact increasing the
chances, however marginally, that those Americans will be attacked.
In that sense, the emphasis the left is placing on violent rhetoric and imagery
is probably misplaced. Sure, calls to violence, explicit or implicit, can have
effect. But the more incendiary theme in current discourse is the consignment of
Americans to the category of alien, of insidious other. Once Glenn Beck had
sufficiently demonized people at the Tides Foundation, actually advocating the
violence wasn’t necessary.
By the same token, Palin’s much-discussed cross-hairs map probably isn’t as
dangerous as her claim that “socialists” are trying to create “death panels.” If
you convince enough people that an enemy of the American way is setting up a
system that could kill them, the violent hatred will take care of itself.
When left and right contend over the meaning of incidents like this, the sanity
of the perpetrator becomes a big issue. Back when Major Nidal Hasan killed 13
people at Fort Hood, the right emphasized how sane he was and the left how crazy
he was. The idea was that if Hasan was sane, then he could be viewed as a
coherent expression of the Jihadist ideology that some on the right say is
rampant in America. In the case of Loughner, the right was quick to emphasize
that he was not sane and therefore couldn’t be a coherent expression of
right-wing ideology. Then, as his ideology started looking more like a
left-right jumble, and his weirdness got better documented, a left-right
consensus on his craziness emerged.
My own view is that if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a
pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t
sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them
from responsibility. Glenn Beck knows that there are lots of unbalanced people
out there, and that his message reaches some of them.
This doesn’t make him morally culpable for the way these people react to things
he says that are true. It doesn’t even make him responsible for the things he
says that are false but that he sincerely believes are true. But it does make
him responsible for things he says that are false and concocted to mislead
I guess it’s possible that Beck actually believes his hyper-theatrically
delivered nonsense. (And I guess it’s possible that professional wrestling isn’t
fake.) But in that case the responsibility just moves to Roger Ailes, head of
Fox News, and Rupert Murdoch, its owner. Why are they giving a megaphone to
someone who believes crazy stuff?
The magic formula of Palin and Beck — fear sells — knows no ideology. When Jon
Stewart closed his Washington “rally to restore sanity” with a video montage of
fear mongers, he commendably included some on the left — notably the sometimes
over-the-top Keith Olbermann. The heads of MSNBC have just as much of an
obligation to help keep America sane as the heads of Fox News have.
To be sure, at this political moment there is — by my left-wing lights, at least
— more crazy fear-mongering and demonization on the right than on the left. But
that asymmetry is transient.
What’s not transient, unfortunately, is the technological trend that drives much
of this. It isn’t just that people can now build a cocoon of cable channels and
Web sites that insulates them from inconvenient facts. It’s also that this
cocoon insulates them from other Americans — including the groups of Americans
who, inside the cocoon, are being depicted as evil aliens. It’s easy to buy into
the demonization of people you never communicate with, and whose views you never
see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.
In this environment, any entrepreneurial fear monger can use technology to build
a following. You don’t have to be the king of Hawaii to start calling yourself
the king of Hawaii and convince a Jared Loughner that there’s a conspiracy
So I’m not sure how much good it would do if you could get a Glenn Beck to clean
up his act. With such a vast ecosystem of fear mongers, his vacated niche might
be filled before long. But I think Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch owe it to
America to at least do the experiment.
Postscript: Encouragingly, Roger Ailes said in the wake of the
Tucson shooting that “I told all of our guys, shut up, tone it down, make your
argument intellectually.” So stay tuned. Also encouragingly, two journalists
from liberal and conservative magazines — the American Prospect and National
Review — had an extremely civil discussion about the Tucson shooting, about 24
hours after it happened, on my Web site Bloggingheads.tv.
A year ago, Robert Paynter was comfortably retired and looking
forward to years of refurbishing old cars and boating from his dock on Lake
Norman in North Carolina. Over a 17-year career at Wachovia, he amassed a pile
of stock and options from the bank that he had assumed would be worth more than
But now the options are worthless, and he watched the value of his Wachovia
shares shrink to about $15,000 before he sold all of them this week after the
bank succumbed to the financial crisis and its stock fell to fire-sale prices.
The rest of his investments are in free fall.
“It’s like having an out-of-body experience,” said Mr. Paynter, 61. “It’s like
being in a hospital bed and watching yourself dying. Whatever the bottom is
going to be, I wish it would just get there. It’s the every day, watching the
blood drain out of it, that’s hard to take.”
To be sure, he has enough savings to not worry about missing any meals. But Mr.
Paynter is resetting his plans for retirement, and has already canceled a trip
with friends to Europe next year. “Today I’m O.K.,” he said. “But a year ago I
felt like I was in great shape.”
