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Is the economy spoiled? Are we sour?

When our daughters were little, we used to sing to them about the old lady that swallowed a fly. You might remember that she had to swallow a spider to eat the fly and a bird to eat the spider and so on. The lady died after swallowing a horse.

With my apologies to the composer, I have written some new lyrics for these times:

There Was an Economy That Depended on Oil
(To the tune of "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly")

There was an economy that depended on oil.
I dunno why it depended on oil; perhaps it will spoil.

There was an economy that loved SUVs
To haul all its workers far from the cities.
The cars pushed the economy to depend on more oil.
But I dunno why it depended on oil; perhaps it will spoil.

There was an economy with faraway mansions
That were easy to heat during economic expansions.
Folks commuted from mansions in those SUVs
That hauled all those workers far from the cities.
The car pushed the economy to depend on more oil.
But I dunno why it depended on oil; perhaps it will spoil.

There was an economy where people bought stuff
Until all their creditors said, "That's enough".
Folks kept buying stuff to full up the mansions; They commuted from mansions in those SUVs
That hauled all those workers far from the cities.
The cars pushed the economy to depend on more oil.
But I dunno why it depended on oil; perhaps it will spoil.

There was an economy where jobs were no more
And those that existed were in Bangalore.
Folks borrowed and borrowed to buy all their stuff.
They kept buying stuff to fill up the mansions.
They commuted from mansions in those SUVs
That hauled all those workers far from the cities.
The cars pushed the economy to depend on more oil.
But I dunno why it depended on oil; perhaps it will spoil.

There was an economy where interest rates rose;
It spoiled, I suppose.

Now, I don't think the economy is going to spoil. But I do think that things are far more connected than we had ever imagined. If you examine something like oil, you see that the rising cost of it and its sister, natural gas means that people must dedicate more of their monthly cash flow to gasoline or heating bills. This leaves less money for things like going out to eat, or shopping or vacations. Which means that restaurants, retail and resorts might suffer. So too people like taxi drivers, waitresses and dry cleaners, among a host of others. Which means there is less money to spend in the community. And on and on.

But oil represents an obvious connection. What about the more subtle connections that affect how we live? One thing that affects us is our abundance. While not everyone in the United States feels rich, compared with most of the world's people, we are doing pretty well.

In his book "A Whole New Mind," about our move from the information to the conceptual age, Daniel Pink points out, "The United States spends more on trash bags than 90 other countries spend on everything. In other words, receptacles of our waste cost more than all of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world's nations."

Yet with all of this abundance, we are no happier as a nation than we were several decades ago. And perhaps no happier than some of those other 90 countries.

And that, in part, is about connections. We talk about our needs to simplify our lives as we see others around us complicating theirs. Yet the act of what others do has an influence over us. It works in good ways and not so good ways.

When someone does an incredible job of taking care of his or her yard, it makes us want to take care of ours. And when someone talks about their "gifted" kids -- we must truly live in Lake Wobegon with all the parents talking about their above-average children -- it is hard not to either feel bad or brag about our own. Sometimes these community connections push us. But they can also limit us.

So here is my proposal to begin within our community to connect to things more positively.

First, think about what tools you have to make a difference. You might be shocked at what you discover. Years ago I served on a volunteer board and I received a handwritten note from the chairman of the board thanking me for something that I said in the meeting. That had an enormous impact on me, and now I try to pass on as many handwritten notes as I can.

Second, think about doing something that you feel is right, just because it feels right. For a couple of years, our family has participated in the Xcel Energy Windsource program which allows us to buy blocks of renewable energy equal to the energy used in our home. The program increases our energy bill, but such small acts by enough people can lead to very large changes.

Third, increase your giving. When money feels the scariest, you must do something to make it feel a little less important. I have always found that when I am feeling bad about money, if I give some of it up for others, it makes me feel a little better. And I know it's because in a small way I let money stop controlling me.

Fourth, try to look at what is going right with your life and focus on that. By thinking about what is working, you get to build off of your successes. Yes, there are always things that get in the way, but there is often far more that is right than we are willing to imagine.

About the author: Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. He is a certified financial planner and author of "The Wealth Management Index." His Gains & Losses column appears on the second Sunday of the month. His e-mail address is ross@accredited.com.

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