Passions are like floods and streams: The shallow murmur, but the deep are dumb.
- Sir Walter Raleigh
If theres one topic that trumps the war with Iraq in most conversations today, it would have to be the economy. Headlines decry downed profits, disappearing jobs, and markets that seem to sink lower every day. The gravy train is pulling out of the station, and no other fortune-driven vehicle is coming down the track.
But not all news in our small part of the world is bad. With apologies to poet Ernest Thayer and his mighty Casey, theres joy today in Mudville - or the community formerly known as Mudville - for the mighty Thurmond is full again! Those who live or play at the lake can polish their skis, untie their muddy boats, and enjoy the water again. Years of receding shorelines and too little rainfall are gone - for now.
After reading the fascinating new book about the Augusta Canal, The Brightest Arm of the Savannah, by local historian Dr. Edward Cashin, Ive come to two conclusions: floods and droughts are certain, and they are cyclical. The Savannah River, for example, overflowed eight times between 1888 and 1936. Not only were homes damaged or destroyed by the floods, but the walls of the new - or newly-repaired - canal collapsed, drinking water was contaminated with sewage, water broke through the newly-built levee, and lives and livelihoods were lost because of ruined businesses or disease.
Droughts were devastating, too. With too little water in the river and canal, the Stevens Creek power plant couldnt generate enough electricity to power all those canal-inspired mills that revitalized the local economy. Crops were lost, businesses closed again and, worst of all, the great fire of 1916 destroyed 26 blocks in downtown Augusta and damaged seven more because there wasnt enough water pressure to put out the fire.
Modern technology may have designed better ways to combat the devastating effects of too little or too much rainfall, but no one has yet discovered how to prevent such calamities from happening in the first place. Both will likely occur, here in our small part of the world, again - and again.
In my stream-of-consciousness thinking, I see a similarity between changing water levels and a changing economy. We may have relished our bulging portfolios of the 1990s, and despaired when our boom went bust, but neither condition is any more normal than a flood or a drought. Too much money can be just as bad for the economy as too little.
I come to this conclusion because of the lesser headlines I see behind the layoffs, the corporate scandals, and the politics of assigning blame, and its those rest-of-the-story details that concern me more than the Dow Jones averages at the end of the day.
Americans not only sent more money to Wall Street in the past decade than ever before, but we incurred record amounts of debt. It was fun watching the stock numbers rise, but it was an illusion to think they would never fall. Other numbers have also reached record levels: bankruptcies are up and savings are down.
People have been in debt before, and recovered. Like floods and droughts, highs and lows in the economy are certain and cyclical, too. What concerns me most, however, is learning that people are more debt-tolerant today, bankruptcies are little more than a ritual, and the attitude, Ill think about (that) tomorrow, is too widespread.
Before the Berlin Wall came down, a group of West Berliners maintained a tiny Wall Museum near the American Forces Checkpoint Charlie. The narrow building was dominated by the drawings of children, including this message: The worst thing that could happen is that we get used to the wall.
Americans got used to the soaring economy of the 90s, even when economists told us the numbers were inflated. Recovering from this or the next (certain) recession depends on some changed thinking prior to the next (certain) flood-stage economy.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to seabara@ aol.com.)
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