Across the country, Americans are tallying their many losses from the relentless
rout in the markets. Financial message boards on the Internet are filled with
confessions of fear — about hits to savings, job security and scuttled
“My plan was to never work again,” wrote one person who posted a comment on
Bogleheads.org, a Web site for investors who follow the long-term investing
advice of John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard funds. “But somebody called me
yesterday to see if I was interested in a job, and I am thinking maybe I will go
back to work.”
It is not just the declines in savings that people are feeling, reflected in the
shrinking balances on quarterly banking statements now arriving in mailboxes.
Based on interviews around the country last week as the market continued its
steep slide, many people say they are sensing losses beyond the short-term hits
to their portfolios. Some feel a loss of faith in the United States and its
government. Others are lowering their sights for the kinds of lives they expect
to lead in coming years.
“Maybe we have to readjust our expectations,” said Nicholas Gaffney, a partner
in a San Francisco public relations firm. “No one is entitled to anything.”
Mr. Gaffney describes himself as a buy-and-hold investor, and he has been
sensing good opportunities of late. He has plowed more than $10,000 into his
funds. The value of his portfolio, now at several hundred thousand dollars, has
dropped more than a quarter.
He confesses he has been fighting with himself over how closely he should follow
the market’s gyrations. One day, he checked the market on his Treo cellphone
about 200 times. “I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ ” he said. “I had to
stop because I was driving myself crazy. I think everything is going to be fine
if people don’t panic.”
That is wishful thinking at this point. Investors have withdrawn more than $81
billion from stock mutual funds since the beginning of the year, with nearly 40
percent of that coming in the last six weeks, according to AMG Data Services, an
industry research firm.
Not everyone is panicking, of course. Some are able to see the big picture or
find ways to distance themselves from the crush of news about the market.
“Maybe a shrink would have a field day with me,” said Beth Sparks, 40, a
self-employed lawyer in Colorado Springs. “But I have an ability to not think
A week ago, Ms. Sparks reviewed her investments for the first time since
January. All are down roughly 30 percent. But Ms. Sparks said she was not
concerned because she and her husband did not have a lot of debt. When her
husband inherited $50,000 last year, they used it to pay off their mortgage.
Vacations typically mean drives to Arizona to spend time with her parents. “I’m
just happy me and my family are healthy,” she said.
Peter Schade, 49, who runs his own ad design firm in Farmington Hills, Mich.,
said each day of bad news was a blow to the idea that he would ever be able to
“I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to be working for the
rest of my life,” he said.
For the last few weeks, Mr. Schade said, he has been closely monitoring the news
on the CNN satellite radio network in his car. “I just feel numb,” he said. “The
news is changing every half hour.”
Mr. Schade said he and others in the Detroit area were accustomed to weathering
downturns in the economy.
“It doesn’t make it any easier, but we’ve sort of fortified ourselves,” he said.
In many ways, he said, the rest of the county is just now starting to feel what
Detroit has been going through for years, giving people here a head start in
coping. “Detroit was the canary in the mine for this. We started this at least
three years ago.”
Tom Drooger, 56, of Grand Haven, Mich., is president of a chapter of
BetterInvesting, an investment club affiliated with the National Association of
Usually, Mr. Drooger is the type to study stocks closely and track the market’s
movement throughout the day. By Friday, he was no longer even paying attention.
He has decided to stop watching the market news on CNBC for now and instead puts
on easy-listening music.
“There’s nothing you can do about it after a while,” he said.
He compared the financial crisis to a house on fire and said he was merely
waiting until the flames die down.
“Once the fire’s out, you go in and do the repairs,” he explained. “To start to
try to move things around until the market wrings itself out is pointless. I’m
just sitting on the sidelines, leaving everything where it’s at.”
College students are watching from the sidelines, too, since they typically are
more concerned about jobs at this stage of their lives than the nest eggs.
Matthew Ehrlich, 23, a second-year law student at Wayne State University in
Detroit, is worried about whether the economy will improve before he graduates
“If things don’t get better in the next two years, I’m going to have a real
tough time,” he said. “My hope is that I can just ride it out until the
financial markets get back on track.”
Mr. Ehrlich is still debating what type of law to specialize in and said this
crisis might ultimately influence his decision.
“The way things are going, bankruptcy law seems to be pretty hot,” he said.
Beyond the personal toll to their savings, some people said they were concerned
about what the financial crisis said about the United States.
“All I can tell you is it is a lack of faith in America,” said Pat Emard, 65, of
Aptos, Calif., who now worries she may have to go back to work. “People have
lost faith in our government. I don’t know what happens now.”
