Times of trouble

I returned from my travels to find the country in the grip of a financial panic.  The stock market is in free fall.  Retirement accounts have lost two trillion dollars of value in the last few weeks.  The baby boomers, that self-obsessed generation so often mocked in this blog, may be getting their final come-uppance.  Or maybe not:  the President’s bailout package can be defined as the boomers taxing their offspring, in an attempt to preserve affluence unto the grave.

It’s generational, not ideological.

The chaos and loss in the financial system has dealt the most serious blow to our country since 9/11.  Unlike 9/11, however, we lack an enemy to unite us.  Still, the urge to place blame has been impossible to resist.  The President, his predecessors, Congress, the Fed, bankers and their lobbyists, the borrowers and speculators — all have had their turn serving as surrogate enemies.  No doubt each and all bear some responsibility, but the complexity of the problem makes scapegoating a sterile and ignoble exercise, solving nothing, helping no one, and turning us in the wrong direction, toward the past.

The function of morality is to build character.  The importance of character becomes apparent only during troubled times.  In an age of abundance, with desire and ambition satisfied, it’s painless enough to make a show of virtue by joining campaigns to “save the earth” or “make poverty history.”  In leaner times, when the belly rumbles, the true nature of a person will emerge.

We may be entering such a moment in our history.  I’m not an economist.  I’m not making predictions — and certainly not expressing a preference.  The prosperity of the last 30 years has been wonderful.  My vote is for it to continue forever.  But no one guaranteed endless prosperity, and so far the disaster has affected our wealth rather than our survival.  It’s a bonfire of the vanities — a decline, not a fall.  Nobody starves to death in America.  Nobody gets thrown out of his home into the cold winter night.

We are less affluent by an unimaginable sum of money, but virtually all Americans possess the necessities of life.  How, then, to proceed?

The best advice was offered two generations ago by Franklin Roosevelt, with regard to an earlier economic catastrophe:  reject the counsels of fear.  Stand fast againt the cry to burn witches and sacrifice scapegoats, an ignoble offspring of fear.  Question promises of fast, easy, political solutions for what is a longstanding, difficult, economic problem.  Political snake oil salesmen prey on fear and despair, and will trample on our freedoms for cheap fixes that cost far, far more in the long run.  Think Richard Nixon freezing prices in 1971:  it took a decade, and the steep recession of 1982, to undo the damage.

We must look to the future — and, for the purposes of the future, we are not victims of plutocratic conspiracies, but free citizens working our way out of a mess.  The key word is “work.”  We didn’t achieve prosperity by dint of financial algorithms, but by hard work and living within our means, in the context of a free market.  The solution to the present predicament isn’t a wielding of power from on high, but an assumption of personal responsibility by each and every one of us.  The cause of the disaster may lay elsewhere:  but only individual Americans, with moral confidence and a faith in ourselves and in the fruits of our labor, can overcome it.

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