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Jewish World Review
April 3, 2008
/ 27 Adar II 5768
Economic crisis is of our own making
The central conservative truth," said the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
The economic crisis now breaking upon us will be both a political and cultural event that may well be a turning point in our nation's history as consequential as the Great Depression. Which, by the way, is the historical standard to which some smart people like former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan are comparing this event.
When asked recently on National Public Radio why so many financial insiders are using such drastic rhetoric, Wall Street Journal economics editor David Wessel said the closer you are to the crisis, the more you understand just how "very frightening" it is.
The cultural roots of this crisis have to do with Americans' refusal to recognize natural limits. Americans have lost the ascetic virtue of self-discipline and have become impatient with the idea of constraints on their individual will. This is deeply rooted in American history and psychology, and both political parties base their appeals on their own particular version of liberty.
At no point, though, are the assumptions undergirding contemporary liberal and conservative notions of liberty seriously questioned. Our liberation from natural and traditional constraints can only continue in an atmosphere of steady, broad-based material progress, which, aside from the 1970s stagflation lull, we've experienced since World War II ended the Depression.
For nearly a generation, Americans have had the luxury to organize their political fights around cultural issues like abortion and gay rights because economics haven't been central to either politics or culture. And we have financed the illusion of sustainable progress through massive accumulation of debt, both personal and governmental. Prosperity masked decline; optimism occluded realism. As historian John Lukacs writes of the boom years in the current Chronicles, "The middle class habits (and virtues) of permanence, of saving, of passing their assets and values on to their children disappeared."
That now must change. The cost of our grand national experiment in living beyond our means is now coming due, and not just in the form of the housing crash. If the country indeed goes into a long, deep recession, forcing austerity and worse on the general public, the full social cost of casting aside traditional communal bonds and moral values the beliefs that enabled people to thrive during hard times will be painfully manifest. The psychological shock to the body politic will be sharp.
The credit crisis is not occurring in a vacuum. Consider:
The entitlements catastrophe, in which Social Security and Medicare claims by aging baby boomers will threaten to consume the entire federal budget, is only a few years away.
The price of oil, the natural resource upon which our entire consumer economy is based, is going to stay high and go even higher because the world faces demand from China, India and developing nations that outstrips supply.
Climate change and population growth are going to cause the price of water and food to rise sharply.
These three factors alone seriously complicate the likelihood that we'll be able to dig ourselves out easily from under the avalanche of debt. Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz recently remarked that in the era of limits to come, all the world's people are going to have to get used to defining economic progress in ways other than production and consumption.
Yes, the political class's response to the crisis so far has been anemic. Yet we cannot blame our politicians for failing to lead us, because they are the products of a consumerist culture that does not take "no" for an answer. How many politicians of either party could hope to win office by telling voters we have a responsibility to delay short-term gratification for the long-term good of the country?
Here's the hope: Economic and related events will force a change in the culture toward sustainability and a revival in localism, personal asceticism and traditionalism. This, in turn, will produce a new, more responsible politics, one that keeps the excesses of a culture in material and social crisis from damaging the common good and public order.
Here's the fear: The cultural shift soon to occur will turn Hobbesian, producing a fearful, nationalistic, demagogic politics, and G-d knows what to follow.
We live in interesting times. And neither liberals nor conservatives are ready for what's next.
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Rod Dreher is assistant editorial page editor of the Dallas Morning News and author of "Crunchy Cons" (Crown Forum).
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© 2007, The Dallas Morning News,
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.