That sense of uncertainty is also troubling to Renee Snow, 73, a retired teacher
who taught in the Chicago public schools for 38 years.
Born during the Depression, Ms. Snow said it was in her DNA to save, save, save.
Over her career as a teacher, she did just that, and Ms. Snow, now a widow,
lives off her teachers’ pension and income from her tax-exempt savings plan. She
says she has always put her money in insured products when she could.
“I never watch the stock market, and now I’m watching it every day,” she said.
She has money socked away in savings accounts in different banks but recently
began researching whether her banks were solid.
The economy is a frequent topic of conversation among friends at the Jane Addams
Senior Caucus, an organization in Chicago where she volunteers as a board
Over the last couple of weeks, a general malaise has taken over, Ms. Snow said.
“It’s very hard to have much faith in what the government is doing when they
change it every day,” she said. “As you read more and more about how we got into
this situation, you have less and less faith of how we’re going to get out of
She has an ominous feeling about the future, she said. “You don’t go through
life thinking the bank I do business with could go belly up tomorrow,” she said.
“This is a new feeling people are living with.”
Nick Bunkley and Crystal Yednak contributed reporting.
Scientists Are Showing
How to Erase Your Fright
July 19, 2008
The Wall Street Journal
What goes on inside your head when your portfolio implodes?
One of the fear centers in your brain, the amygdala, can respond to upsetting
stimuli in 12 milliseconds, or one-25th the time it takes to blink your eye.
These brain cells fire when an attack dog snarls at you, a spider drops down
your shirt or the Dow Jones Industrial Average takes a dive.
Merely reading the words "market crash" in this sentence can
instantaneously jack up your pulse and your blood pressure, the output of your
sweat glands and the tension in your muscles. Stress hormones will flood your
bloodstream. Your eyes will widen and your nostrils flare, making you
hypersensitive to any further danger. All this occurs automatically,
involuntarily and unconsciously. You can't be an intelligent investor if,
without even knowing it, you are thinking with the panic button in your brain.
The countless people who bailed out of the market in the horrifying plunge of
October 2002 missed out on the generous returns of 2003 through 2007, when
stocks returned 12.8% annually. The same is likely to be true of those who cut
and run in today's turbulent market.
Fortunately, you can train your brain to stay calm when the markets are gripped
by panic. Last week, I spent an afternoon in Kevin Ochsner's neuroscience lab at
Columbia University in New York, practicing what he calls "cognitive
I sat at a computer and viewed a series of photographs, each preceded by one of
two words: look or reappraise. look was my cue to respond naturally without
trying to change my feelings. reappraise told me I should "actively reinterpret"
the photo, using my imagination to spin another, less emotional scenario that
could have resulted in the same image.
Dr. Ochsner had warned me to eat an early, light lunch, and I immediately
realized why: I gasped at the sight of a man's hand from which most of the
fingers had been freshly hacked off. But my instruction had been to reappraise,
so I forced myself to ask whether this image might actually be a still from a
horror movie. Magically, the moment I imagined it was a film prop, the raw flesh
seemed to look a bit like plastic, and I felt myself exhale.
If I can think away blood, you can calmly face the red arrows on a market Web
site. "Emotions are malleable," Dr. Ochsner said, "but people often don't
realize how much [of what you feel] is under your own control."
Here are some ways you can control your fears.
Reappraise. Forget what you paid for that stock or fund; instead, imagine it was
a gift. Now that it is priced, say, 20% more cheaply than in December, should
you want to return the gift? Or should you buy more while it is on sale? (If
rethinking a fallen price this way doesn't make you feel better, maybe you
Step outside yourself. Imagine that someone else has suffered these losses.
Think of questions you might ask to give that person advice: Other than the
price, what else has changed? Is your original rationale for this investment
Control your cues. Even witnessing someone else's pain, or glancing into another
person's frightened eyes, can fire up your amygdala. Because fear is as
contagious as the flu, quarantine yourself from anyone who obsesses over the
momentary twitching of the Dow. Tear yourself away from the computer or
television; better yet, while the market is closed, make an advance date with
friends or family to get your mind off stocks during market hours.
Track your feelings. Fill in the blanks in this sentence: "Today the Dow closed
down [or up] ___ points, and that made me feel __________." Your emotions
shouldn't be hostage to the actions of the roughly 100 million other people who
compose the collective beast that Benjamin Graham called "Mr. Market." You need
not be miserable just because Mr. Market is.
Finally, if the market is open, your portfolio should be closed. Sleep on any
sell decision until the next day, when your fears may have faded. Intelligent
investors act out of patience and courage, not panic.