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Pep Talk for a Rainy Day

October 24, 2009

Sun_and_clouds "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way...."

The opening passage of A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best-known in English literature. Writing seventy years after the events portrayed, Dickens managed, in a few brilliantly turned phrases, to capture the fear, euphoria, and relief of a disillusioned society on the threshold of epochal change.

A hundred and fifty years after Dickens published his book, we find ourselves at a similar threshold. And if, like me, your view of the world is tinged with a healthy skepticism, you're probably thinking it will be a while before the clouds part, our animal spirits are revived, and we're ready to plunge once more into the breach.

If, on the other hand, you've been around the block a few times and, like John Mauldin (Thoughts From the Frontline), prefer the sunny side of the street, this is the best of times.

It's all a matter of perspective, as Mauldin explains in the most recent installment of his weekly missive. "[L]et's review those wonderful days from whence we sprang, so fraught with the advantages of having nothing," he writes, addressing himself to his good friend, the author (Empire of Debt) and financial newsletter (The Daily Reckoning) writer Bill Bonner.

It was the middle of the '70s....Inflation was high and rising. The Soviets were seen as a major threat. Japan was beating our brains out and buying everything, even if nailed down (like Pebble Beach and New York skyscrapers). I had to borrow money at 15% (or more) to buy paper in order to meet customer demands for printing. And guess what? The banks got into trouble and called loans willy-nilly....

There were multiple successive and ever-deeper recessions. Gold was rising and the dollar was seen as a joke. Howard Ruff (a good friend to both of us when we were starting out!) and almost every newsletter writer were telling people to buy gold and freeze-dried food to protect themselves against a near-certain economic, if not apocalyptic, catastrophe. Unemployment was high and rising for a decade.

The correct answer to the question, "Where will the jobs come from?" back then was, "I don't know, but they will." And that is the correct answer today.

In 20 years, no one will want to come back to the halcyon days of 2009. Our kids...are getting ready to live through what will be the most exciting period in human history. There will be a century's worth of change, measured by the standard of the 20th century, just in the next ten years, and then we will double that pace in the next ten after that. Medical miracles will mean our kids and grandkids will live a lot longer than their dads, although I intend to be writing well into my 80s, like our mutual hero Richard Russell.

There will be whole new industries developed in the US. How do I know that? Follow the money. The rest of the world spends a fraction of what we do on research and development. Where do you go if you are looking for venture capital?

Do I care if the Chinese and the "developing" world are far better off, relatively speaking, than the US in 20 years? Not a whit. Good on them. I hope they make discoveries and inventions and grow new businesses that benefit us all. But we are not going into some long dark night. We, and our kids, get to choose how we respond to what is the reality of the day.

Our nation had to almost hit the wall in 1980 before a Volker could come along and force us to take the pain of recession to beat back inflation. And we will have to come perilously close to the wall this time before we take action as a nation. Way too close for comfort. Maybe you are right, and we have a soft depression. I hope not; but even so, the world will be better, far better, in 20 years, with far more opportunities than today....

You are right in this: it is personal gumption that makes or breaks us. There are those who started out with less than we did (hard to imagine but true) and made a lot more. And there are those who started out with far more and made less. But there are very few who are happier than either of us. Or luckier.

Our kids? It is not the times that dictate the man (or daughter!), but the response of the man which dictates his own time. Today promises a brighter future for someone young than any other time in history, whether they are in the US or Brazil or China. They just have to seize it.

And as our kids do just that, and as the millions of kids of those who read us do so, and the billions of kids who are just now getting ready to bust loose all work to achieve their dreams, the world is going to be a far more fantastic place. Smooth ride? Not a chance. We didn't get one; and in thinking through history, there have not been many smooth rides. Why should we think that will get any better? Our kids will just have to live with our generational (and individual) iniquities, government debt and all, and figure out how to master their own fates. But if I had a choice to take the '70s or today? In less than a heartbeat I would choose today. And I bet you would too!

You're right, Mr. Mauldin. Thanks for the reminder.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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  • "[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance...."

    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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