Walter Rodgers

Who deserves blame for the bad economy? We do.

By neglecting Ben Franklin’s gospel of thrift, Americans got into trouble.

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Let me get this right. We are in a painfully stubborn recession that began in the last years of George W. Bush’s presidency. And, if polls are right, President Obama, in office less than 21 months, is soon to be punished by voters who want to saddle him with a new, vindictive Republican Congress in November, committed to obstructing and blocking every White House initiative.

Huzzah! Let’s elect a GOP House and Senate, abolish federal taxes, and bankrupt the American Republic.

After the 1929 stock market crash, it took 11 or 12 years to pull the country out of the Great Depression. Poor Mr. Obama! He’s been given less than two years to perform some economic alchemy. Time’s up, Obama! Americans demand instant gratification after their binges.

Recommended: Benjamin Franklin: 10 great quotes on his birthday

We need someone to blame

Our sullen American electorate simply requires someone to blame, regardless of culpability. Today even my many Republican friends are flailing George W. Bush for running the US economy into the ground. Conveniently, they overlook the fact that they twice voted for Bush. Now they want to take out their frustration on Obama. We have become a mob exulting in political nihilism.

Yet blaming the “Bush leaguers” no longer serves any useful purpose. The blame game creates no new jobs for the millions out of work.

Let historians judge Bush’s economic stewardship. Now is the time for the rest of us to immerse ourselves in political truth-telling – reminding ourselves, as Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

As part of their poisonous recriminations, Americans indict avaricious Wall Street brokers and bankers while failing to acknowledge that they were willing feeders at the trough. Home buyers and investors have been no less greedy and dishonest than the Wall Street titans they castigate. Remember the popular “liar loans” that required no documentation of income to obtain a home mortgage? It took two to sign those forms. And do you recall the exotic bank investments that imploded two years ago? Someone gave them the money to gamble – it was us.

While I was out sailing earlier this month with a much chastened Republican friend who has watched his portfolio atrophy, he confessed he had invested far too heavily in high-risk stocks.

You can't get something for nothing

American investors deceived themselves with tomfoolery if they thought they were going to get something for nothing without risk or work.

Lesson No. 1: “Nothing in life is free.”

Lesson No. 2: Economies are ever cyclical. American economic history is packed like a Dagwood sandwich with booms followed by busts. During my past 40 years in the workforce, I went through at least five US recessions. Broadcasting is always hit hard. Many colleagues lost their jobs in these economic contractions. That’s the nature of the market capitalism we Americans revere.

Lesson No. 3: Economic suffering need not be catholic. Many more Americans could have safely weathered the financial storm of the past three years if they had heeded the wisdom of perhaps the wisest of our Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin.

Heed Ben Franklin's counsel

In two works, “The Way to Wealth” and “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” Franklin preached virtue from the canons of the Protestant ethic, which, when committed to heart, could have saved millions of Americans much suffering in this recession.

Poor Richard said, “The second Vice is Lying, the first is running in Debt.” Think for a moment of the huge credit-card debts Americans ran up in the past decade. Worried about losing my job in the first Bush recession of 1991, I quickly learned the best investment you can make is paying off all your debts as fast as you can.

Franklin also offered wise counsel for those who placed their faith solely on the stock market, expecting it to pave their streets with gold. “He that lives upon Hope will die fasting,” he said. And to those with dreams of becoming Wall Street high rollers he warned, “[L]ittle Boats should keep near shore.”

If you lost a bundle in the past three years in the market or in real estate, Franklin’s sympathy is spare. He said, “When the Well’s dry, they know the Worth of Water.” He was even less empathetic with other economic gamblers when he observed, “After crosses and losses, men grow humbler and wiser.” Having been raised an American Puritan, Franklin was our high priest of industry, frugality, and perseverance. “Industry pays Debts…,” he wrote.

Some writers suggest Franklin’s greatest invention wasn’t bifocal glasses but his aphorisms like, “If you would know the Value of Money, go and try to borrow some.” Too many Americans learned that truth painfully, buying ballooning mortgages and believing if they rolled over the investment quickly they would never have to pay off the mortgage. Wrong!

Perhaps if Franklin’s wisdom was taught again in schools, there would be less lust for political revenge this November – and more chastened self-reflection. We are a poorer people for ignoring his sage counsel. If we’ve tuned him out, perhaps we might heed Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, But in ourselves....”

Walter Rodgers, a former senior international correspondent for CNN, writes a biweekly column.

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