Positively Critical

"The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something. Don't wait for good things to happen to you. If you go out and make some good things happen, you will fill the world with hope, you will fill yourself with hope." — Barack Obama

Oh, Crisis!

As an EFL teacher who mostly does classes by phone, I constantly have to look for topics that will interest my students; taunt and tempt them until they forget there’s such a thing as a language barrier. Moved by a desire to express themselves that’s bigger than them, these people will throw themselves into serious, complex monologues, proving that no matter the language, when a person is passionate about something, it always translates.

This week I chose an article about the crisis and a sample of the cuts some of the European countries have made to their budgets. Sure enough, students from all levels launched themselves into a talking frenzy, condemning the government and the wealthy for all the evils their country is now facing. Whilst being sympathetic, I couldn’t help but think how I’d heard this before.

In my other life, as I like to call it, I used to live and work in Puerto Rico as a CPA and personal financial planner. When I started working in the finance field, the market was strong and everyone was making a good buck. From employees, to retirees, to financial advisors, everyone was happy with the way money was flowing. A sense of confidence permeated the air. Confidence in the knowledge that a good strategy, proper diversification within the different investment types, would help investors maintain a certain level of security, protecting their assets the best way possible. Then things started to change, all at once.

Gas prices sky rocketed, the local government lost what little liquidity it had, and millions of outstanding mortgages, with huge balloon payments, began maturing at the same time. Companies were forced to close due to low sales and cash flow problems. Thousands of people were left unemployed. The time for elections came, and with the new administration thousands of other government employees were ‘encouraged’ to retire early, and ultimately made redundant when they didn’t. Mortgages went into default, citizens started dipping into their already low savings, and banks started to panic.

We all know the word bailout. It became the favorite word of journalists and newspapers all  throughout the nation. National and local banks were asking the government for help in preventing an even bigger disaster. Already hanging by a thin thread, banks, economists, and everyone invested feared the worst: that mass hysteria would win, and people would pull their money from the banks.

Now it’s been almost two years since I moved to Madrid. And it feels like I’m living through it all over again. Even though now it’s only from a certain distance, as I’m technically no longer part of the financial community, I can’t help but hear the voices of those who complain about the crisis and tell stories very similar to the one above.

Shocking? Certainly not. While in Puerto Rico, I lived in a financial world directly influenced by two power players: Uncle Sam and El coquí. Being a US territory, Puerto Rico’s economy is tightly bound to the mainland’s. But being a tropical island with a cultural history influenced by Taínos, Spaniards and Africans – colonized, conquerors and slaves – our economy is also marked by who we are and where we come from. And lately I can’t help but wonder if after all these years we’ve truly moved on, or have simply put a new shirt on.

It seems that no matter where I go, or who I talk to, arguments are all the same. Governments are to blame for the current financial crisis. Corruption in office, overspending on superfluous matters, and significant budget cuts on critical areas are among the things that seem to have brought the crisis upon us all. At least that’s what the majority of the people have to say. I can’t help but wonder, however, how many of us have truly stopped for a second to seriously and honestly ponder where the root of this world crisis lies. Let us think about that.

Latin American countries, much like Spain, seem to be complaining about the same thing – government officials and corruption in office. I can speak first hand about Puerto Rico and Spain, as they’re the two places I’ve lived in all my adult life. In both cases, democracy stands, for the most part. For years, Puerto Ricans have complained about the local government, corruption amongst politicians, nepotism, embezzlement and more. Over time we’ve had lots of proof of these illegal activities from government officials, yet we keep voting for them. Granted, we no longer vote for those who’ve been convicted. But I’ve come to think that has a bit more to do with their inability to run for office from a prison cell, than with our own sense of right and wrong.

Not only do we blame the government for being less than ethical, but we also blame it for the arbitrary budget cuts. Thousands of citizens were forced out on the streets, while top ranking employees keep spending money, to this day, on cars, chauffeurs, helicopter rides and more. Let’s not forget those big fat bonuses they pocket year after year.

The Spaniards are singing more or less the same song. The only difference I can notice in their tune is the actual pronunciation of the letter ‘z’ every time they use it, and often even when they don’t. It has been even more noticeable to me in recent days, when I’ve been using the mentioned article as a starting point for conversation in class. When asked who’s to blame for Spain’s financial crisis, they all say the same: politicians and the government in general.

I can’t help but silently ask, what are we doing about it? Certainly, people all over the world are paying attention and have quite a bit to say. It seems that every day there’s a protest in any given square in Madrid, let alone Spain. The same is happening in other countries as well. Occupy Wall Street being the obvious example. But, is this really the right solution? And if not, then, what is?

People all over the world have historically protested changes when imposed. Whether it’s on a private matter, or a public one, we don’t like change and seldom welcome it. Often – most of the time – change is good. Change is what pushes us to react, grow, evolve. It’s certainly painful, but even more so because we resist it. The thing is, we almost never realize how good change is while we’re experiencing it. What if we were the ones to create change?

Ask the person next to you how they would try end this financial crisis. Chances are the person will say ‘I don’t know’. Some might say ‘Getting rid of the politicians’. One of my students even jokingly suggested going back to using the guillotine and cutting off their heads. Nowhere in these answers is a hint that people are actually thinking about what they each could do. It’s easier to blame our problems on those in a position of power. Yet we forget it was us who put them there in the first place.

This crisis is of our own making. I’d dare say it’s a necessary evil, that should give us the opportunity to relearn lessons long forgotten. Lessons about working for the things we want; about paying attention; about taking responsibility for our own actions.

Some people are already remembering those lessons. Individuals who have chosen not to give up, but to give into change. I’ve seen people who’ve lost their jobs after a lifetime of service. Instead of giving up, they’ve reinvented themselves. Having always worked for others, and never using their imagination, these people have come up with ideas to start their own business and are now thriving. I will never forget the man who’s girlfriend worked at the bank I used to work for. After losing his job, he found he had a lot of free time in his hands. He also realized he had a talent for cooking, and thought about all those workers who, because of the crisis, could no longer afford to go out to lunch. He decided to put his talents to good use, and started selling healthy, $3 meals. Instead of waiting for clients to come to him, he went out looking for them. Within a couple of months, not only did he have a thriving business, but had also bought additional equipment and hired an employee. Now there were two less unemployed people in the world.

I can also think about my mother who, after over 35 years of experience as a PA, found herself without a job after the company she worked for was closed. Instead of staying down, she let go of her ego and resentment, and found a new career path as a caregiver for the elderly.

These are only two examples. I could mention past coworkers and friends, as well as myself, who in spite of the dreadful market conditions and financial crisis managed to thrive in the business and still do to this day.

Mistakes have definitely been made along the way, and this ‘crisis’ will last a few more years, at least. But as long as we keep blaming others for our mistakes, it’ll take us that much longer to overcome it.

——-

It’s Not Business as Usual. The finances of the world have been changing for a while. Media and the minds of those who are short-sighted have and will continue to focus on the negative, calling this a crisis. Both me, and my mom firmly believe that this is a wonderful time for citizens of the world to reinvent ourselves and evolve. To prove so, we aim to share with you as many success stories as we can find of real people who are making it happen.

——-

This post was originally published on a different blog of mine July 13, 2012.

 

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