Princeton, NJ I have to admit, I have been finding it difficult to write much of anything of late. This is a fairly unusual condition – usually I find no lack of windmills at which to tilt, and am generally more than eager to engage in the folly of battle. However, recently I’ve been fighting a bit of a nasty virus of some kind, and have had little energy beyond trying to keep myself upright at appropriate times. I’ve probably made myself susceptible to illness because of a punishing travel schedule and a plate that’s a bit too full. But, perhaps above all, I find myself increasingly depressed about the state of the world. In spite of the best efforts of sites like this one to fight the good fight, the overwhelming trajectory of our civilization seems to be toward utterly willed and delusional self-destruction. Things seem to me to be so bad, on so many fronts, that one hardly knows what to say anymore. I have the urge to curl up and sleep, or at the very least, to protect my children as best I can from the conflagration we are, by all appearances, willingly and even eagerly entering.
Yesterday our President spoke at length about the economy at the school at which I teach, Georgetown University. A nominally Catholic University, it might rightly have been the place where a new vision for a humane economy might have been advanced. It might have been a stage on which the great teachings of the Catholic tradition about an economy that is subordinate to concerns about commonweal based upon a true understanding of human nature and natural limits might have been advanced – rather than a stage on which the symbols of Jesus Christ were obscured so not to disturb the viewing audience from any inconvenient symbol of the actual Messiah. Widely touted as an opportunity for the President to lay out a new vision for the economic future of the nation, instead it was a commitment to do more of the same, albeit with more centralized control and command, with an aim to “restoring” an economy whose sole purpose is to generate a wasteland of consumerism, debt-driven distraction, endless hedonic opportunities and the destruction of human communities everywhere in the name of efficiency, meritocracy and opportunity.
The President began with an overview of the causes of our current economic crisis. It was an explanation that was correct in all particulars and wrong on all the fundamentals. The economic collapse, he argued, had its roots in abuses in the housing market, a bubble that was inflated by means of cheap credit, greedy lenders, foolish and often duplicitous borrowers and – above all, according to his narrative – scoundrels on Wall Street. All this was true in its particulars, though none of it was fundamentally true as an explanation of how we have gotten here. The housing bubble was simply yet another in a string of bubbles that has come to define the American economy over roughly the past forty or fifty years. We have replaced an actual economy with this “bubble” economy because of a deep, pervasive, and wholly unjustified expectation that we deserved to live as well or better than that “greatest generation” who happened to live in a time of extraordinary and exceptional (and temporary) national wealth. In that decade or two after World War II, America attained a remarkable position in the world, with its industrial machinery wholly intact and ready to roll, a national and worldwide market poised to buy American goods, and a resource base that appeared to be limitless. All competition lay in the smoking ruins of post-War Europe. It was during this time that the modern American economic system was born, one with expansive pension programs, a rising middle class, the creation and growth of the American suburbs, the automobile and trucking culture that allowed them to flourish (and which was supplied extensively by the industrial system), and growing consolidation of industry to achieve economies of scale. Industry worked closely with Government to achieve a de facto national industrial policy, with enough wealth and prosperity to go around for everyone to have a healthy cut of the pie. Indeed, Government preferred a few large industrial actors with which to interact, to decrease transaction costs and simplify the legislative and regulatory processes, just as those big actors preferred a landscape of only a few large competitors rather than numerous smaller ones. The transformation of the American landscape was undertaken in earnest, with small retailers being displaced by a few large ones, with small industries being eaten up by a few big ones, and with small farmers leaving the fields in droves to be replaced by a few large agricultural conglomerates. The foundations of the imperative of “too big to fail” was laid during this period.
This golden period – if it can truly be considered one – could not last. It was built, above all, upon a base of endless cheap oil. The new national economy rested upon a national (and increasingly) international system of trucking and then shipping, with supply chains extending thousands of miles, permitting the homogenization of the national and increasingly international economic system. Much of the modern economy rested upon the spreading of the suburban dream – a dream that rested above all upon the transformation of frugal workers and citizens into “consumers” – sustained first by installment plans and then easy credit – and the transformation of farmland into housing tracts. The ugliness of this new landscape was beyond description, though we largely came to accept it as “normal,” sequestering it to particularly unsightly intersections while maintaining the illusion that we lived on country estates (albeit, only by means of six lane feeder roads that took us past the commercial blight and defiled farmland, into “communities” of cul-de-sacs and three car garages). This oil-drenched world was suddenly thrown into doubt in the early 1970s, when America for the first time confronted the hard truth that had been articulated by M. King Hubbert in 1956 – that in the early 1970s the United States would reach peak oil production and cease to the the world’s swing producer of oil. From that point forward, we would produce less oil than each preceding year. Yet this inconvenient fact was a challenge to our purported birthright – a right of permanent upward prosperity – so we denied it, electing a President who told us that there were no limits, that it was “morning in America,” and who traded American military protection for a steady flow of oil from the sands of the Middle East (a place we now consider a home away from home, for that reason…).
