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Harrop: Better off than 4 years ago? I’d say so

Published: Monday, Sept. 10, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT

Are you better off today than you were four years ago? Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign zinger is back in 2012.

Let’s see. Four years ago ... four years ago. That was September 2008. Oh yes, I remember it well.

It was a time of white-knuckled panic that a new Great Depression was upon us. The banks were teetering, then insurance companies, then other big corporate names – notably General Motors. Stock prices were plunging along with house values. But even before that craziness started, the federal budget was snowing blizzard-condition deficits – the inevitable pileup from reckless tax cuts and accelerated spending.

These were the last months of the George W. Bush administration. It was when Bush launched both the Wall Street and Detroit bailouts, not because he found them ideologically agreeable, but because it was that or the abyss.

Do you remember Sept. 29, 2008, when Republican hotheads in the House – helped by some on the left – rejected the bank bailout? As they cast their votes, the Dow Jones industrial average fell almost 800 points. Minds changed quickly after that.

By October, credit had tightened to the point even great corporations couldn’t borrow. Unemployment started rising fast.

The next February, the new Obama administration had to run stress tests to see whether the too-big-to-fail banks could survive a worsening downturn on their own. At the same time, it was laying out the conditions for extending further taxpayer assistance to GM.

The terrifying possibility existed then that the American auto industry would collapse and the industrial Midwest with it. By August 2009, unemployment hit a peak of 10 percent. Remember all this? My stomach remembers, as do many other stomachs.

Reports started coming in of mounting health and emotional problems, especially for the newly jobless and owners of small businesses. Anxiety and depression robbed sleep of even the securely employed. After years of careful saving, heavy economic losses haunted their wee hours. The famous McLean psychiatric hospital outside Boston admitted 31 percent more patients in December 2008 than it had a year before.

Let me get personal. Am I better off than I was four years ago? Through a combination of fiscal prudence and good luck, I did better than others. I was able to keep my job and my health coverage. Thanks to my inherited aversion to debt, I had only a tiny mortgage on my house. I ignored the real estate hucksters urging me to parlay a rising house price and low interest rates into a bigger and fancier hacienda, or to borrow off my home equity and have a good time, or to purchase other properties for investment.

But never having treated my house as a retirement plan, I always deposited as much of my paycheck as I could into my 401(k) plan and Individual Retirement Account.

I also kept a separate, conservatively run investment account. Swooning stock values had robbed a big chunk of those savings. That stressed me out.

But the sharpest anxiety came from not knowing when and where the chaos would stop. I also fumed that this middle-class anguish was unleashed by a made-in-Washington crisis. It was the result of a paid-for governing class arranging the country’s laws and economic policies for the massive enrichment of financial speculators.

Four years later, my investment portfolio has recovered, although not my house price. The financial markets have stabilized, and my nerves no longer jangle in anticipation of the next headline.

So all in all, am I better off than I was four years ago? I’d say yes. And so would most of us, if we really thought back to September 2008.

• From Harrop is a member of the Providence (R.I.) Journal editorial board.

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