News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Saturday, February 7, 2009

A lesson from the sea

Sometime in the late nineteenth century, two brother s were orphaned by an influenza epidemic in the Catalan region of Spain. The boys, 11 and 16, wandered to Barcelona where they found work aboard a merchant ship. When they arrived in the port of Havana and heard stories of cheap, arable land in Cuba's interior, the brothers slipped off the boat and headed inland. Within a decade, the brothers became the owners of a sizable farm and a thriving produce business.  The younger sibling was my grandfather.

While I cannot confirm the accuracy of this handed-down family tale, the boy who grew up to become my grandfather certainly exhibited the character to suggest the lore was true. More importantly, the wisdom he imparted to his family has a great deal of relevance for us today.

My grandfather believed business was like the ocean; a place where the only certainty was change. "When the weather at sea was bad, we knew the storm would eventually pass. When the weather at sea was good, we got the ship ready for bad weather." 

Today we face a severe economic storm. In a reaction typical of all recessions, companies are shedding employees hoping to improve their balance sheets. Yet every layoff reduces the number of consumers with the income to buy the products they sell. This short-sighted thinking only fuels the downward momentum.  

Ironically, the catalyst for this economic storm came from short-sighted thinking as well.

Over the last decade, U.S. consumers have behaved as if the fair weather would last forever.  Personal savings became almost non-existent as middle income households leveraged themselves to the hilt in speculative investments. Forget CDs and other insured securities. The "smart money" flocked into real estate, stocks and other high-risk investments. People who paid off their homes were ridiculed by those who insisted the smart thing to do with any extra money was buy a second house rather than pay off the first one. Few considered the day would come when the price of real estate would drop.  

My grandfather lived through Cuba's War of Independence from Spain, two World Wars and the Great Depression.  Through it all, he persevered and prospered because he never forgot the simple lesson he learned as a boy aboard a ship. It's a bit of wisdom that would serve us all well today.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez

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