And so, we are told, our current economic crisis is due to a few bad loans made by a few bad eggs who work on Wall Street. What is neglected in this explanation is a broader and deeper perspective: our current crisis is due to the fact that we have, as a civilization, refused to live within our means – and the means afforded us by the natural world – over roughly the past 50 years. Mistaking a temporary glut of post-war wealth and resource plenty as a permanent condition, we are told by our leaders – indeed, we demand of them that they tell us – that we can continue to have it all, costless plenitude. Yet these past thirty-odd years of our “economy” have been one in which we have maintained our wealth simultaneously by transferring the accumulated national wealth abroad, importing oil and debt, while refusing to face the mounting costs of this exercise – including its costs in the form of a massive military presence that was the only real guarantor and bargaining chip on our bankrupt side of the bargain. Meanwhile we continue to dismantle those cultural institutions that once taught restraint and limits – many of them religious, since they are an offense, above all, to our sense of sexual entitlement – in an effort to achieve ever more perfect individual autonomy.
Meantime, the American citizenry – scratch that, consumerdom, or consumerdumb – has all the while been willing to trade away any actual political and civic liberty for the sake of a guarantee of two cars, a plywood and aluminum siding house in the burbs, a college education (a.k.a. four year binge) for their children, and 401Ks that grew at a healthy 10% a year, no matter how an economy that grew only 2-3% a year was producing such outsize stock market returns. Enjoying our returns in the various markets in which we participated – stocks, bonds, real estate – we didn’t ask too many questions, not even when the national savings rate dipped to -2% in the late 90s. Everything seemed to be going along just fine. Yes, 9/11 was disturbing to everyone, but the President told us to go shopping, and we were good at that. We were really good at that.
Yesterday the President told us that we were going to have to become again a nation that worked – and my ears perked up – until he described precisely what he meant. By work, more of us are to become scientists and engineers. That is, more of us are to become the kinds of workers who make it possible for the rest of us not to work, to engage in the sort of work that lies at the heart of the modern project, namely of extracting from a recalcitrant nature its secrets so that we can enjoy the “relief of the human estate.” More of us are to engage in that project that is being taken up readily by our Chinese and Indian competitors, to transform our world ever more into a useful commodity for our pleasure and enjoyment. Americans must cease trying to make easy money at the casinos of Wall Street and instead seek to extend the mastery and dominion of nature so that the rest of us will not have to work or think too hard about what makes living possible or even worthwhile. Fewer traders, more lab coats. Above all, no jobs that actually demand work. Top scientists are working to eliminate any possible drudgery from our lives, especially the need to do things with our hands, make or repair our own stuff, understand for ourselves how the world works and how we can best live in it.
And so, we were told yesterday, we must restore our economy to its former glory. Yes, there will be more regulation, more government management of health care. Yes, we will have cap-and-trade policies which will allow polluters to buy the right to pollute from those who pollute less (this is a policy that is generally favored by industry – far above the idea that there simply be a tax on carbon producing fuels, a far simpler solution, and one far more likely to change actual behaviors). But, in all the most fundamental respects, we were told yesterday that it remains the policy of the United States to maintain and expand its modern economic project of growth, use of resources, and above all, the pursuit of material plenty. We are told, above all, that we should STILL go shopping.
We live in the belief that we define our own futures according to our own lights – that the hallmark of American citizenship is the freedom to define your own end and your own ideals. Yet we are fundamentally blinkered to the way that our broader culture defines us, particularly how it defines us above all as certain kinds of homo economicus. We are consumers. Constantly that is the term employed to describe us, and few of us blink or find anything peculiar or objectionable to that label. How odd if a newscaster were to wonder what will be the response of America’s “producers” or “laborers” or – God forbid – “citizens.” Yet, having until recently achieved “success” that would have been unimaginable to most previous generations – having wallowed in material plenty that seemed to come at a small price for those who weren’t calculating properly – where was our satisfaction, our contentment, our happiness? Did we think the next shopping trip would land us that one possession, finally, that we had hitherto lacked? Did we think that one trip to Cancun would finally give us that sense of fulfillment that had eluded us? Did we think that finale of American Idol would finally ensconce us with a sense of cultural achievement?
Are we so empty now – now that our economy has imploded – that we need to fulfill ourselves anew? Is our landscape so lovely – dotted by endless parking lots and horizontal stores that consume acres of farmland – that we must continue its expansion? Are our houses sufficiently homes that we expand “home ownership” so that everyone can attain their birthright of a two hour commute and a fertilized lawn? Are our cubicle or assembly line jobs so rewarding that we are desparate for employment at any cost to actual mental and physical stimulation and reward? What in the world are we doing?
In the meantime, lest the viewers be disturbed, the President covered up the IHS and cross above his head that would have otherwise been visible during his speech at Georgetown. And perhaps it was proper and meet to do so, since even the intimation of Christ’s presence would have suggested a competitor to the profane economy that he was professing and praising. It would have represented a truer alternative to our own commitments, an aspiration to something better and higher than a culture devoted to plastic implements at everyday low prices. He was right to understand that nothing ought to distract us from restoring this economy on the terms in which it has operated over the past half-century – for a glimpse outside of its narrow confines might alert us to its utter absurdity, vapidity, and self-delusion. Any such realization would be a disaster for the America we have come to accept, an America defined by a thousand choices except the choice not to be a consumer. If you think otherwise, we will force you to be free – if only on tax day, when your dollars are even now being procured to be spent to stimulate an economy meant to keep you in torpor. Go shopping. The alternative – to look around and see what we’re doing – is too grim to face.