Why are so many Americans so depressed about things these days? It is perhaps not just the economy.
I think the answer is clear: all the accustomed referents, the sources of security, of knowledge and reassurance appear to be vanishing. Materially, we still enjoy a sumptuous lifestyle in comparison with past generations—and the world outside our borders. America remains the most sane and successful society on the planet.
But there is a strange foreboding, a deer-in-the-headlights look to us that we may be clueless Greeks in the age of Demosthenes, played-out Romans around AD 450, or give-up French in late 1939—with a sense it cannot go on. Why? Let us count the ways.
1) About Broke. The collective debt is simply staggering, $1.7 trillion in borrowing this year alone. $3.5 trillion is our annual budget, and by 2012 what we all owe will be well over $15-17 trillion. (No fears: the President promises to triple the Bush deficit, but by the end of his “first” term “halve” the deficit, as if tripling and then halving it is not increasing it.)
Today while President Obama railed against AIG bonuses (imagine damning the bonuses you signed into law to the execs from whom you took over $100,000 in campaign donations!)—the congressional budget office “found” another trillion or so dollars in anticipated deficits that Team Obama lost.
So after Obama, the next President will campaign on “I promise a $1 trillion annual surplus for eight years to pay off the last eight, so we can then start over paying off the old $11 trillion shortfall.”
The rub is not just that we are inflating—no, ruining—our currency. And the problem is still more than the fact that we are destroying the lives of the next generation, whose collective budgets will be consumed largely with health care for us baby-boomers, and interest payments on our debts. (If I get to be 87, can we keep asking 500 or so Chinese to put off false teeth to lend me their money for a hip replacement?)
I think instead the worst element is a sort of ill-feeling about ourselves, an unhappiness as we look in the mirror and see what we are doing to our dignity in this, the hour of our crisis.
We are starting to fathom that when times got iffy, we lacked the resilience of the proverbial Joads and the grit of that tough Depression-era generation, and certainly we seem different sorts from those who built and flew B-17s amid the Luftwaffe.
Instead, this generation has gone quite stark raving mad the last seven months, hysterical, and decided we would simply borrow, charge it, print money, blame, accuse—almost anything other than roll up our sleeves, take a cut in our standard of living, pay off what we owe, admit that we lived too high on the hog, and find a certain nobility in shared sacrifice.
So again, here we are reduced to begging the Chinese to subsidize our life-styles, while 500 million of their own poor make their American counterparts of the lower classes here seem like well-heeled grandees.
2) Fides? We have almost destroyed the concept of trust: we don’t think there is any accuracy in AIG statements; don’t really believe GM will make it on its own, or that Goldman-Sachs is honestly run.
All our icons—Ford, General Electric, Citibank, Bank of America—in a mere generation imploded by their own hands, and now we don’t have any real idea of what went wrong, and believe their captains don’t either.