“The Economy” is supposed to provide a matrix of relative rationality and predictability for the relations among human individuals and the billions of their fellows that make up civilization. It’s also supposed to govern the hundreds of specific choices each of us makes daily—shop at Costco or Whole Foods, get the conventional bananas or the organic ones, work hard in school to qualify for a good job. It provided the success narrative for my parents’ achievement of the American Dream through hard work and thrift, starting with no money as refugees from the Nazis in 1937 and ending with their substantial bequest to us upon my mother’s death in 2003.

Having grown up sheltered by their steady progress, financial security never seemed urgent for me, and having my adult values largely formed as a high-achieving student at an Ivy League university where concern for money was considered plebian, I got more gratification from giving stuff away than from acquisition. That attitude was part of what led me to attempt to live off the land in a Thoreauvian “economy” in patrician poverty.  A couple of years of mortgage anxiety and mill work brought me around to a craving for any job that could generate a steady income.  When that finally arrived in my forty fourth year with a tenured position as professor and civil servant at a state university, I again lost interest in money. When the inheritance from my parents came through, my inclination was to donate  it all to charity. But I was dissuaded by my wife.

Her attitudes about money always diverged from mine.  The daughter of a banker, she was interested in me as a good prospect when we first met—PhD candidate at Stanford with secure academic career ahead. After several decades of disappointment of that expectation, she went to law school, passed the bar, and started her own law firm dealing with business law, employment law, trusts and estates, whereby success and failure was all about economy.

Despite being able to purchase whatever we wanted—new cars, real estate, a therapeutic private school stint for our daughter,  international travel, and tithing for charity—our assets grew.  We still maintained habits of relative thrift—drinking cheap wine, sleeping in Motel 6 on the road. Jan spent a good deal of time managing the portfolio.

The expansion of our wealth made me uncomfortable, especially in light of the attrition of the middle class and the growing gulf between rich and poor, making us part of the hated one percent.  Habits of thrift seemed absurd unless the money saved was being put to meaningful use.  I looked at our investments only once a year while preparing reports for our tax accountant and calculating our tithe.

In November 2019, I discovered that in the course of one year their value had ballooned by 25%, largely due to the influence of the despised Trump administration. I hunched it would soon drop. The moral thing would be to liquidate the ill-gotten gains now and turn them over to charity and righteous political causes.  The practical thing to do would be to turn them into cash and spend as much  as possible on things with tangible value.

The latter is what we chose. We purchased a new mobile home for our daughter, bought two electric vehicles and a Powerwall, donated to the Community Foundation for City Farm SLO and left enough to cover what we expected would be a large tax liability from the profit taking.

By the end of January after our accountant filled out the returns,  it turned out that we were getting $18,000 in refunds.  Most of the securities Jan had selected to sell were losers over time and the rebates on the car and Powerwall as well as the charitable contributions made for yet more credits.

Three months later, as the Pandemic has eclipsed all other concerns, personal and public, the significance of our economic windfalls keeps shifting.  The stock market continues reeling from the assault of the plague.  The hyper economy that tied together the whole world in a feverish gold rush sickening ecosystems and climate and draining wealth from the poor and funneling it to the rich, seems to be falling apart.  The majorities living paycheck to paycheck in tight quarters can’t possibly maintain social distance or shelter at home, while we are encouraged to exercise generosity by ordering takeout meals from favorite restaurants. The government’s decision to print and hand out trillions of dollars to everyone may either start limiting the damage we’ve been causing for the last fifty years or may simply accelerate collapse.

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