Our VoiceNews & Politics

Birthday’s don’t Pay Like They Used To

Eric Ward • Jul 15, 2008

I don’t know about you, but I’m a grandmaster of birthdays, well at least my birthday. If you happen to be one of those people who know me personally you probably know about my birthday. I celebrate my birthday for fifteen days straight. That’s seven days before and seven days after, just in case you’re doing the math. In light of all the recent studies showing a stark decline in leisure time, I want to make sure I give each of my friends the opportunity they need to free their time and juggle finances to celebrate me!

My birthday has always been special to me. It’s during that time that I like to take stock of my life and accomplishments. It’s when I like to stare into the mirror and give myself the “stern talking to,” “the pep talk,” or what I like to call the “look of satisfaction.” It’s during those quiet times - in-between opening the many wonderful presents, devouring the amazing cakes, or answering the hilarious phone calls from friends - that I think it’s important to assess my past, present and future.

I can remember most of my birthdays clearly. I can even tell you what I was doing on those days. When I was younger, my birthday parties were an excuse for the whole family to get together. Although the focus on me quickly shifted to family gossip, I also got birthday cards filled with hard cold cash. Like any American kid, I was ecstatic to see those green bills. I would negotiate with my mother over how much I had to put into my savings account (the Play-Dough container on my shelf), and over how much money I could spend on comic books, toys and candy.

I like to say I was good at saving, but I would eventually spend the money in my special container. I am sure many of you can relate to the disappointment upon picking up a piggy bank that is too light to contain much cash. (How does it go so fast? I still wonder that every pay check.) In many ways my birthdays served as my earliest lesson in the importance of taking personal responsibility for my finances.

Now that I’m an adult, it’s rare to find cash in my birthday cards. But I haven’t forgotten the financial schooling those birthdays provided me. I may not be the smartest with my money, but I still try to tuck a little away for a rainy day. And taking personal responsibility doesn’t just mean staring at my wallet, it also means looking at the wallet of the country. I mean it’s my tax dollars at work, isn’t it?

Well I’m looking at our nation’s wallet today and I don’t like what I see. A day before my birthday, IndyMac Federal Bank closed its doors and was taken over by the F.D.I.C. Two days after my birthday, Washington Mutual stock fell by 50%. Experts say these are simply the first partygoers who had a little too much to drink and that others will shortly leave the festivities as well. And there are far too many Americans for whom the gluttonous celebration has always been off limits. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine both large and small piggy banks across the country coming up empty.

While I listen to anxiety inducing news reports as I celebrate my birthday this year, I can’t help but wonder what my role has been. I mean, how did I help create a situation that allowed banks to close their doors? It’s as if I’ve been teleported back in time to The Great Depression?

As I stare into the mirror for an answer, it’s clear that I just don’t know enough about how the economy operates to answer. That shows a lack of personal responsibility on my part, and that just won’t do.

Well, I’ve given myself a stern talking too and I’m about to do something about it. From July 27 – August 2, 2008 the Center for Popular Economics is coming to Chicago. They will teach me how economics impacts my life, my community and my work. The summer institute is designed for folks like me who slept through high school economics and don’t know the difference between the “mean” and “median.” This is my present to my country and me this year.

When you see me walking down the halls at the Summer Institute be sure to wish me Happy Birthday!

(Image gratefully borrowed from jenn_jenn’s photostream on flicker.com/creativecommons)

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