We are in a weird age.
Do the smart thing, we were told, and invest in a 401(k) retirement account. Buy into the American dream and own your own home. But lately it seems that those who put their money in low-earning passbook savings accounts or rented rather than buying may have been better off.
Indeed, almost all the old familiar benchmarks of modern American life seem to be going by the wayside.
The blue-chip corporations that were long the brand names of world manufacturing and finance American International Group, Bank of America, Bear Stearns, Chrysler, Citigroup, General Motors and Lehman Brothers are either gone or teetering on insolvency.
The old-guard newspaper industry is fading the Tribune Company is in bankruptcy court, Hearst at one point threatened to shut down the San Francisco Chronicle, the Rocky Mountain News is already gone. The stock price of The New York Times is worth about the same as its Sunday paper.
Washington is more confusing. Bill Clinton balanced his last budgets but raised taxes. George Bush increased deficits but cut taxes. But now taxes, spending and deficits soar all at once. We are lectured that prior reckless federal spending and borrowing got us into this mess but now are told that even more federal spending and borrowing will get us out of it.
We've seen housing sales slump when home prices were high but interest rates low. Or when prices were low but interest high. Or when prices and interest were alike high. But we never have seen a bad housing market in which both home prices and mortgage interest rates were low.
Nonsense is passed off as wisdom. Those who caused the financial meltdown walked away with millions in bonuses while taxpayers covered the debts they ran up. The big-spending government claims it may cut our annual $1.7 trillion deficit in half by 2012 but only after piling up trillions more in national debt.
In our Orwellian world, borrowing to spend what we don't have has been renamed "stimulus." Those who pay no federal income taxes almost half of Americans can somehow be promised an income tax "cut." In the new borrowing of trillions of dollars here and trillions there, billions of dollars now sounds like pocket change.
When Americans turn to their political parties for answers, they are even more confused. Populist Democrats such as Sen. Chris Dodd and President Barack Obama took more AIG campaign cash than did pro-business Republicans.
And the list of big-tax liberals who cheated or avoided taxes they want to raise on others is astounding Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who oversees the Internal Revenue Service; failed Obama Cabinet nominee Tom Daschle; and Rep. Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Yet conservative Republicans during the Bush administration ran up the debt and increased federal spending far more than did liberals under Bill Clinton. A Republican president has not balanced a budget since Dwight Eisenhower did it over a half-century ago.
Abroad, we thought piracy ended with the age of sail only to learn that the world's 21st century navies either will not or cannot sink a few brigands in speedboats. Meanwhile, a U.N. conference against racism showcased Iranian president and Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spouting anti-Semitic hatred.
The old "bad" unilateral war in Iraq is now quiet; the once "good" multilateral effort in Afghanistan is not. We are warned that we must be careful not to explicitly associate the radical Islam that fueled the Sept. 11 attacks with terrorism; yet, we are advised that we should worry about returning American veterans as potential terrorists.
When our president references the 19th and 20th centuries, he apologizes for American sins but stays silent about the United States defeating Nazis, fascists, Japanese militarists and Soviet communists. The world hears contrition about Americans dropping the bomb to end World War II but never remorse from those responsible for Darfur, Grozny or Tibet.
There have been a few crazy years like 2009 in American history 1860, 1929, 1941 and 1968. And given what followed all of them, it might be wise to prepare for even crazier times for us ahead.